This barely recognizable version of the Lord’s Prayer from about a thousand years ago
provides a rather clear indication that the language of the “Englisc” has gone through
substantial changes to become the “English” we use today. Investigating the features of older
languages, and the ways in which they developed into modern languages, involves us in the
study of language history and change, also known as philology. In the nineteenth century,
philology dominated the study of language and one result was the creation of “family trees”
to show how languages were related. Before all of that could happen, however, there had to
be the discovery that a variety of languages spoken in different parts of the world were
actually members of the same family.
The reconstruction of proto-forms is an attempt to determine what a language must
have been like before any written records. However, even when we have written
records from an older period of a language such as English, they may not bear any
resemblance to the written form of the language found in today’s newspapers. The version of the Lord’s Prayer quoted at the beginning of this chapter provides a good illustration of this point. Even some of the letters seem quite alien. The older letters þ (called “thorn”) and ð (“eth”) were both replaced by “th” (as in þu→thou, eorðan→earth), and æ (“ash”) simply became “a” (as in to dæg → today). To see how one language has undergone substantial changes through time, we can take a brief look at the history of English, which is traditionally divided into four periods.
Old English: before 1100
Middle English: 1100 to 1500
Early Modern English: 1500 to 1700
Modern English: after 1700
Comparative Linguistics is compare and contrast languages phonological and morphological systems, syntax, and vocabularies, increasingly relying on computer to detect symmetries. One tool of comparative linguistics is evolutionary phonology, which posits that language changes in predictable ways, allowing parent or proto – languages to be reconstructed through reverse engineering. A famous early success of comparative linguistics was proving that Indian Sanskrit is part of the same Indo-European language family as most contemporary European languages, showing a common origin.
A. HOW LANGUAGE CHANGES
In a number of changes from Middle to Modern English, some sounds disappeared
from the pronunciation of certain words, in a process simply described as sound loss.
The initial [h] of many Old English words was lost, as in hlud → loud and hlaford →lord. Some words lost sounds, but kept the spelling, resulting in the “silent letters” of contemporary written English. Word-initial velar stops [k] and [ɡ] are no longer pronounced before nasals [n], but we still write the words knee and gnaw with the remnants of earlier pronunciations. Another example is a velar fricative [x] that was used in the older pronunciation of nicht as [nɪxt] (closer to the Modern German pronunciation of Nacht), but is absent in the contemporary form night, as [naɪt]. A remnant of this sound is still present in some dialects, as at the end of the Scottish word loch, but it is no longer a consonant in Modern English speech. The sound change known as “metathesis” The cowboy who pronounces the expression “pretty good” as something close to “purty good” is producing a similar example of metathesis as a dialect variant within Modern English. In some American English dialects, the form “aks”, as in “I aksed him already”, can still be heard instead of ask. The addition of a [p] sound after the nasal [m], as in empty, can also be heard in some speakers’ pronunciation of something as “sumpthing.” Anyone who pronounces the word “film” as if it were “filum,” or “arithmetic” as “arithametic,” is producing examples of epenthesis in Modern English. One other type of sound change worth noting, though not found in English, occurs in the development of other languages. It involves the addition of a sound to the beginning of a word and is called prothesis. It is a common feature in the evolution of some forms from Latin to Spanish, as in these examples.
schola → escuela (“school”)
spiritus → espı´ritu (“spirit”)
Spanish speakers who are starting to learn English as a second language will sometimes put a prothetic vowel at the beginning of some English words, with the result that words like “strange” and “story” may sound like “estrange” and “estory.”
2. Syntactic changes
Some noticeable differences between the structure of sentences in Old and Modern English involve word order. In Old English texts, we find the Subject-Verb-Object order most common in Modern English, but we can also find a number of different orders that are no longer used. For example, the subject could follow the verb, as in “ferde he” (“he traveled”), and the object could be placed before the verb, as in
“he hine geseah” (“he saw him”), or at the beginning of the sentence, as in him man ne sealde (“no man gave [any] to him”). In the last example, the use of the negative also differs from Modern English, since the sequence *not gave (ne sealde) is no longer grammatical. A “double negative” construction was also possible, as in the following example, where both ne (“not”) and næfre (“never”) are used with the same verb. We would now say You never gave rather than *You not gave never. And
ne sealdest þu¯ me næfre a¯ n ticcen and not gave you me never a kid. However, the most sweeping change in the form of English sentences was the loss of a large number of inflectional suffixes from many parts of speech. Notice that, in the previous examples, the forms sealde (“he gave”) and sealdest (“you gave”) are differentiated by inflectional suffixes (-e, –est) that are no longer used in Modern English. Nouns, adjectives, articles and pronouns all had different inflectional forms according to their grammatical function in the sentence.
