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The English Language


English, like all languages, is constantly changing. When the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was interviewed in 1998, he commented on the fact that ‘phwoarr’ had recently been included in the dictionary, defined as an exclamation of sexual attraction. Each time publishers produce new editions of dictionaries, new words – and new meanings for old words – are added in recognition that language is always changing. The Oxford English Dictionary has a large team of people who are constantly searching for new uses and new additions to the language. The online version of the dictionary has resulted in a spectacular resource. For teachers, the idea that language is always changing is an important one. If we place too heavy an emphasis on absolute and fixed ‘rules’, we may be teaching in a linguistically inaccurate or inappropriate way.
Modern teaching needs to recognise those features of the language that are stable and those that are subject to constant change. The increasing standardisation of the language has altered the pace and nature of change. Dictionaries themselves play a major role in the standardisation of the language, and it is interesting to note that standard American English is represented by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary but Standard (English) English is represented by the Oxford English Dictionary or Chambers Dictionary for many things. The significant influence of publishing has also resulted in standard reference works that lay down particular conventions. So if you have ever wondered how to reference properly using the Author–Date method, try The American Psychological Association (APA) 5th Style (or for a simplified version try The Good Writing Guide for Education Students, Wyse (2007)).
If we look back in time we can see that this process of change is by no means a recent phenomenon. During the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons settled in England and, as always happens when people settle, they bring changes to the language, which was at that time ‘Old English’. The few texts that have survived from this period are in four main dialects (_): West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian. The last two are sometimes grouped together and called Anglian. West Saxon became the standard dialect at the time but is not the direct ancestor of modern Standard English (_), which is mainly derived from an Anglian dialect (Barber, 1993). If you take the modern word ‘cold’ as an example, the Anglian ‘cald’ is a stronger influence than the West Saxon version, ‘ceald’.
In the ninth century the Vikings brought further changes to the language. Placenames were affected: ‘Grimsby’ meant Grim’s village and ‘Micklethwaite’ meant large clearing. The pronunciation of English speech was also affected, and it is possible to recognise some Scandinavian-influenced words because of their phonological form (_). It is suggested that ‘awe’ is a Scandinavian word and that this came from changes of pronunciation to the Old English word ‘ege’. One of the most interesting things about Scandinavian loanwords (_) is that they are so commonly used: sister, leg, neck, bag, cake, dirt, fellow, fog, knife, skill, skin, sky, window, flat, loose, call, drag and even ‘they’ and ‘them’ (Barber, 1993). In more recent times words from a range of countries have been borrowed. Here are a small selection of examples: French – elite, liaison, menu, plateau; Spanish and Portuguese – alligator, chocolate, cannibal, embargo, potato; Italian – concerto, balcony, casino, cartoon; Indian – bangle, cot, juggernaut, loot, pyjamas, shampoo; African languages – banjo, zombie, rumba, tote.
However, for many of these words it is difficult to attribute them to one original country. To illustrate the complexities consider the word ‘chess’:
‘Chess’ was borrowed from Middle French in the fourteenth century. The French word was, in turn, borrowed from Arabic, which had earlier borrowed it from Persian ‘shah’ ‘king’. Thus the etymology (_) of the word reaches from Persian, through Arabic and Middle French, but its ultimate source (as far back as we can trace its history) is Persian. Similarly, the etymon of ‘chess’, that is, the word from which it has been derived, is immediately ‘esches’ and ultimately ‘shah’. Loanwords have, as it were, a life of their own that cuts across the boundaries between languages. (Pyles and Algeo, 1993: 286)
