A Brief History of English and Why it Matters

Languages are anything but static. Some change very slowly, like French- which owes much of its ponderousness to a government department specifically tasked with rooting out heretic words that creep in from the outside. Other languages undergo periods of very rapid change- the English of Chaucer (late 1300s) would be very confusing to Shakespeare (late 1500s and early 1600s). Two hundred years seems like a long period of time, but in the history of an entire country, it’s a drop in the bucket.

English doesn’t just borrow words; it lifts whole phrases and grammatical ideas from other languages without so much as a by-your-leave. With the coming of the Saxons to Britain, Germanic languages crashed headlong into Brythonic and became Old English. Then the Vikings went for a multi-century beer run starting in the late 700s and left behind a bunch of Norse words, because who doesn’t invent a new language every time they go out carousing? In 1066, William the Bastard decided he didn’t like his name, and brought Norman French with him when he went to the town clerk’s office to have his name legally changed to William the Conqueror.

For the next two hundred years, the English upper classes spoke French and the lower classes spoke a zillion dialects of Middle English (travel was difficult for poor people, so regional variations survived). All legal business was done in French, which was often translated on the spot into Latin for the official records. A person couldn’t even submit a legal plea in English until 1362. But with the start of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, Edward III decided that speaking French was très passé, and began encouraging English as a spoken and written language, with a little French thrown in, just to keep things interesting. And ever since, English has been debating how sophisticated it wants to be, while making rude gestures across the Channel at France and grumbling when the French sneer northwards.

So, who cares? We’re here, now, speaking English among other languages. Some of you write in English and all of you, by default of getting to this point in the post, read it reasonably well. So, does it matter that languages change?

Yep. It does matter. Mostly for anyone writing historical fiction (raises hand), but also for sci-fi writers, or anyone trying to impress their friends. How many of us have had to make up a word, and found that smooshing two unrelated words together did the trick? Shakespeare was the king of making up new words- something like seventeen hundred, I think- but anyone can do it. And since English is such a flexible language, no one bats an eye.

(Random thought: Most speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, future-verse, etc) is written in English. Is that the case because English is so accommodating in regard to making up new words, so writers find it easier to convey unfamiliar concepts?)

Ahem. Where was I? Ah, yes; complexity in English and how it’s useful.

The point of a language is to communicate ideas, so there has to be some standardization. Spelling (which I managed to spell incorrectly on the first try) and grammar are the usual suspects because no one wants to puzzle over a warning sign in the national park, wondering if ‘bear’ refers to a fuzzy brown critter with big teeth or to the act of carrying a weapon with which to deter the fuzzy brown critter with big teeth. There’s no time to ponder such things when you’ve just heard a crashing noise in the woods, followed by loud snuffling and grumbling. Good grammar can save a life.

But English loves loan words and definitional drift. French sneers at English from the safety of the Académie Française, but they’re not immune, either. Le smartphone, anyone?

English is a richer language because of its loan words. Bernard Cornwell has a great moment in one of his Saxon tales, in which a character thinks about his Saxon followers, who brag about their ‘swordcraft,’ versus his Danish/Norse followers, who talk about their ‘skill’ with a sword. Same concept, different ways of expressing it. Loan words allow for greater flexibility in speaking and writing. And there’s no way to avoid them, since a large portion of English is comprised of vocabulary stolen from other languages (as are most languages; the evolution of English is more closely documented). It’s only a matter of choosing which synonym is most precise and accurate.

The real fun begins with words that look and sound the same, yet their meanings have changed. In the early 1800s, Jane Austen used the word ‘condescending’ to describe Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who occasionally deigns to socialize with people of a lower station (as well as looking down her nose at them, which is the meaning we associate with the word). Austen was writing during a time when the word was undergoing a shift in meaning, and derives some humor from the double meaning.

Nearer to our own time, writers in the Victorian era still used ‘slut,’ to describe a person who was untidy or didn’t bathe very often. Over time, it shifted to refer to a promiscuous person, usually female. Since there was a high rate of casual prostitution among the Victorian working classes, it’s not unreasonable to assume people correlated the two. Similarly, ‘dirty’ has developed a second meaning, depending on context. Writers can use definitional drift to conceal or reveal information as needed.

English is still changing, as are most modern languages. They have to, to accommodate changes in technology. Twenty years ago, who’d ever heard of a smartphone? Only a few Japanese digital engineers, and, being Japanese, they certainly didn’t call it that. Language changed to communicate a new concept.

And we, as writers, can use that to our advantage. Science fiction writers signal genre not only by the arrangement of words, but also by the use of new/compound words (with context, so the reader doesn’t have to figure out what is meant). Soft, flowing imagery combined with slightly purple prose can evoke the Victorian era. Regency novels have a speech pattern all their own. I’ve been using this site for Regency-era slang, but the syntax is so different from modern English that the best research technique is to read books written during that time until it sinks into my brain. My Austen and Heyer books have gotten quite a workout the last couple months, just to keep the phrasing authentic (or, if not exactly authentic, meeting the readers expectations, because real people don’t usually talk as if they’re characters in a book).