3. Semantic changes
The most obvious way in which Modern English differs from Old English is in the number of borrowed words that have come into the language since the Old English period. Less obviously, many words have ceased to be used. Since we no longer carry swords (most of us, at least), the word foin, meaning “the thrust of a sword,” is no longer heard. A common Old English word for “man” was were, but it has fallen out of use, except in horror films where the compound werewolf occasionally appears. A number of expressions such as lo, verily or egad are immediately recognized as belonging to a much earlier period, along with certain medieval-sounding names such as Bertha, Egbert and Percival. Two other processes are described as “broadening” and “narrowing” of meaning. An example of broadening of meaning is the change from “holy day” as a religious feast to the very general break from work called “a holiday”. We have broadened the use of foda (fodder for animals) to talk about all kinds of food. Old English words such as luflic (“loving”) and hræd (“quick”) not only went through sound changes, they also developed more complex evaluative meanings (“wonderful” and “preferentially”), as in their modern uses: That’s a lovely idea, but I’d rather have dinner at home tonight. Another example is the modern use of the word dog. We use it very generally to refer to all breeds, but in its older form (Old English docga), it was only used for one particular breed. The reverse process, called narrowing, has overtaken the Old English word hund, once used for any kind of dog, but now, as hound, used only for some specific breeds. Another example is mete, once used for any kind of food, which has in its modern form meat become restricted to only some specific types. The Old English version of the word wife could be used to refer to any woman, but has narrowed in its application nowadays to only married women. A different kind of narrowing can lead to a negative meaning for some words, such as vulgar (which used to mean simply “ordinary”) and naughty (which used to mean “having nothing”).
Using information from these sets of cognates, we can embark on a procedure called comparative reconstruction. The aim of this procedure is to reconstruct what must have been the original or “proto” form in the common ancestral language. In carrying out this procedure, those working on the history of languages operate on the basis of some general principles, two of which are presented here. The majority principle is very straightforward. If, in a cognate set, three words begin with a [p] sound and one word begins with a [b] sound, then our best guess is that the majority have retained the original sound (i.e. [p]). The most natural development principle is based on the fact that certain types of sound change are very common whereas others are extremely unlikely. The direction of change described in each case (1)–(4) has been commonly observed, but the reverse has not.
(1) Final vowels often disappear (vino → vin)
(2) Voiceless sounds become voiced, typically between vowels (muta → muda)
(3) Stops become fricatives (ripa → riva)
(4) Consonants become voiceless at the end of words (rizu → ris)
If we were faced with some examples from three languages, as shown below, we could
make a start on comparative reconstruction by deciding what was the most likely form
of the initial sound in the original source of all three Languages
A B C
Cantare cantar chanter (“sing”)
catena cadena chaîne (“chain”)
caro caro cher (“dear”)
cavallo caballo cheval (“horse”)
Since the written forms can often be misleading, we check that the initial sounds of the
words in languages A and B are all [k] sounds, while in language C the initial sounds
are all [ʃ] sounds. On the evidence presented, the majority principle would suggest that the initial sound [k] in languages A and B is older than the [ʃ] sound in language C. Moreover, the [k] sound is a stop consonant and the [ʃ] sound is a fricative. According to one part of the “most natural development principle,” change tends to occur in the direction of stops becoming fricatives, so the [k] sound is more likely to have been the original. Through this type of procedure we have started on the comparative reconstruction of the common origins of some words in Italian (A), Spanish (B) and French (C). In this case, we have a way of checking our reconstruction because the common origin for these three languages is known to be Latin. When we check the Latin cognates of the words listed, we find cantare, catena, carus and caballus, confirming that [k] was the initial sound.
Looking at a non-Indo-European set of examples, we can imagine receiving the
following data from a linguist recently returned from an expedition to a remote region
of the Amazon. The examples are a set of cognates from three related languages, but
what would the proto-forms have looked like?
1 2 3 Proto-forms
mube mupe mup ________ (“stream”)
abadi apati apat ________ (“rock”)
agana akana akan ________ (“knife”)
enugu enuku enuk ________ (“diamond”)
Using the majority principle, we can suggest that the older forms will most likely be based on language 2 or language 3. If this is correct, then the consonant changes must have been [p] → [b], [t] → [d] and [k] → [ɡ] in order to produce the later forms in language 1. There is a pattern in these changes that follows one part of the “most natural development principle,” i.e. voiceless sounds become voiced between vowels. So, the words in languages 2 and 3 must be older forms than those in language 1. Which of the two lists, 2 or 3, contains the older forms? Remembering one other “most natural development” type of sound change (i.e. final vowels often disappear), we can propose that the words in language 3 have consistently lost the final vowels still present in the words of language 2. Our best guess, then, is that the forms listed for language 2 are closest to what must have been the original proto-forms.
C. COMPARATIVE METHOD
Comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages, as opposed to the method of internal reconstruction, which analyzes the internal development of a single language over time. Ordinary both methods are used together to reconstruct prehistoric phases of languages, to fill in gaps in the historical record of a language, to discover the development of phonological, morphological, and other linguistics systems, and to confirm or refute hypothesized relationships between languages.
The comparative method was developed over the 19th century. Key contributions were made by the Danish scholars Rasmus Rask and Karl Verner and the German Scholar Jacob Grimm. The first linguist to over reconstructed forms from a proto-language was August Schleicher.
Historical linguistics studies languages to establish connection between them. Connection may be genetic, meaning the languages have a common ancestral language and belong to the same language family, or may result from cultural contact between unrelated languages.
Comparative linguistics compare and contrast languages phonological and morphological systems, syntax, and vocabularies.
Victoria Fromkin and George Yule