In Plain English, Please

August 28, 2007 at 4:50 am (College Related, Lingusitics, Uncategorized)

In Plain English, Please:
A Guide to Language Change

English is taught as a concrete language with definite rules for spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. Deviations in the rules are punished in grade school with thick, dark, red lines to grab the attention of the student and say, “Wrong!” But what if it is the teachers that are wrong? What if the spelling that a child gives a word makes more sense than the standardized spelling? Who made the standard anyway? Why do we have rules, and why do they always seem to break themselves in English?

There is an answer: English is in a constant state of change and has been changing for hundreds of years. The fact is English is totally unrecognizable from five-hundred years ago. In the essay, The Meanings of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary or Change, by Peter Trudgill, the author states: “The only languages which do not change are those, like Latin, which nobody speaks. Languages change their pronunciations through time… grammatical structures also change” (1). Changes occur in every language. The changes affect grammar, spelling, pronunciation and even the meaning of words. Despite the rules laid before children in the early years of school, English is constantly changing. Amidst the chaos, one must wonder, why does English work at all?

School children are first taught an alphabet with 26 different letters to represent 52 different sounds. This in itself is confusing. Children are taught to memorize which letter orders create which sounds, such as when e follows a consonant the previous vowel is long. Some examples are ‘make’, and ‘rite’. But it is not as simple as that. There are words such as ‘right’, that have no e at all, but for some reason gh makes i a long vowel. We find this happening in other words such as ‘light’, and ‘though’. But even this exception is inconsistent. Consider the word ‘through’. It is not pronounced the same as the word that describes what a person would do to a ball, as one would think looking at the previous rules. To confuse even more, there is also ‘rough’ which has no long sound at all, and has an f sound at the end. It seems the chaos never ends!

Another famous rule to come under criticism is the “I before e except after c” rule. There are plenty of words that support this rule, such as receive, believe, and conceive, but I can think of even more that don’t: weight, rein, reign, neighbor, science, neither, either, sufficient and financier. What is the point of even teaching this rule? It seems it was invented to break itself.

Other spelling rules that are broken have to do with irregular past tense verbs. If ‘sat’ is the past tense of ‘sit’ then why isn’t ‘fat’ the past tense of ‘fit’? If a person previously drove to the store, why then does one say, “I dived in to save her?” Drive and dive are similar, one cannot argue, so why are they so different when spoken about in the past? English is famous for its irregularities.

Word pronunciation is not immune to the changes in language. Over the years a word can go through a complete alteration. Complete syllables can disappear. One might think this is associated with a word that people don’t often say, and that is where the mix-up occurs, but this is incorrect. The most common changing words are the most common words. Take the word I, for instance. It is a common personal pronoun. Some might find it elegant in its simplicity, but it was not always this way. The word five-hundred years ago was Ic. In fact, I is fairly new. After it lost the c at the end it was pronounced ay for a while. Today, we pronounce it aye.

Another funny twist in pronunciation is the letter f. Hardly anyone today can imagine pronouncing every f as a p but at one time, this was the norm. In the book, The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutsher evidence for the change is given. The root of English, Italian, Danish and French are all from the same language, Indo-European. One can see where changes occur by looking at the languages side by side: “One difference sticks out in particular: wherever Italian and French have a p, English and Danish have an f instead” (66). The French and Italian words for father are padre and pere and the words for fish are pesce and pesh. This is just one example of change. Other letters to come under linguistic attack are k which has evolved into ch, and t which has evolved into th (66).

There is an explanation to why pronunciation, spelling and grammar change so much in language over a few hundred years which will be explained later. But first, no language study would be complete without taking a look at the change in the meanings of words that occur. Trudgill explains, “The English language is full of words which have changed their meanings slightly or even dramatically over the centuries” (2). Deutscher gives for an example the word ‘resent’ which “seems today an about turn in it’s meaning…(in the seventeenth century) ‘resent’ could mean either ‘take with a good feeling’ or ‘take with a bad feeling’ or more accurately, it could mean take with any feeling” (70). Resent was used commonly to refer to something one appreciated. Today, it is defined “to feel or express annoyance or ill will at” (“Resent”).

Disinterested is another word that is taking on a new meaning. It is mentioned in an article titled Comment & Debate: Armageddon Isn’t Upon Us: The Meanings of Words is seeping away as or language changes. But It’s Not the End of the World, by David McKie. If a person is interested in a company, it means that there is an investment in the company. If a person is interested in a subject, that person is curious about that subject. To be disinterested used to mean that a person had no investment in a company. Uninterested described a person that is not curious about a given subject. More and more, people are using disinterested to describe someone who is not curious. Disinterested as in an investment may disappear altogether, given time.

