Author logo Language Change in English

Language change
The Indo-European languages
The early history of English
More on Scandinavian place names
Outline history of English
Flexibility and conversion
Word formation
The lexicon
Change and standardization
Standardization and language category
Invented rules
Try some quizzes


This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science. In places I refer explicitly to requirements of the syllabus or mode of examination.

Language change

Linguists have traditionally studied variations in a language occurring at the same, time (synchronic study) or how language develops over time (diachronic or historical study). Both can be useful aids to understanding.

The study of language change is often narrowed to consideration of change in one aspect of language: lexis, semantics or syntax, say. But you should have a sense of the broad historical development of English. Later, you may wish to study more fully how the language developed at a particular period. For the 20th century, we are able to study some kinds of change over a very short time, as there is plenty of evidence. The further back we go, the longer may be the periods over which change can be observed. Before the 20th century, most of the evidence that survives is of written forms. We have some second-hand written evidence of spoken language forms, but no recorded speech earlier than that allowed by modern recording technology.

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The Indo-European languages

The language family to which English belongs is sometimes known as the Indo-European group, a description which indicates the geographical spread of the languages in this family over a long historical period.

One convenient way to represent the long-term change as new languages arise out of protoype or “parent” languages is to use a diagram like a family tree or genealogy. This kind of diagram is helpful so long as you are aware of its limitations. For example, it might lead you to suppose that new languages appear in a definite way, to which we can assign a date (as with the birth of a child). But this is never the case (except with invented languages, like Klingon). Language change does not occur at the same rate in all places. Thus the language of the 14th century author of Pearl and Gawain and the Green Knight has many features we find in Old English, while Chaucer, writing at more or less the same time, uses a variety (or varieties) of written English which are far closer to the forms we use today. This may be associated with a north-south divide, though we know too little to assert this with any great confidence.

To see a diagram of the Indo-European language family as a PDF (portable document file), click on the link below. To read portable document files, you need reader software, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader ™. This is available as a free download from Adobe Systems Inc. at

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The early history of English

Before English began | Old English | Scandinavian influences | More on Scandinavian place names | Middle English

The period before English began

The original inhabitants of the British Isles did not speak English, but Celtic languages. Modern forms include Welsh, Scots and Manx Gaelic, Erse (Irish) and Breton, which are living languages, as well as dead languages like Cornish. (Simeon Potter, in Our Language, states [p. 18] that the last speakers of Manx died around 1960, their cottages being made into a museum. But I am assured by a resident of the island that there are now many living speakers of Manx. If Potter's statement is correct, then there has been a revival of the language in the last 40 years.)

Old English

English comes from the language of the Germanic tribes who arrived in England in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. These were Jutes, Saxons and Angles. They organized themselves into kingdoms (such as the West Saxons, South Saxons, East Saxons and East Angles). Once they settled in England, their language developed separately from the various forms found in what is now Germany. The Angles were the Engla, the country Englalond and their tongue Englisc. The form of English spoken at this time is Old English (sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon).

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The Angles, Saxons and Jutes did not at first write their languages apart from perhaps making marks on objects to serve as lucky charms or to show ownership (for this they would use the Germanic characters known as runes). The first extended written English texts were made by missionary priests, who spoke and wrote Latin. They adapted the Roman alphabet, adding the letters æ (known as "ash") ð ("eth") and Þ ("thorn") — though these letters are not used in English today (æ corresponds to the vowel in ash; ð and Þ are used interchangeably for both consonants represented by "th", as in "cloth" or "clothe"). Their spelling approximated to that used for similar sounds in Latin, but was not standardized. The priests' purpose in writing was to produce English texts for a handful of educated and literate men to read aloud to the illiterate and largely pagan people whom they sought to bring into the church.

About half of the common vocabulary of Modern English comes from Old English, especially names of everyday objects and basic processes. Forms of words varied according to syntax: inflection, case endings, declensions and grammatical gender are all found (as in modern German). Nearly all of these have disappeared from the language as spoken today.

Old English elements can often be found preserved in place names. These may be evidence of early settlement by Angle, Saxon or Jute - but not always so, as they are commonly used in later times to name new settlements. Familiar Old English elements include: -bury, -church, -end, -ey, -field, -ford/forth, -ham, -hill, -ing, -ingham, -ingley, -ington, -land, -ley, -mere, -mill, -stone, -sty, -ton, -wald/-wold/-wood, -wick

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Scandinavian influences

At the end of the 8th century the first Viking raiders came to Britain. In the 9th century, their raids became more frequent, culminating in invasion, conquest and the establishment of the Danelaw: this was the area of England (most of it) subject to Viking rule, with its capital at York. Ordinary people were not generally harmed once the Vikings were settled in the country. In 937 the West Saxon royal house under Aethelstan defeated the Vikings at Brunanburh, and within a few years, the Danelaw came to an end. But there were still Viking rulers who claimed the throne (Sweyn and Cnut in the 11th century). On the death of the Saxon king of all England, Edward the Confessor, one of his nobles, Harold Godwinson (son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex) seized power. At Stamford Bridge (in what is now East Yorkshire) in 1066 he defeated another Harold, a Norwegian invader, but fell at Hastings to William. William was also a Viking; but the Normans had long been settled in France and their language was French.

The Scandinavian (Viking) invaders of the 8th century and beyond were quite closely related to the original Germanic settlers of England, as was their language. The Viking influence on our language lies in two things.

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  • Negatively, speakers of Norse languages helped erode the inflexional endings of Old English.
  • Positively, they made additions to the English lexicon.

We can consider these under a number of clear headings:

Place names and landscape features | Street names | Family names | Words preserved in dialects | Cognate pairs | Words with shared origins | Legal or governmental terms | Parts of the body and animal names | adjectives | verbs | prepositional phrases

Place names and landscape features
  • -by ending, from Norse byr (=village) in Whitby, Derby, Ferriby, Grimsby
  • -beck (=brook) in Birkbeck, Troutbeck
  • -brack, -breck, -brick (=slope) in Haverbrack, Norbreck, Scarisbrick
  • -dale (=valley) in Calderdale, Dovedale or Wensleydale
  • -fell (=hill) in Scafell Pike, Whinfell
  • -force/foss (=waterfall) in Catfoss, Fangfoss, High Force and Wilberfoss
  • -garth (=yard) in Applegarth, Arkengarthdale
  • -mel(ls) (=sand-dunes) as in Cartmel or Ingoldmells
  • -ness (=headland/promontory) as in Dungeness, Holderness or Skegness

-carr (=damp wasteland), -ghyll/-gill (=ravine or gorge), -holm(e), -keld (=spring), -kirk (=church), -rigg (=ridge), -scar (=cliff/rock outcrop), -set(t) (=summer pasture), -side, -thorpe (=settlement), -tarn (=lake), -thwaite (=settlement), -toft and -with are also elements in Scandinavian place names.

