Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
si þin nama gehalgod.
Tobecume þin rice.
Gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg.
And forgyf us ure gyltas,
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd þu us in costnunge,
ac alys us of yfele. The Lord’s Prayer (circa 1000)
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.
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.
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, themajority 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.
The history of English
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
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 involves a reversal in position of two
sounds in a word. This type of reversal is illustrated in the changed versions of these
words from their earlier forms.
acsian → ask frist → first brinnan → beornan (burn)
bridd → bird hros → horse wæps → wasp
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 inI aksed him already, can
still be heard instead of ask.
The reversal of position in metathesis can sometimes occur between non-adjoining
sounds. The Spanish word palabra is derived from the Latin parabola through the
reversal of the [l] and [r] sounds. The pattern is exemplified in the following set.
miraculum → milagro (“miracle”)
parabola → palabra (“word”)
periculum → peligro (“danger”)
Another type of sound change, known as epenthesis, involves the addition of a sound
to the middle of a word.
æmtig → empty spinel → spindle timr → timber
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.”
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.
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. (For more on borrowing, see Chapter 5.) 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
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”).