When I was in college a zillion years ago (from 1997 through 2001), not many colleges in New Jersey required that students take a gym class. While I am almost adequate at certain sports and enjoy being very active, I have always been a little bit nervous about gym classes. In college, our gym classes—two semesters’ worth—were to be selected from particular among sports. Softball, volleyball, and field hockey were not on the list of options. What was I to do? Golf was out of the question, as was basketball. So, reluctantly—and after putting off this requirement for three years—I bit the bullet and took tennis.
My advisors were extremely amused that I was so terrified to take gym class (which most people tried to do first while they put off other courses), but I was absolutely fearless when it came to taking History and Structure of English. H&S of E, the linguistics course required for (and dreaded by) English and Education majors, was the first (yes, first) course I chose when designing my major in Western Cultural Development (my fancy, 19-year-old way of saying “Liberal Arts.”) I loved this course. Loved. It. Sister Brigid Brady was one of my favorite professors, and she really brought to life the various permutations that the English language has undergone, while simultaneously proving that the grammar, vocabulary, and (gulp) Latin I had studied would be put to good use.
While scheduling conflicts prevented me from taking additional linguistics courses in college or graduate school, I have held on to the textbook and notes from this course. The textbook, by W.F. Bolton and published in 1982, helped me to develop a greater appreciation of our language and the transformations it continues to undergo.
A living language, by definition, is a language that is in use. Living languages are living people’s native languages. These languages exist not just in written records or as the subject of academic inquiry; rather, they are systems that people use to express and understand ideas, needs, and feelings.
One essential element of a living language is that, like all living things, it changes. Just as our bodies change in order to maintain homeostasis, allowing each of us to adjust to conditions in our environment and thereby to survive, language adapts to the changing conditions of the people who use it. If language couldn’t change, it would be pretty useless to us!
Vocabulary is one of the elements of language that changes most rapidly, based on contact with other languages, the invention of new gadgets, the development of new social realities, and creativity in the expression of individual and universal ideas and feelings.
Over the next few days, we’ll look at additions to the English language: some from a long time ago, and some more recent. I know that I’ll enjoy thinking about the origins of some of our most commonly-used words, and I hope that you’ll enjoy it, too!
Are you ready for our journey back in time? We set out tomorrow morning. Our first destination: Renaissance London. Get your passport ready, and follow me!
Dr. Harrington, could you explain the “Great Vowel Shift” and give a time frame during which it took place?
Great question, Bob! The Great Vowel Shift was a uniquely English phenomenon. (Vowel shifts and spelling shifts have taken place other European languages, too, but the GVS happened in the English language on its own.) No one is sure why it happened—we just know that it did happen. It began probably soon after the death of Chaucer (that is, shortly after 1400) and was finished by around 1700. Before the GVS, long vowels in English had the same pronunciation as long vowel sounds in Continental languages. However, through the shift, English long vowels had adopted their unique sounds, which today make learning Continental European languages a little bit challenging for native English speakers! The shift took place at different times in different parts of Britain, with the southernmost part of England changing first. The shift is still not truly complete in Ireland or Scotland. The GVS is the reason that the surnames of Irish poet Yeats and English poet Keats are pronounced so differently—“Yeats” having the older-style pronunciation.
I should write a more detailed post about the GVS sometime—thanks for asking the question! In the meantime, you might be interested in more details about the GVS from the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.