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Many of these place names have a personal name as the first element. Thus Grim is the founder of Grimsby and Olaf (otherwise known as Anlaf) is the founder of Anlaby (near Hull). Bubwith is “Bubba's wood”.

Sometimes the name contains other elements that describe the place. Thus

  • Holbeck is “the place of the low-lying stream”
  • Hunmanby is the “dwelling of dog keepers” (or “houndmen”)
  • Skipwith is the “sheep wood”, and
  • Whenby is “the place” or “farmstead of women”

Some names are hybrids (mixtures) of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian elements. So Grim (a Viking prince) named not only Grimsby but also Grimston - where -ton is an Angle noun. This example is used as the generic noun for such mixed names or “Grimston hybrids”.

You will find more on Scandinavian and Old English place names by clicking on the link below.

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Street names

The standard Scandinavian ending for a street name is -gate, from Old Norse gata, which means a way, street or road. Not all names ending in gate date from Viking times - later ages may have copied it from older examples. Nevertheless, we can see this form in cities such as Leeds and York and towns like Beverley. Examples include:

  • Briggate (=bridge street)
  • Coppergate (=street of the cup makers)
  • Kirkgate (=church street)
  • Skeldergate (=street of the shield makers)

A list of street names in Beverley, East Yorkshire, reveals Scandinavian influences in, among others: Beckside, Cherry Garth, Flemingate, Hengate, Highgate, Hall Garth, Way, Holgate, Keldgate, Ladygate and Lairgate. We see a modern use of the form in Walkergate and New Walkergate - which are named after Admiral Walker (a 19th century deputy lieutenant of the East Riding). Street names from the Viking period do not use people's surnames.

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Family names

Many family names or surnames contain Scandinavian elements - these may be names of places, Viking personalities, trades or occupations, and Norse gods. Examples include: Airey, Appleby, Asquith (Askwith), Beckwith, Brandreth, Chippendale, Fotherby, Fothergill, Grimshaw, Hague, Heseltine, Heslop, Hislop, Hogarth, Holmes, Kendal(l), Lofthouse, Pickersgill, Rowntree, Scargill, Schofield, Stockdale, Sykes, Thackeray, Thorpe, Threllfall, Thwaite(s), Willoughby, Wolstenholme and York.

From the name of the god, Thor we get such forms as Thorburn, Thurkettle, Thurstans, Thurston, Turpin and Turtle.

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Words preserved in dialects

While some Scandinavian lexis is found in modern standard English forms, there are other words - such as addle (=earn), binks (=benches) and ettle (=strive) - that have remained in use in regional varieties of English, especially the many dialects of Yorkshire and the Humber. Here are some examples of words of Viking origin in common use among Yorkshire dialect speakers:

  • brandrith (=iron pan rack over a fire; from Norse brandr)
  • crake (=crow; Old Norse kraka)
  • femmer (=slight, light or weak; from Old Norse fimmer)
  • flit (=to move house; from Old Norse flytja)
  • laik or lek (=play; Old Norse leikr)
  • ligg (=lie or lay; Old Norse liggia)
  • reek (=smoke; Old Norse reykja)
  • reckling (=weakest of the litter; Old Norse recklingr)

You can find a much more comprehensive lexicon of Yorkshire dialect words of Scandinavian origin on the Viking Net Web site. Click on the link below to open this lexicon in a new window.

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Cognate pairs

These are pairs of words descended from a common Germanic source, but entering English at different times, and which persist in both Old English and Scandinavian forms, with either identical or closely-related meanings. In each pair the first item comes from the Anglo-Saxon form, the second from the Scandinavian form:

  • no/nay
  • from/fro
  • rear/raise
  • shirt/skirt
  • edge/egg (verb, as in egg on)
Words with shared origins

These are words where the Old English and Scandinavian forms were identical, and which have descended from either or more probably both:

  • bring, come, hear, meet, ride, see, sit and think.

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Legal or governmental terms

Among these are:

  • law (this replaced Old English doom or dom)
  • by-law (law of the byr or village)
  • outlaw (man outside the law)
  • husband (from hus-bondi - "householder" or "manager of a house")
  • fellow
  • husting
  • riding, as in the East Riding of Yorkshire ( from thirding - "third part of")
Parts of the body and animal names
  • calf
  • leg
  • skin
  • skull
  • bull
  • kid
  • reindeer (originally Norse rein, meaning "deer", with later addition of Old English deer, meaning "animal" - the whole word is thus a compound, meaning "deer-animal")

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Many of these have become adverb, noun or verb by conversion:

  • (a)thwart
  • sly
  • weak
  • wrong
  • call
  • cast
  • cut
  • flit
  • glitter
  • rake
  • rive
  • skulk
  • take
  • thrive
  • want

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Prepositional phrases

These are phrases formed by a verb followed by an adverbial preposition:

  • take up, take down, take in, take off, take out

These were popular in Tudor times, disapproved by prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century but revived in modern times, largely thanks to US English influence. For a contemporary example, consider the well-known catchphrase of the late Dr. Timothy Leary:

  • Tune in, turn on, drop out

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Middle English

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought in Norman French and eventually placed the four Old English dialects on an even footing. The center of culture gradually shifted to London, and usages there slowly came to dominate. Latin persisted for centuries as the language of the church and of learning. Note that the Normans were Vikings who had settled in northern France, and perhaps become assimilated into a Francophone culture.

Middle English lasted from about 1100 to 1450 and was less highly inflected than Old English. During this period the Statute of Pleadings (1362) made English instead of French the official language of Parliament and the courts.

After the dawn of the 16th century the movement toward the development of Modern English prose was swift. It was aided by the printing of certain literary works that helped standardize the language. In 1525 William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament. The next 90 years were the golden age of English literature, culminating in the plays of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and in the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611.

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An outline history of the English Language


Before English began - up to ca. 450 AD

British (Celtic) tribes - language related to modern Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish (Erse) · Only real connection with Modern English is in lexis (mostly in place names).

Origins of English - ca. 450 AD to 1066

Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrive from north Germany · Language (Old English) is at first spoken · only writing is runes · Written form comes from Latin-speaking monks, who use Roman alphabet, with new letters (æ, ð and þ - spoken as "ash", "eth" and "thorn") · About half of common vocabulary of modern English comes from Old English · Word forms vary according to syntax (inflection, case endings and declension) and grammatical gender · Vikings establish Danelaw · some erosion of grammar and addition of new vocabulary.

Middle English Period - 1066 to 1485

Lexis - terms for law and politics from Norman French · General expansion of lexis, esp. abstract terms · Case-endings, declension and gender disappear · Inflection goes except in pronouns and related forms · Writers concerned about change · want to stabilize language · 1458 - Gutenberg invents printing (1475 - Caxton introduces it to England) · the press enables some standardizing.