The influence of loanwords is one of the factors that has resulted in some of the irregularities of English spelling. David Crystal (1997) lists some of the other major factors. Above we referred to the Anglo-Saxon period; at that time there were only 24 graphemes (letter symbols) to represent 40 phonemes (sounds). Later ‘i’ and ‘j’, ‘u’ and ‘v’ were changed from being interchangeable to having distinct functions and ‘w’ was added but many sounds still had to be signalled by combinations of letters. After the Norman conquest, French scribes – who had responsibility for publishing texts respelled a great deal of the language. They introduced new conventions such as ‘qu’ for ‘cw’ (queen), ‘gh’ for ‘h’ (night) and ‘c’ before ‘e’ or ‘i’ in words such as ‘circle’ and ‘cell’. Once printing became better established in the West this added further complications. William Caxton (1422–91) is often credited with the ‘invention’ of the printing press but that is not accurate. During the seventh century the Chinese printed the earliest known book The Diamond Sutra, using inked wooden relief blocks. By the beginning of the fifteenth century the process had developed in Korea to the extent that printers were manufacturing bronze type sets of 100,000 pieces. In the West, Johannes Gutenberg (1390s–1468) is credited with the development of moveable metal type in association with a hand-operated printing press.
Many of the early printers working in England were foreign (especially from Holland) and they used their own spelling conventions. Also, until the sixteenth century, line justification (_) was achieved by changing words rather than by adding spaces. Once printing became established, the written language did not keep pace with the considerable changes in the way words were spoken, resulting in weaker links between sound and symbol.
Samuel Johnson’s dictionary published in 1755 was another important factor in relation to English spelling. His work resulted in dictionaries becoming more authoritarian and used as the basis for ‘correct’ usage. Noah Webster, the first person to write a major account of American English, compared Johnson’s contribution to Isaac Newton’s in mathematics. Johnson’s dictionary was significant for a number of reasons. Unlike dictionaries of the past that tended to concentrate on ‘hard words’, Johnson wanted a scholarly record of the whole language. It was based on words in use and introduced a literary dimension drawing heavily on writers such as Dryden, Milton, Addison, Bacon, Pope and Shakespeare (Crystal, 1997: 109). Shakespeare’s remarkable influence on the English language is not confined to the artistic significance of his work, many of the words and phrases of his plays are still commonly used today:
He coined some 2,000 words – an astonishing number – and gave us countless phrases. As a phrasemaker there has never been anyone to match him. Among his inventions: one fell swoop, in my mind’s eye, more in sorrow than in anger, to be in a pickle, bag and baggage, vanish into thin air, budge an inch, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, the milk of human kindness, remembrance of things past, the sound and fury, to thine own self be true, to be or not to be, cold comfort, to beggar all description, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, to be cruel to be kind, and on and on and on and on. And on. He was so wildly prolific that he could put two in one sentence, as in Hamlet’s observation: ‘Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.’ He could even mix metaphors and get away with it, as when he wrote: ‘Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.’ (Bryson, 1990: 57) Crystal (2004) makes the point that although spelling is an area where there’s more agreement about what is correct than in other areas of language, there’s still considerable variation. Greenbaum’s (1986) research looked at all the words beginning with A in a medium-sized desk dictionary which were spelled in more than one way; he found 296. When extrapolating this to the dictionary as a whole, he estimated 5000 variants altogether, which is 5.6 per cent. If this were to be done with a dictionary as complete as the Oxford English Dictionary, it would mean many thousands of words where the spelling has not been definitively agreed. Crystal gives some examples including: accessory/ accessary; acclimatize/acclimatise; adrenalin/adrenaline; aga/agha; ageing/ aging; all right/alright. Many of Greenbaum’s words were pairs but there were some triplets, for example, aerie/aery/eyrie. And there were even quadruplets: anaesthetize/anaesthetise/ anesthetize/anesthetise. Names translated from a foreign language compound the problems, particularly for music students: Tschaikovsky/Tchaikovsky/ Tschaikofsky/Tchaikofsky/Tshaikovski

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4 comments:

Perlunya Web Komunitas Event Organizer said...

Nice Blog...,

I like English Language, but i can't speak english,

can are you help me,,, i want study english for better with you,

i stay Here...

Corner Mystery said...

teruslah berkarya broo.........

Briant said...

berkomentar lagi broo, kunjungi saya lagi ya..hehehehehe

martos said...

ok Broo....

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