Ex Libris: How English Became English – A Short History of a Global Language

I have always felt a strong curiosity about the origins of the English language as its rather complex family tree offers a plethora of diverse vocabulary. Originally stemming from Old English, today’s Modern English has been heavily repurposed in both vocabulary and structure by Latin, French, Greek and other languages; how did English become such a language of loanwords, a veritable patchwork quilt tongue? 

In How English Became English, Simon Horobin examines both the history of this now global language as well as modern usage and controversies in a brief, layman’s overview. Old English was the language of Anglo-Saxons, stemming from the island’s invasion of Germanic tribes in the 5th century, and was used until the Norman invasion of 1066. In the 9th century, English was heavily impacted by Old Norse which, due to its being a closely related Germanic language, was mutually comprehensible with Old English. The sound “sh” of Old English was pronounced “sk” in Old Norse, hence the coupling of similar words such as “skirt” and “shirt” which share a common Germanic root.

The Norman invasion was the major catalyst of Old English’s evolving into Middle English with the absorption of many French words. Because the Normans were originally a Scandinavian people, the Norman French dialect had slightly more in common with Old English than did Central French (a romance language and the parent of today’s Standard French). For example, our modern word “war” derives from Norman French “werre” rather than standard French “guerre.” 

I was surprised to learn that Early Modern English — the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, spoken in England during the 16th and 17th centuries — while quite intelligible for today’s English speakers to read, would be very difficult to understand if spoken. This is due to the Great Vowel Shift, which began in the 15th century and was completed by the year 1700, described by Horobin as “the most decisive and far-reaching change in the history of English pronunciation.” It replaced the pronunciation of the vowels in many words, so that “food,” “blood” and “good” no longer rhyme, nor do “meat” and “great.”

It is because of extensive borrowing from French, Latin and Greek over the centuries that English has such a rich supply of synonyms with slightly different connotations. An old preference for words derived from French or Latin as the more elevated, sophisticated choice is still prevalent in modern connotations, such as “commence” (from Middle French and Latin) versus “begin” (from Old English). 

However, in questions of acceptable vocabulary, grammar, etc., who is the final authority? This question has been the subject of great debate since the 17th century where the desire for a governing body to make pronouncements about the correct usage has gripped those concerned with the future of “proper English.” Indeed, it is not surprising that the French have such a council in L’Académie Française, established by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, which even today is responsible for issuing edicts of acceptable usage. While English has no such governing authority, speakers have clung to the idea that some level of prescriptivism is necessary from some source. Often, dictionaries are ascribed that duty. Recently, the Oxford English Dictionary’s inclusion of “figuratively” in the definition of “literally” provoked widespread public outcry; however, Horobin explains that this shock resurrects the unsettled question of the purpose of dictionaries — ought they be prescriptive and assume some level of authority, only including a set of traditional words and definitions? Or are they descriptive in nature and meant to include the evolving vocabulary and definitions used by modern, native speakers? 

This fundamental question on authority leads to many differing opinions in regard to other linguistic issues surrounding the English language … such as what degree the local vocabulary, accents and grammar of differing dialects around the English-speaking world, such as Cockney in England or Ebonics in America, should be tolerated or suppressed in favor of Standard English and Received Pronunciation in school, the workplace and in society in general. Horobin takes a rather modern, academic view that, in my opinion, seems to stem from the larger culture of relativism in today’s society. However, his arguments are brilliantly presented, and while I ultimately differ personally in some of his opinions, it was very interesting to read intellectual arguments questioning such foundational standards as whether double negatives really ought to be castigated as poor grammar. (Horobin explains that they were standard in Middle English, as they are today in languages such as French and Spanish, and even Shakespeare used them before 18th century grammarians artificially imposed new rules to “improve” English). Such a devil’s advocate position of rules accepted as impervious to challenge was stimulating to say the least. 

This book offered an interesting profile of the English language from many different angles. Personally, my favorite component was the detail of its history and progression as well as instances of the main factors that has made English the language it is today — one of the most important in the world.