Tudor Period - 1485 to 1603

Rise of nationalism linked to desire for more expressive language · Flowering of literature and experiments in style · idea of elevated diction · Vocabulary enlarged by new learning Renaissance) · imports from Greek and Latin · Lexis expanded by travel to New World, and ideas in maths and science · English settlers begin to found colonies in North America. In 1582 Richard Mulcaster publishes a list of 7,000 words with spelling forms, but this does not become a universal standard

The 17th Century

Influences of Puritanism and Catholicism (Roundhead and Cavalier) and of science · Puritan ideas of clarity and simplicity influence writing of prose· reasonableness and less verbose language · English preferred to Dutch as official tongue of American colonies.

The 18th Century

Age of reason · Ideas of order and priority · Standardizing of spelling (Johnson' s Dictionary of the English Language in 1755) and grammar (Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762 and Lindley Murray's English Grammar in 1794)· Classical languages are seen as paradigms (ideal models) for English · Romantic Movement begins · interest in regional and social class varieties of English.

The 19th Century

Interest in past · use of archaic words · Noan Webster publishes American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 · British Empire causes huge lexical growth · English travels to other countries and imports many loanwords · Modern language science begins with Jakob Grimm and others · James Murray begins to compile the New English Dictionary (which later becomes the Oxford English Dictionary) in 1879

The 20th Century and beyond

Modern language science developed · descriptive not prescriptive · Non-standard varieties have raised status · Ideas of formal and informal change · Modern recording technology allows study of spoken English · Influence of overseas forms grows · US and International English dominant · English becomes global language (e.g. in computing, communications, entertainment).

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Quiz - learn about important dates

If you want to learn important events and their dates, click on the link below for a short quiz. Why do this? You may want to be confident, before taking an exam, that you know what happened when.

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German, Latin, Russian, Greek, and French are inflected languages. This means that many words undergo changes of form (spelling or pronunciation) to show changes of grammar.: Such changes (in European languages) include tense and mood of verbs, gender of nouns, case or number of nouns, agreement of adjectives, and other distinctions. Old English was a highly inflected language.

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Modern English is relatively uninflected. Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections are invariable. Their form remains the same no matter how they are used. Nouns, pronouns and verbs are inflected:

  • Most English nouns show plural by adding an s or an es: cow, cows; box, boxes. Some nouns have what are called mutated, or changed, plurals: man, men; woman, women; foot, feet; tooth, teeth; goose, geese; mouse, mice; louse, lice. A very few nouns - for example, ox, oxen - have plurals ending in -en. A few noun forms are unchanged in the plural: deer, sheep, moose and grouse.
  • Five of the seven personal pronouns have inflected forms for subject or object use: I, me; he, him; she, her; we, us and they, them. And there are also distinctive possessives (adjectives and pronouns): my/mine, his, her/hers, our/ours, their theirs.
  • Verb forms are inflected, but mostly in straightforward ways. The one English verb with the most forms is “to be” (be, am, is, are, was, were, been and being).
  • Weak (regular) verbs have only four forms: talk, talks, talked and talking, for example.
  • Strong, or irregular, verbs have five forms: sing, sings, sang, sung and singing. A few verbs (that end in a -t or -d) do not form the past tense with -ed, and have only three forms: cut, cuts, cutting.
  • These verb inflections are in marked contrast to Old English, in which ridan, or “ride”, had 13 forms, and to Modern German, in which reiten (=“ride”) has 16.
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Flexibility and conversion

Loss of inflection leads to flexibility of use. Words that were once marked as nouns or verbs by their inflections can now be used both ways. It is possible to run a race (race as noun) or race someone to the corner (race as verb). It is also possible in English to use nouns as [attributive] adjectives: dog show, village fair, ice-cream van. Pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs can also function as nouns. English adopts or adapts any word as needed to name a new object or describe a new process.

It is easy to observe this in practice. Any word is likely to change its category by the process known as conversion. Party was used more or less exclusively as a noun until the 1970s. Today it is commonly used as a verb - Tonight we're gonna party. Trial is a noun related to the verb try - but many people now say they will trial a product. Over time the meaning of trial (as verb) and try will probably diverge (move further apart).

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This year (2001) I have noted the use of fragrance (hitherto a noun) as a transitive verb. An advertisement for a plug-in air-freshener claims that it will “fragrance” your room for so many weeks. I am not aware of any single established word which has this sense - the closest would be some such phrase as “cause to smell pleasant”, so perhaps this conversion will become permanent. But only if people have a reason to speak or write about fragrancing things.

It is easy to find examples of this - look at this extract from a press release of the Evangelical Alliance, as quoted in the Guardian (Face to Faith, p. 18) of August 6, 2001:

“How can the church disciple Generation X into charitable giving? ”

A disciple - from Latin disco (=“to learn) ” - is a follower of a leader or of a teacher. It is related to discipline, a form which is used both as abstract noun and transitive verb. In the context above “disciple” is used as a transitive verb with the sense of “influence” or “persuade”, but with an implication that the subject of this verb is a disciple or member of the Christian church.

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Sometimes the conversion happens in a metaphorical sense. Mothball as noun refers to balls of naphta used to protect clothes from being eaten by some species of moth - but modern homes and the use of synthetic fibres in clothes has made the use of mothballs less common. But mothball is now in wide use as a verb, meaning to put something into storage, or to stop using it, while safeguarding it for use at a later time. Some journalists use the verb in reference to military equipment, so we read that the navy has mothballed its destroyers or submarines, for example. (While noting that literal mothballs are unlikely to feature in any process for preserving warships.)

In explaining real examples of language structures, you should categorize lexemes by how they operate in a real phrase, clause or sentence, rather than by a dictionary or reference categorization. Rick (Humphrey Bogart's character in the 1940 film Casablanca) says to the heroine at one point, “Cigarette me” (he is driving a car at the time, so he is concerned about safe driving, rather than the danger of smoking). In saying this, Rick uses cigarette as a transitive verb. It is especially common in modern English for nouns to be used as (attributive) adjectives, as in health education, Design Council and drinks dispenser.

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Word formation

Coalescences | Telescoped forms | Acronyms

Adding a prefix or suffix, combining or blending words all create new forms. A prefix is attached to the front of a word: immoral, overdone, subway, underpants. Sometimes a foreign prefix is added such as the Greek macro or micro: macroeconomics, microbiology.

One of the most common suffixes is -er (also -or and -eur), which usually means someone who engages in the act that the verb suggests: singer, player, seeker, writer, actor, sailor, connoisseur, saboteur. Other suffixes also denote activity, including -ant and -ist: applicant, combatant, merchant; opportunist, scientist.

Combining words to form new ones is common: gentleman, graveyard and lighthouse. Some words in combination alter their meanings slightly: already is not quite the same as all ready, and a gentleman is not quite the same as a gentle man (in this case the compound preserves an older sense of gentle, meaning "noble" or "virtuous").A blackbird is a bird of a single species (Turdus merula), of which the female is in fact brown, but black bird suggests a bird of a particular colour. And a greenhouse has green contents but is not a green house.

Blends of words fall into two categories - a coalescence or a telescoped word.


