Sometime in the first 500 years, there was a shift in the grammatical patterns of English. Believe it or not, grammar could have been much worse than it is today!
Old English used different word endings to show the relationship of words in the sentence: word order was not as important as it is today. In the sentence “the cat sat on the mat”, an Old English speaker could have reversed “mat” and “cat” and the meaning would have been understood.
Luckily for us, at some point around this time, word order became increasingly more important and prepositions began to be used to show the relationship between words.
A flood of French
In 1066, the English were conquered by the French from Normandy. It would be 300 years before an English king was on the throne again.
The Normans brought a lot of luggage with them – 10,000 French words to add to English. They never succeeded in wiping out English as the Angles and Saxons (almost) did with the Celtic languages. Instead, the new French words gave the British useful words to express law, order and society – “govern”, “battle”, “castle”, “crown”, “nobility”, “peasant”, “traitor”, “arrest”, “justice”, “judge”.
The English peasants tended the farm animals and called them by their English names. Their Norman lords, however, used the French words to describe the meat they ate. Thus, “calf” became “veal”, “cow” became “beef”, “sheep” became “mutton” and “pig” became “pork”. This division, of course, is still with us today.
Despite this enormous flood of new words, English held on to its basic words and its grammatical structure. As it had done in the past, it accepted a new word while still retaining the older word. So we have “ask” (English) and “demand” (French), “wish” (English) and “desire” (French).
English becomes official
The great plague struck in 1348 and wiped out about one third of the British population, including many of the ruling classes. The English peasants that survived, however, grew stronger and so did their language.
English replaced French in the classroom and in the law courts. The first Bible was written in English, rather than the traditional Latin, provoking the rage of the Roman Catholic Church.
A key figure of this time was Geoffrey Chaucer (b.1340) whose long poem The Canterbury Tales is written in English.
The English of this time is termed “Middle English” and is quite easy for us to understand today.
From around 1420, English was used as the official language of the kingdom. However, there were a great many dialects across the country. The pronunciation of words was different and their spelling was very different. There were over 500 ways of spelling the word “through” and 60 ways to spell “she”!
A huge government office, Chancery, was responsible for all the paperwork of the kingdom and here the official scribes had to make decisions on the spelling of words. Although the spelling was somewhat regularised, unfortunately, it was not simplified. Some letters like the ‘b’ in debt were added just on a whim!
The introduction of printing into Britain in 1476 was another step towards more regular spelling. William Caxton, who set up the first press, published many important works at this time, including The Canterbury Tales.
When debating what spelling to use for a particular word, Caxton sensibly chose the spelling that reflected the common language that he heard around him rather than “the olde and auncyent englysshe”.
The mysterious ‘vowel shift’
Another reason why there is sometimes little correspondence between spelling and pronunciation is that, just as spelling was being regularised, something that has fascinated and puzzled linguists took place – the Great Vowel Shift.
Over a relatively short period of time around the year 1400, people completely changed how they spoke the vowel sounds. Before 1400, “life” would have been pronounced ‘leef’; “down” would have been pronounced ‘doon’; “mouse” would have been pronounced ‘mooce’. Our modern spelling reflects language as it was spoken before the great vowel shift.
Julie Ho is a Training Consultant at the British Council’s Professional Development Unit. The PDU offers a range of courses to help you with your English such as “Say it Clearly”, a pronunciation course, and “Business Writing Essentials’’. For more information, contact the British Council or visit www.british council.org.my.