A writer doesn’t have to write ‘authentically,’ of course. I wrote Test of Valor in fairly standard modern English even though it takes place in France in the 1300s. A linguist could look through it and find a few regional peculiarities (I’ve lived most of my life in the Northeast US, so certain things sound ‘normal’ to me), but aside from avoiding as much slang as I could, I didn’t make any special effort to replicate the language of the time. For example, the characters don’t say “okay,” because it’s jarring to hear that from a medieval knight. Nor do they say, “God be with ye,” in place of “Good morning,” because that pulls the reader out of the story.

The important thing is to communicate the story to as many readers as possible. And the better your understanding of different waves of English, the easier it is to draw the reader into the world of your story. So, if you want to reproduce a specific time or place in history, do your research and get comfortable with the literary conventions of the genre. If you’re planning to throw it all over and make up your own, do your research anyway. Readers approach books with their own set of expectations, and if you can meet some/most/all of those expectations, they’re more likely to become repeat customers.

English is a wonderfully flexible language, and it’s possible to build up a devoted fan base no matter what style of English you use. But there are some well-mapped conventions throughout history, and the canny writer will use those conventions to their advantage.

Now go forth and write.

21 thoughts on “A Brief History of English and Why it Matters

  1. Speaking as a reader, I’d say that the writer has to be careful about “creating futuristic words” for their story set 500 years in the future.

    The writer shouldn’t want the reader to Scream “Where’s The Future Dictionary” (even if the writer has one at the end of the story). 😉

    Note, I did try to write a story that contained “alien time units” but decided that I didn’t want to define the terms the first few times I used the terms.

    1. I’ll also add that if you do create futuristic words for your story, you have to ease the reader into them gradually. There’s nothing like reading, “K’T’Vera put the epersstone on the werebackle and spulusheled out” in the first paragraph (or God forbid, the blurb) to convince me that I want to read something else!

        1. That’s why I was careful in one book-in-progress to differentiate a squirrel from a squirrel-like-thing that has a different name. Squirrel-like-thing is purely arboreal, among other differences.

    2. I try not to do too much of that. Otherwise I’d spend too much time creating future dialects the reader may find impenetrable and not enough time writing. I just work from the assumption my stuff is ‘translated’ into modern-sounding English from Futurespeak.

      1. David Drake puts a forward in each of his Lieutenant Leary books that says, more or less,

        “No, I don’t think they’ll still be using the English system of measurements several thousand years from now. I don’t think they’ll still be using the metric system, either, for that matter. Do you think they’ll all be speaking Twenty-first Century English then? I translate the language, I translate the units. Jeez…”

    3. I liked “QX” in the Lensmen books. It was obvious and as nonsensical as “OK”.

        1. Don’t think so. Q-codes are three letters.

          I think he made it up to sound like a code tht had turned into slang. Like “10-4.” Nice bit of world building.

  2. I have bookmarked that site … although – disconcertingly – I didn’t need to read the definition for many of the Regency slang terms.
    My readings in 19th century lit have served me well, these many years.

  3. Will have to look it up, but there’s a instance of a boat crew from London trying to buy eggs not all that far from town. The woman thought they were using the French word of “egg.” Her dialect used a different word, and she was not that far from London.

    1. In that same vein, Devonshire in the 1300s had its own system of measurements. They used some of the same names, but a stone was 16.5 lbs instead of 14, and a pound had a different number of ounces. Or so says Ian Mortimer in “A Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England”, which is a fantastic look into England in the 14th century.

      It’s amazing, the variety of accents and dialects that existed in pre-modern times. Nearly every village had its own jargon, rather like internet communities of today.

      1. You don’t have to go that far back – as late as the mid-19th Century, there were tracts of land all over the East Coast (especially in what is now New York City) that were untaxable, because they had been surveyed with about a half dozen different definitions of “foot.”

        And I just had to tell the (smushed word) spellchecker that “untaxable” is just as good as “nontaxable”… And about “smushed”…

  4. One has to wonder if Willy ever flummoxed Elizabethan audiences with his creations. On that note, was “mooncalf” a word before he used it in The Tempest?

      1. Heh. I looked it up too, after posting the question. So, it wasn’t a word he invented, but it was still a relatively new term. The Bard was “hip.” An Elizabethan hipster? One source cited the term as a theft from the German “Mondkalb,” or at least a pretty straight transliteration.

  5. Pamela Frankau said, “Americans treat their language with a certain furious energy…” and went on to claim that we regularly kick the language around, whereas the English are much more conventional.

    Ha. Who wrote A Clockwork Orange?

    And consider the firm hand the English take with foreign place names.

  6. “the Vikings went for a multi-century beer run” – I’m glad I wasn’t drinking my coffee just then.

    According to Ancestry.com, I may have descended from them in one branch of the family tree. Strangely, my college mascot was a Viking! Cleveland State used to use the Hagar the Horrible cartoon character, until he was replaced by a bland “Person of Northern Heritage”.

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