Lewis Carroll calls these "portmanteau words" - chortle (chuckle and snort) is his invention in Through the Looking-Glass. One of the most commonly used coalescent forms is smog, a blend of the words smoke and fog. In the mid 20th Century this process was used for new terms in politics, such as Nazi (from Nazional Sozialismus) and agitprop (agitator and propaganda). In the late 20th Century this process became less common, as acronyms came to be widely used - although UK government regulatory groups like OfSTED (Office for Standards in Education) OfTEL (Office for telecommunications?) and OfWAT (Office for Water regulation?) have names which are coalescences.

Telescoped forms

These are popular today. The rule is to take all or part of one word and all or part of another and compound them. So motorcade is made by combining motor with a remnant of cavalcade. In the same way a travel monologue becomes a travelogue, and an informative commercial (=advertisement) is an infomercial.


These are words formed from sets of initials, like NATO, RAF and UN. Most early acronyms used capital letters for all elements. Nowadays, you will often see lower case letters used. At first these were introduced to represent grammatical words (such as of or for), which might be helpful in creating an acronym which could be spoken easily. But it has become common for groups to choose names which spell out striking or memorable words. It is also quite common to find acronyms in mixed case for reasons of design or style. Here are some examples with comments.

  • BBC - British Broadcasting Corporation. Sometimes known as the "Beeb". It is spoken as the names of the letters. The absence of vowels deters attempts to speak it as a word.
  • BECTa British Educational Communications and Technology agency. This is spoken as if it is a normally formed word. There is no obvious reason for the terminal a to be lower case, except to suggest that the agency is less important than the things of or for which it is the agent.
  • IT and ICT - Information (and Communication) Technology. This is spoken as the names of the letters.
  • WYSIWYG - What you see is what you get. This is spoken as if it is a normally formed word ("wizzeewig"). The spoken form is easier to learn and recall (I think) than the written variant.
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The Lexicon

Classical languages | Germanic and French lexis | Other languages | Reasons for change | Take a quiz on the lexicon

There about 750,000 words in the English language. This number grows steadily, and is probably already out of date. (There is some room for discussion about terms which are in common use but which have not been listed in dictionaries yet.) Nearly half of these are of Germanic (or Teutonic) origin, and nearly half from the Romance languages (languages of Latin origin - such as French, Spanish, and Italian - or Latin itself). There also have been generous borrowings from other languages, including Greek, Dutch, Modern German, and Arabic. You should use a good etymological dictionary to learn about the origins of English words.

Most borrowings from other languages occur in a given historical period. For example, the close relationship between India and Britain within the British Empire adds to the lexicon in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Musical terms (from Italian) enter the language from the late 17th century and the 18th.

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Classical languages

Greek and Latin are unusual in that they contribute to the lexicon both directly and indirectly (through other European languages) and at different times - most actively when they are no longer living vernaculars. Classical Greek was a dead language long before English existed. Latin was not a living vernacular (that is spoken by people in a given region) after the early Middle Ages, having developed into Italian. But it survived into the 19th century as the international language of learning, especially science. In some areas of science, such as. biological classification (taxonomy) and astrophysics it is still used.

More borrowings from classical languages occur in Modern English than in Old or Middle English. The meaning and use of a given lexeme may indicate when it entered the language - thus the Greek noun bishop (from episcopos = overseer) and the Latin noun grammar are found in Old English, while Greek cosmonaut, Latin television and the Greek-Latin compound astrophysics belong to the modern era. (The Oxford English Dictionary recorded television in the 19th Century - but not in the modern sense!)

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Many borrowings from Latin are compounds:

  • circumference, conjunction, compassion, contemporary, malnutrition, multilingual, submarine, substantial, suburb, supernatural, transfer and hundreds more.

To understand these you should study the different elements of which they are formed.

Borrowings from Greek are heavy in the sciences and technology. In addition to macro- and micro-, often-used prefixes include poly- and tele-. Among the well-known English words from Greek are alphabet, biology, geometry, geology, logic, logistics, metamorphosis, pathology, photography, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, sympathy, telephone and zoology.

It is a common mistake to suppose that lexemes of classical origin are complex polysyllables like philoprogenitive or disestablishmentarian. A sample of twenty-five lexemes (from the Oxford History of the Classical World, ed. Boardman, Grifffin and Murray, p. 13, Oxford, 1986) shows that many basic and morphologically simple words come from classical Greek or Latin. Among these are:

  • act, art, beauty, colour, crime, fact, fate, fork, hour, human, idea, justice, language, law, matter, music, nature, number, place, reason, school, sense, sex, space, time
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Germanic and French lexis

The lexicon of Old English is almost wholly Germanic - the exceptions are classical borrowings for the beliefs, organization and personnel of the church. Old English gives us such nouns as father, mother, brother, man, wife, ground, house, land, tree, grass, summer and winter, as well as abstractions like friendship. Old English verbs include

  • bring, come, get, hear, meet, see, sit, stand and think.

Most of our everyday essentials (articles, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns) are found in Old English.

French adds greatly to the lexicon in the Middle English period, under the Norman and Plantagenet royal houses. It gives us political terms:

  • constitution, president, parliament, congress and representative.

Also borrowed from French are:

  • city, place, village, court, palace, manor, mansion, residence, domicile, cuisine, diner, cafe, liberty, veracity, carpenter, draper, haberdasher, mason, painter, plumber and tailor

In modern times many terms relating to cooking, fashion, drama, winemaking, literature, art, diplomacy, and ballet also come from France.

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Other languages

English has acquired many words from Spanish. Some of these came directly into English, especially in the age of sea travel and conquest:

  • cigar, armada, guerrilla, matador, mosquito, tornado

Others have come to Spanish from one of the Indian languages of the Americas: potato and tomato, for example. Many Spanish words have entered American English from Latin America:

  • canyon, lasso, mustang, pueblo, rodeo.

Italian contributes to the English lexicon in many ways. The technical lexicon of classical music is almost wholly Italian:

  • Allegro, brio, forte, piano, pizzicato, sotto voce and so on.

In more recent times Italian has contributed to the English lexicon by giving us the names of many foods and foodstuffs:

  • Ciabatta, chianti, lasagna, macaroni, pasta, spaghetti

And the popularity or notoriety of organized crime, both in real life and in fiction, has given us another set of additions to the lexicon:

  • Capo, cosa nostra, mafia, omerta and vendetta

Arabic words have usually come into English by way of another European language, especially Spanish. Arabic was spoken in Spain during the period of the Muslim domination, in the early Middle Ages. Among the common English words that have come from Arabic are:

  • alcohol, alchemy, algebra, alkali, almanac, arsenal, assassin, cipher, elixir, mosque, naphtha, sugar, syrup, zenith, zero
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Common words borrowed from other languages are:

  • hammock, hurricane, maize, tobacco (Caribbean)
  • gull (Cornish)
  • howitzer, robot (Czech)
  • brogue, blarney, clan, plaid, shamrock (Gaelic and Irish)
  • ukulele (Hawaiian)
  • bungalow, dungarees, jodhpurs, jungle, loot, polo, pyjamas, shampoo, thug (Hindi)
  • paprika (Hungarian)
  • bonsai, sumo, origami (Japanese)
  • bamboo, ketchup, orang-utan (Malay)
  • paradise, lilac, bazaar, caravan, chess, shawl, khaki (Persian)
  • taboo, tattoo (Polynesian)
  • flamingo, marmalade, veranda (Portuguese)
  • mammoth, soviet, vodka (Russian)
  • coffee (Turkish)
  • flannel (Welsh)

What is generally known as "lifestyle" contributes hugely to English - read, listen to or watch any gardening, cookery or fashion article or broadcast feature and you will find abundant examples of words which are entering or have entered the language from abroad, as well as home-grown compounds which use English and foreign elements, such as the notorious Chicken tikka masala.