A person might be baffled as to why all this occurs. A student of English, so familiar with the rules and intricacies of the language might be shocked now to find out that the language is as moldable as Jell-O. This person should be put at ease, for there is an explanation. There is also ample explanation as to why these constant changes don’t create complete chaos and misunderstanding.

There are three motives for change, Economy, Expressiveness and Analogy. According to Deutscher, “Economy refers to the tendency to save effort, and is behind the short-cuts speakers often take in pronunciation (62). He also says, “There are many types of linguistic labor-saving devices, but ultimately they… follow the principle of least effort: pronounce as little as you can get away with” (88). This helps explain why p became f and k became ch. Time and labor saving, the current pronunciations make more economic sense. This also explains why speakers of English say I today, instead of Ic. Blocking the passage of air to create the complete word simply took too much time. This is the most destructive motive for language change. Some sounds are weakened over time and even disappear altogether. Deutscher challenges the reader to follow a word through history and says, “chances are you will see it getting shorter and shorter with sounds and even whole syllables falling by the wayside” (88).

Expressiveness, Deutscher explains, “relates to speakers’ attempts to achieve greater effect for their utterances and extend their range of meaning” (62). He also says “Speakers feel the need to express novel ad abstract ideas or to convey already existing concepts in fresh and original ways” (128) This may explain why the word ‘resent’ did such a one-eighty turn. For added effect, speakers began to use the negative form of resent more and more often until the other meaning completely disappeared.

Analogy is the last motive for change described by Deutscher. Analogy is explained: “The cognitive mechanism that allows us to draw links between different domains is analogy” (120). This relates to expressiveness in certain ways. Taking concrete ideas and comparing them to the abstract is common throughout language. In fact it is the only way to express abstract ideas. The problem with this is that the more a metaphor is used, the less impact it has. The lively metaphors that are used will eventually be assimilated into every day language. For example, understand used to literally mean to stand beneath something. If a person comprehends an idea, they are standing beneath it. (Deutscher129).

How, then, does English work with all this chaos going on? How do people communicate at all, especially when these changes occur rapidly, as they most often seem to do? One explanation is variation. With variation of meanings, speakers will use one or the other in context and that is how mix ups are avoided. For example, if one is at a restaurant and someone shouts, “Look, it’s a man eating shark!” chances are the patrons aren’t going to run out screaming “Jaws!” In context, man eating shark is obviously describing a human being sitting down to a Thresher spiced with a bit of garlic, not a shark that has a taste for humans, (minus the garlic). Context is part of the reason that a chaotic language like English works, despite its broken rules. Two different, and sometimes even opposite meanings can occur at the same time because the speakers are aware of these differences and use them accordingly. Eventually, one meaning may fade away, leaving the most commonly used meaning.

English is safe, for now. Even with all its irregularities, its imperfections and the decay of its meanings and pronunciation, there is hope. Wherever there is language, there is change and decay, yet language still survives and people will still understand each other. Despite teachers and scholars gnashing their teeth at change, it does happen, but speakers are fully equipped to deal with the changes.

Works Cited

David McKie, Elswhere. “Comment and Debate: Armageddon isn’t upon us: The Meaning of Words is Seeping Away as Our Language Changes. But It’s Not the End of the World.” The Guardian 31 (2006): 32. ProQuest Newsstand. ProQuest Folsom Lake College, EDC, Placerville, Ca. 10/17/2006 <http://proquest.com/>

Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language. New York: Holt, 2005.

“Resent.” Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1991.

Trudgill, Peter. “The Meanings of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. London: Penguin Books, 1998. 1-8.

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3 Comments

  1. Christopher Graham said,

    Of course, one cannot forget the extended form of “i before e”:

    i before e
    except after c
    or when sounding like a
    as in neighbor and weigh

    Or the British version:

    when the sound is ee
    it’s i before e
    except after c

    Not that even these statements are fully correct, but they are a bit more detailed than their shortened counterparts.

    And the point should be made, that while English does have some strange constructions (as in sit-sat fit-fat), there are other languages with far stranger ones. For example, Russian is literally filled with inflections for plurals, tenses and pronoun agreement, whereas English has them only for tenses (sit-sat) and plurals (man-men).

    Fit-fat is a far more interesting case, however, as one wouldn’t think of it as an inflection at all, only two related words that seem to follow some sort of unwritten rule concerning the changing of their vowel. But while sit-sat are related by their tense, fit-fat, it appears, are related only by their overall meaning (both pertaining to health).

    Or is it more than that? Here’s a linguistics thriller for you: was one who becomes fit not once fat? And by that logic, are the two words not related by tense, in much the same way as one who sits becomes one who sat?

  2. lunawolf said,

    Lol. :)I’m glad you liked it.

  3. dinosaur fact said,

    Hello, just stoped by the comment section to thank you for the work you have been doing so others can enjoy your blog with a morning cup of coffe 🙂

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