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Reasons for change

The lexicon does not change simply by growing. No single speaker is able to use all 750,000 words (most adult English speakers will use between 10,000 and 40,000). There is a difference between those words we are likely to use in any context and those we understand, but are only likely to use where the context requires it, for example igloo, porpoise or glockenspiel. You probably understand all these words, but are unlikely to have spoken or written them recently.

Over time one lexeme may replace another. The adverbial down to you (down to me, him, Fred etc.) effectively replaced up to you between the 1970s and the Millennium. Many English speakers today substitute for a single adverb, an adverb phrase of the form on a X basis, where X is usually a noun, used as attributive adjective. For example, I go there on a regular basis rather than I go there regularly.

And some words disappear from use. Hardly anyone wears breeches or pantaloons anymore. People rarely say verily or Lo! (except in badly-written historical novels). And lamplighters and organ grinders, gramophones and slide rules are things of the past. To confuse things further, some lexemes return to fashion, so boffin (= clever person) and rag (= to tease) which were current in the 1950s, but rarely heard for several decades following, became current in the speech of English teenagers in the late 1990s.

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Quiz - learn about the lexicon

If you want to learn about the English lexicon, click on the link below for a short quiz. Why do this? You may want to be confident, before taking an exam, that you know examples of lexis which have entered English from different languages.

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Language change and standardization

Early English | The Middle English period | The Tudor period | The 17th Century | The 18th Century | The 19th Century | The 20th century

In order to study this area of language change reflects you should have a theoretical understanding of standard and non-standard (n/s) forms. This is an important are of sociolinguistics. Those who urge standard forms on the public may be more or less aware of this academic theory.

You should note the difference between a linguist like Randolph Quirk who advocates teaching standard forms in schools as a form of social empowerment and a politician like Norman Tebbitt (1985; quoted by Professor Jean Aitchison in The Language Web and the 1996 BBC Reith Lectures) who argues that n/s forms are linked to crime (although this is plausible - the incidence of reading difficulty for the UK prison population is higher than that for the whole UK population). Professor Quirk does not prescribe the use of standard forms for their own sake, but because society expects them in some contexts.

You should also be aware of non-expert commentators, like Prince Charles, who endorse a model which reflects a mistaken belief that English is modelled on (or, even worse, "descended from") classical languages, or, like Gillian Shephard, former Secretary of State for Education, who favours a "standard" partly defined negatively as not being so-called "Estuary English". Since her comments (1995) this alleged variety has not become established. Confusingly "Estuary English" has been described as a new (demotic or popular) standard form! (See Coggle, P; 1993; Do you speak Estuary? The new standard English).

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Aitchison's first 1996 Reith lecture: A Web of Worries (Chapter 1 of The Language Web) gives much of the historical background anddisposes of many myths, which she groups under three metaphorical headings: the "damp teaspoon syndrome", the "crumbling castle view" and the "infectious disease assumption". Try to find out what these are.

Classical literary Greek and Latin do not change. The reasons for this are obvious - grammars to explain them were written after the languages were no longer in use. This is the source of the illusory standard advocated throughout the history of English but especially loudly in Chaucer's time, in the classical revival of the 17th and 18th centuries, and in our own day. The advocates of this myth seem to believe, mistakenly,

  • that classical languages did not change (wrong - none is alive today),
  • that Greek and Latin are in some way ideal or perfect languages, and
  • that English is “derived” from these dead languages.

All these are contentions which modern language science contradicts.

About this we can say two things with confidence: many people, learned or ignorant, with many motives have sought to impose standard forms on other people; none has succeeded. But we can qualify this by noting that over shorter periods standard forms for particular purposes (e.g. writing a business letter or pleading in the High Court) have been accepted.

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Invented standards may be prescribed but will be observed only if speakers or writers are coerced - which is a problem for English-speaking countries which guarantee (some measure of) freedom of speech. On the other hand, some standards may be accepted out of respect for the authority from which they are derived, or for powerful pragmatic reasons - such as the use of agreed conventions for air-traffic control.

In discussing influences on standardization you should note how and in what way they are accepted (e.g. the OED, Webster or Microsoft indicate standard spelling forms but few writers use these with complete consistency).

You may wish to organize these influences chronologically or by category - although in some cases influences in a given period may more or less correspond to language category. Below is a selection of events in the history of English that have influenced language change or standardization, and comment on these.

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Early English

English is at first a dialectal variant of a contemporary Germanic language. Grammar is not enforced by a standard, but conventional and stable forms have been described and reconstructed from old texts by modern scholars (e.g. H. Sweet, C.L. Wrenn and Bruce Mitchell) . Written English is rare, and comes from Latin-speaking monks, who used the Roman alphabet, with new letters - Æ/æ (ash), ð/Ð (eth) and Þ/þ (thorn). They did so usually to record texts for others to read aloud or in public (mostly the scriptures). The arrival of the Vikings and establishment of the Danelaw bring about change - some erosion of grammar and addition of new vocabulary.

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The Middle English Period - 1066 to 1485

After the Norman Conquest the language of government is mediaeval French, but in 1362 (under Edward III) English becomes the official language. Writers express concern about change - Chaucer describes this change, while Ranulph Higden bemoans the strange sounds of English in a way that anticipates Gillian Shephard's 1995 outburst against "Estuary English": the English, says Higden, practise "strange wlaffyng, chytering, harryng and garryng grisbittyng" (stammering, chattering, snarling and grating tooth-gnashing).

In 1458 Gutenberg invents printing (in 1475 Caxton introduces it to England) - this enables some standardizing. But note that there is no widespread standard form of spelling nor of punctuation. Some publishers may attempt in-house consistency. Also, for some time after the invention of printing, more books than previously are produced by hand - printing is at first reserved to books likely to justify the time taken to set up type. The press provides the technical means to guarantee standardizing of spelling, but this will wait for some 300 years.

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The Tudor Period - 1485 to 1603

This period sees experiments in style and debates about composition and diction. We catch hints of these in Shakespeare's plays - Falstaff's speaking in "Cambyses' vein" (Henry IV, Part i, Act 2, scene 4) or Pyramus and Thisbe (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 5, scene 1). Trade and discovery bring about rapid change, especially in the lexicon, and while some settling down of spelling may appear, it is far from being standardized.

Like a modern teenager, Shakespeare spells his name in many different ways. Modern school editions of the text of his plays may mislead you, as the spelling in these is in 20th century standard forms mostly. On the other hand, modern editions of Elizabethan poetry may retain archaic spelling variants - as (in John Donne's poetry, say) of personal pronouns ending in -ee - mee, hee or shee (like thee). Richard Mulcaster writes that it would be "verie praiseworthie...if som one well learned and as laborious a man, wold gather all the words which we use in our English tung…into one dictionarie".

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The 17th Century

It is in this period that the debate about standard forms becomes most strident. Lexicographers attempt to create dictionaries. In 1604 Robert Cawdrey produces the first English dictionary which uses synonyms to describe or define the 3,000 entries. Daniel Defoe proposes the creation of an Academy (as in France) to supervise and regulate the language. Far more influential in establishing a mature model of English prose and verse is the publication in 1611 of the "Authorized Version"(never authorized, in fact) of the Bible. This translation was intended to produce a Bible for public reading aloud.

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The 18th Century

In 1712 Jonathan Swift writes to the Lord Treasurer, urging the formation of an English Academy to regulate usage as "many gross improprieties" could be found in the language of "even the best authors". Dr. Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, notes that "tongues…have a natural tendency to degeneration" but mocks the lexicographer who imagines that his dictionary "can embalm his language", as "to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride". In the act of giving us the most enduring of our authorities for standard forms, Johnson sees its limitations.

In 1721 Nathan Bailey produces the first substantial dictionary, the Universal Etymological English Dictionary which, by the 1736 revision contains 60,000 words. His definitions lack illustrative support and he is vague about usage. This is remedied dramatically by Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language. It has some 40,000 words (fewer than Bailey has) but has extensive quotations to support descriptions or definitions of words. Johnson had earlier sought to regulate and control the language - now, having considered its history more thoroughly, he recognizes this as folly. Nevertheless, his dictionary does establish models for spelling most of which are still accepted today.

In 1762, Robert Lowth publishes A Short Introduction to English Grammar - here are found many of the invented “rules” that Jean Aitchison dismisses in the first of her 1996 Reith Lectures (A Web of Worries). Lowth establishes the prescriptive tradition, mistakenly prescribing Latin-derived models. Lowth's ideas still enjoy support today.

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The 19th Century

In this century, Noah Webster establishes American standard spelling in his 1828 dictionary. Differences from Johnson's are relatively few but mostly notorious. Most familiar are variants on the affixes -our and -re (Webster has -or and -er: e.g., color, labor; theater, center). In the UK Sir James Murray begins work on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1879 - he takes five years to reach ant. The researches of the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm lay the foundations for modern language science, and show that English is not "descended" from Latin but from a Germanic original. So attempts to explain it by the categories of Latin, or to make speakers or writers conform to classical models are historically mistaken. Yet such "Flat Earth" views persist.

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The 20th Century

Modern language science develops and the idea of prescription becomes less persuasive. Attempts at spelling reform and artificial international languages provoke interest but no long-term standardization. The invented languages (such as Esperanto) are less widely spoken today than Klingon (invented by a fan of Star Trek). But English has become the global language - which may help establish an International standard.

Modern recording technology and mass broadcasting give currency to the idea of standard spoken forms. Finally, computer technology provides a powerful means for encouragement of standard written forms with spell-checking and grammar-checking. Interestingly, these allow the user to choose which standard to follow: US English, UK English, Australian or NZ English or International standard forms.

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Studying standardization and change by language category

Grammar | Lexis and semantics | Spelling | Punctuation | Phonology

Although a chronological model gives us a sense of succession and of history as narrative, it can make it hard to see the theory or outline of a question or contemporary opinion. It can also lead us to see historical divisions (the end of a century) as having more importance than is really the case. In what follows aspects of change and standardization are considered in terms of language categories. Some of these will affect spoken or written English only (e.g. phonology or spelling, respectively) while others (lexis, semantics, syntax) are common to both or (like style) affect both but possibly in different ways.


Models or examples that we imitate may become real or de facto standards. Texts with a large audience may thus create patterns to which we conform. Prescriptive rules are compiled because the writer presumably wishes to "correct" some real language tendency - these invented rules (akin to matters of etiquette or table manners) are likely to fail, but may in the meantime promote social attitudes about "correct" or "incorrect" English that are confused with genuine rules.

Some "rules", like those drawn up by Lowth in 1762, have acquired currency: for example, that one should not put a preposition at the end of a sentence, use double or multiple negatives, split the infinitive, or use they as a gender-neutral pronoun. Professor R.W. Zandvoort describes how English usage ignores these pseudo-rules, while Jean Aitchison in her lecture A Web of Worries gives historical and modern examples to show what Zandvoort describes.

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Lexis and semantics

This is less problematic or, rather, the problems are readily grasped. Some lexical items with some meanings are certainly standard features of English at a given time - the OED is full of them. Equally, some other items are obviously not standard or have n/s meanings. And many items are in the process of becoming or ceasing to be standard. Thus, in spite of continual language change, we can create a standard lexicon at any time. We can take this further and show how a given lexical item with a given meaning may be standard in a given context or within a variety but be n/s as regards the mainstream.

For example Hoover began life as a brand name, a proper-noun equivalent to generic vacuum cleaner. Nowadays, in spoken UK English Hoover or arguably hoover is acceptable as a generic name or common noun. At the turn of the century supplements to the OED recorded various forms of Kodak (small portable camera) including kodaker (photographer) and kodakry photography. These are no longer standard although Polaroid is acceptable to denote the instant photographs produced in such cameras.

Both lexis and semantics (especially semantic change or drift) may be culturally determined. They may depend on some other thing (a process or object) which ceases to be familiar, and so the word disappears or the meaning shifts. This has happened to words like wireless, telegram or terms from imperial measurement and pre-decimal currency (foot, inch, gallon, bushel, halfpenny [do you know the standard pronunciation of this?], and shilling.

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Discussion of spelling is bedevilled by strong social attitudes. Even teachers, who should know better, characterize n/s spelling by epithets such as "bad", "poor", "awful" or "appalling" - as if the writer wilfully ignored the standard form. The National Curriculum draws attention to many other features of written performance as well as spelling, but the social attitudes persist. Yet Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton (necessarily) wrote without regard to a standard, so standard spelling can hardly be a measure of merit. The allegation that n/s spelling confuses the reader is often false (as with n/s omission or adding of a second consonant or n/s e before -ing in verbs). Non-standard spellings used in marketing (Kwik Fit, Kwik Save, Toys R Us) rarely appear unintentionally in children's writing, as any teacher knows. On the other hand, the commonest "errors" such as alot for (standard) a lot, grammer for (standard) grammar or belive for standard believe all make clear what the writer intends.

Johnson's dictionary establishes a standard because it is not prescriptive but descriptive. It records what is in Johnson's (very wide) reading the most common form, making allowance for consistency of like elements, and showing etymology, for those who know other languages. Thus cede (verb=give, from Latin) and seed (noun) are differently spelt though homophones (having more or less the same sound value). Johnson also disarms critics by quoting usage, not merely laying down a preferred form.

The modern reader sees Noah Webster's variants as distinctly American (ax, color, plow, theater, waggon) but often Webster has recorded an older English form than Dr. Johnson.

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Punctuation, which may be more critical to communicating meaning than spelling, provokes much less strong social attitudes - perhaps because n/s forms are less obvious, perhaps because punctuation has no defining moment like the publication of Johnson's dictionary, but has evolved gradually and has standard forms but is open to change.

From the 18th century onwards one sees most punctuation marks which are considered standard today. Some have changed their use - in general, late 20th century texts, especially non-literary texts, have less frequent use of marks which are deemed optional. In modern German, a comma to separate clauses is obligatory, but not in English. Businesses use so-called “open punctuation” of addresses (no comma after each element). In many cases ignorance or confusion about conventions may cause writers to avoid some marks: the semi-colon and colon are problematic, while the great difference of function between hyphen and dash may be confused by lack of difference in appearance: on a typewriter the same key served for both (some typists would repeat the stroke for a dash). Some modern computer software restores the difference, where the grammar checking can detect that the context calls for the (longer) dash. (HTML character sets seem not to distinguish between the hyphen and dash, so I can't show you the difference in appearance here.)

Some writers may have caused punctuation marks to lose impact by over-use. Teachers will be familiar with multiple exclamation marks, or with exclamation marks in contexts where only mild emphasis is intended.

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Before the advent of modern recording and broadcasting technology debate about sounds was reliant on written transcripts, which could at best approximate to real phonology. Much is made of inference from, for example, rhyming words in poetry - did the poet use imperfect rhyme or have sounds changed in, for example, John Donne's "And find/What wind/Serves to advance an honest mind". Does US (rhymes with lurk) or UK (rhymes with dark) pronunciation of clerk preserve the older English form - or have two rival sounds fared differently in separate locations? And what of lieutenant? US loo-ten-unt (with stress on first or second syllable) is closer to the French original than UK lef-ten-unt (stress on second syllable).

The various phonetic alphabets give a symbolic representation of sounds that are described in terms of physical performance (for example the position of tongue relative to teeth). Modern recording technology can be used to give a far more precise and objective description of a sound produced, as a waveform or a measure of frequency and so on.

As sound recording is now more than a century old, we can observe change and standardizing tendencies in spoken English. Received Pronunciation (RP) is a notional standard form of pronunciation. RP is associated with prestige and formal public spoken discourse, such as the law, parliament, education or broadcasting. In some of these it may be in tension with regional variations. RP currently is a modified form of the accent heard in independent and grammar schools or spoken by newsreaders; the accent is largely neutral as regards region, but long/soft vowels are preferred to hard/short vowel sounds. Listening to a recording of a broadcast from an earlier period (a Pathé newsreel or Alvar Liddell [an early BBC radio broadcaster] reading the news for the BBC) will show how far RP has changed over time - the earlier RP survives in part in the accent of Queen Elizabeth II, who speaks with much less clearly differentiated (or less open) vowels than the modern RP speaker (the stiff upper lip is literal as well as a metaphor). Our notion of RP in earlier times may also derive from the accents heard in UK feature films (think of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter). We have no easy way of knowing how far this corresponded to the prestige accent of the time.

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Invented rules

You may understand this subject better by looking at some invented rules. These are not descriptions of general usage but inventions of Robert Lowth and others. Some of them have so influenced past generations that they are accepted as normative. Here are examples of some of the more commonly-encountered pseudo-rules.

Singular “they” and “them” | split infinitives | double negatives | “different from” | preposition at end of sentence

They and them are not to be used as singular pronouns.

Example: If anyone calls, tell them I'm in a meeting.

Comment: Such use may be inelegant style but does not break any real rule of grammar. Professor R.W. Zandvoort (The Fundamentals of English Grammar - Arnold's Card Guides; London, 1963) says, "Where sex is unknown he or they may be used of an adult, he or it of children". Jean Aitchison (The Language Web, p. 8) quotes examples from the 18th century to the present day of writers who disregard this "rule", including William Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw.

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The infinitive should not be split (separated from to by a qualifier)

Example: The mission was to boldly go where no man had ever gone before.

Comment: There is no justification at all for this supposed rule.

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Double negatives are really affirmatives.

Example: I don't know nothing about that.

Comment: This derives from Robert Lowth ("Two negatives… are equivalent to an affirmative") but is deeply entrenched in popular attitudes to language. It arises from confusing vernacular languages with logic or theory of number. Now the double negative is often used to signal an affirmative, but indirectly, as in that's not unreasonable. Aitchison finds a multiple (fourfold) negative for emphatic negation in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Of the knight, we are told

he never yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight

(He never even no wicked thing not said in all his life to no kind of person).

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Different should be immediately followed by “from” (not “than” or “to”)

Comment: Aitchison finds examples of different to and H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage labels the preference for different from a "superstition". But different to and different than may have other distinct uses. Consider these examples:

  • After the room was painted it looked different to me.
  • After the room was painted it looked different from how it did before.
  • A dog is different from a wolf. A slug is different from a wolf. But a slug is more different than a dog from a wolf.

Most prepositions function in ways that are not coherent or logical. Many languages do not have them. Since their use is a matter of convention, the idea of style or fitness (as with the double negative) may now argue against different to.

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Prepositions should not come at the end of a sentence.

Example: This is the man who/that I spoke to.

(Preferred form given as This is the man to whom I spoke.)

Comment: The suggestion that the preposition should come before the verb phrase has no justification. The second example above may be more elegant, but rigid enforcing of the "rule" can have the opposite effect, as in the notorious: This is English, up with which I will not put.

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Dates and events

If you want to learn important events and their dates, click on the link below for a short quiz. Why do this? You may want to be confident, before taking an exam, that you know what happened when.

Learn about the lexicon

If you want to learn about the English lexicon, click on the link below for a short quiz. Why do this? You may want to be confident, before taking an exam, that you know examples of lexis which have entered English from different languages.

Take a general language change quiz

Click on the link below for a general quiz on language change - some questions are not yet covered by this guide: you may need to look elsewhere to find out more. Many thanks to Terry of South Downs and the English Language List for sharing this quiz.

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More on Scandinavian place names

Below you will find some replies e-mailed to me by Dr. Barrie M. Rhodes , UK coordinator of the Viking Network, in response to some of my questions and comments. I have edited the correspondence slightly to keep continuity. Sections marked AM are my comments, while those marked BR are Dr. Rhodes's answers.

AM: There's a roadsign near Skirlaugh (in the East Riding, north-east of Beverley) for the village of Swine, which may amuse visitors. Might this be a corruption of Sweyn (a Viking ruler, also called Sweno - he is mentioned at the start of Macbeth)? Perhaps it once had an ending that has dropped off. There is also (near Goole) a Swinefleet which could perhaps be “Sweyn's fleot” (as in estuary).

BR: Swine does indeed look as though it might refer to a Sweyne/Sven and the suffix (perhaps -by) has become “lost”. Swinefleet I'm less sure of in terms of a Scandinavian connection. The -fleot element is, of course, Anglo-Saxon and if the place name refers to some Scandinavian person it will be a hybrid place name. However, the majority of -fleot place names in this region appear to be purely Anglo-Saxon, greatly pre-dating any Scandinavian influence, and not hybridised at all. If such is the case, then this particular place is likely to get it name from the fairly straightforward “creek of the pigs”.

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AM: A thought about -fleet - which is more common in the south: there are quite a few -fleets in the Humberside, East Riding and North Lincolnshire region. In Lincolnshire there is a small town of Saltfleet, and a few miles down the coast a village called Saltfleetby. I presume Saltfleetby to be later. The pronunciation of name is unusual in that the stress falls on the last syllable - not, as one might expect Salt-FLEET-by but Salfleet-BY. Some Lincolnshire dialect speakers, however, render it SOL-ler-by, with stress on the initial syllable.

BR: Saltfleetby would be a daughter settlement. A possibility is that Saltfleet came into Scandinavian possession by whatever means (the shares of Danegeld meant that disbanded Vikings could perform a transaction that had been virtually unknown before: they could BUY land, including whole villages and their estates. Sometimes the former Anglo-Saxon lord of a village/estate had been killed in battle or had been exiled and the lordship taken over by a Scandinavian.) In the latter case, when a daughter settlement became necessary because of population growth, it would be understandable that the Scandinavian owner would use Old Norse/Old Danish nomenclature for it.

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AM: It's likely that not all -by names come from exclusively Viking settlements - in due course, Angles would come to use the ending, having become familiar with it. This would also happen as Danes (to the early English all Scandinavians were “Danes”) became assimilated into Angle settlements and vice versa.

BR: The demography of villages/estates in “Scandinavian” England is far from clear. Common sense suggests that some settlements remained under Anglo-Saxon lordship with a population mainly of English villagers; others would have a Viking lord yet the villagers would be mainly English; others would have mixed Anglo-Scandinavian populations and either an Anglo-Saxon or a Viking lord...and permutations therefrom. Place name evidence tells us that some villages were predominantly occupied by Scandinavians - Danby, Denby, and so on; there is also evidence of surviving Celtic occupations in names such as Welton, Walton, Bretton (though the village names themselves are clearly Anglo-Saxon applications). Some settlements were in the ownership of women (such as Whenby) but we have no indication of whether these were Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Celtic women or a mixture.

Naming practices of the Scandinavian type persisted as populations amalgamated and language became pidginised and amalgamated also. This remains true right up to the present day: for instance, the “new town” established in Lancashire in the 1960s was named Skelmersdale; a recently-built housing estate at Holme upon Spalding Moor has been named Spaldingate. and so on.

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AM: It seems that after the kingdom in York came to an end, there were just as many Vikings coming and going - but it was no longer so unusual, and they behaved differently in their dealings with the established people. That is, the English would record it in the Chronicle when it was a novelty (even without the violent actions). But after a few hundred years it would not seem so newsworthy.

BR: The evidence is that post-5th century England had ALWAYS had close commercial, political and cultural contact with north-west mainland Europe in general and Scandinavia in particular (think of the geographical setting of Beowulf, for example, the origin of the Sutton Hoo helmet, Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, English Christian missionaries in Scandinavia, etc). It is now believed that the Vikings (or, more accurately, Scandinavians, as “Viking” is an activity - “going a-viking” - not an ethnic label) had been conducting lively trade with England and Scotland long before piratical raiding started.

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Think of the parallels in the history of the British Empire - we traded for a long time with places such as India before the idea of looting, conquest and assimilation into the Empire occurred. Scandinavians continued to migrate to the British Isles for many generations after the Danelaw (and the Kingdom of York, which existed a bit longer) had been recovered by the successors of Alfred the Great. Indeed, Scandinavian migration has continued right to the present day, if we want to be pedantic about it! A noticeable influx of Scandinavian settlers seems to have taken place after Canute/Knut became king of England in the 11th century. Indeed, it may be that this influx was even larger than that of Guthrum's disbanded Viking army. Obviously, Scandinavian naming practices would persist and be reinforced in such circumstances. John of Wallingford, writing in the Church Chronicles in the 12th century, records how the indigenous population of northern England and the north Midlands became quickly assimilated with Scandinavian incomers “...adopting their manners, their customs, their dress and their mode of speech...” (if I remember the quotation correctly). You probably know of such language adoption as being part of the linguistic theory of “élite dominance”.

You are right about the Anglo-Saxon perception of all Vikings being “Danes”. This is easily explained as, for much of the Viking Age, all southern Scandinavia was “Danish” anyway. In a similar way, the Celtic languages identify all English as “Saxons” (Sassenach in Gaelic, Sassnaeg in Welsh) and don't differentiate amongst Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Allemanii, Swabians and others who migrated to Britain from AD 410 onwards.

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AM: It's easy for modern people to project onto the past a sense of national identity, and an awareness of who is the ruler - but I wonder if people in what is now the East Riding noticed anything much, let alone cared, when Sweyn followed Aethelraed, or when Edward followed Harthacanut.

BR: Consciousness of a national identity was fairly late arriving and the concept of a sovereign nation state emerged only slowly. “Norway”, “Sweden” and “Denmark” are historically recent concepts in the “nation state” sense. In the Viking Age Scandinavia (and elsewhere) identification with, and loyalty to, one's family/clan/local chieftain was far more potent than recognition of an overall sovereign. Indeed, many Scandinavians chose to migrate to the British Isles and Iceland to escape the tyranny of the monarchy once it emerged as part of the nation state idea. They cherished the freedom of the individual and the concept of the “freeman” above all. This was partly the rationale behind the uprisings in the north when William I started to impose the feudal system - the policy was entirely unacceptable to the psychology of the Anglo-Scandinavian population of the north. As you know, William “wasted” Yorkshire in revenge - and we've never forgiven “southerners” and the powers in Whitehall for that atrocity. They made it worse by doing away with our Viking-constructed Ridings in 1974! The north-south divide has a much longer history than the post-Industrial Revolution phenomenon!

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AM: A useful practical exercise would be to give students maps from different locations in the UK, to see what they can infer from place names.

BR: This is a classic exercise which we have conducted in Historical Geography for many decades. I have done it with students from upper primary school age right up to undergraduate level (where we used the statistical device of “nearest neighbour analysis” to plot the distribution, density and succession of settlement).

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© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me

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