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Causes of Grammatical Changes

547. The drastic transformation of the grammatical system in the history of English has attracted the interest of many historical linguists and has been the subject of much speculation and comment. The problem of transition from a synthetic to a more analytical grammatical type has given rise to many theories.

In the 19th c. the simplification of English morphology was attributed to the effect of phonetic changes, namely the weakening and loss of unaccented final syllables caused by the heavy Germanic word stress. (The views were promoted by the comparativists, especially by the Young grammarian school, K. Brugmann, E. Sievers and others.) As the stress was fixed on the root-syllable or the first syllable of the word, the final syllables, i. e. inflectional endings, were reduced and dropped. As a result of phonetic changes many forms fell together and it became difficult to distinguish between cases, genders, numbers and persons. To make up for the losses, new means of showing grammatical relations and of connecting words in a sentence began to develop; prepositions and a fixed word order.

This theory, often called phonetic, regards sound changes as the primary cause of grammatical changes. It disregards the specifically grammatical trends of evolution and the relative chronology of developments at different levels. And yet it is well known that prepositional phrases were used a long time before the inflections had been dropped and that the position of words in a sentence in relation to other words was not altogether free: thus the attribute was normally placed next to the noun, though their grammatical ties were shown by means of concord. It is true that the changes at different linguistic levels were interconnected, but this does not mean that there could be only one direction of influence from the lower, phonetic level to the grammatical levels. The interaction of changes at different levels must have operated in different ways in various historical periods, and the changes were determined not only by internal linguistic factors but also by external conditions.

548. The second popular theory, often referred to as functional, attributed the loss of inflectional endings and the growth of analytical means to functional causes: the endings lost their grammatical role or their functional load and were dropped as unnecessary and redundant for other means began to fulfil their functions. As compared to the phonetic theory, the changes started at the opposite end: the grammatical inflections of nouns became unnecessary after their functions were taken over by prepositions; the endings of adjectives showing gender became meaningless when the Category of Gender in nouns had been lost and the markers of number in adjectives were redundant, since number was shown by the forms of nouns. Likewise the distinction between the weak and strong forms of adjectives could easily be dispensed with when the newly developed system of articles could express the same meanings with greater regularity and precision; and even certain verb endings could be dropped as useless when person and number were indicated analytically with the help of an obligatory subject. The functional theory first advanced by W. Horn, M. Lehnert and other linguists, was supported by some recent views on language.[64]

A similar approach to the grammatical changes is found in the theory of the least effort which claims that the structure of language is an unstable balance between the needs of more numerous expressive means and mans inertia, or his strive for the least effort in achieving the same aims.[65] It is believed that the speakers are always in need of more expressive linguistic means, as the existing means gradually lose their expressive force; these needs, inherent in every living language, account for the use of prepositional phrases alongside case-forms and the growth of verb phrases and analytical forms in addition to simple verb forms.

Although these hypotheses take into account some important general properties of language, they ignore the specific conditions of the development of English at different historical periods and are therefore in some respects as one-sided as the phonetic theory.

549. Many scholars ascribe the simplification of the English morphology and the general transformation of the grammatical type to certain facts of external history, namely to contacts with other tongues. The age of great grammatical changes between the 10th and 13th c. was the time of heavy Scandinavian settlement in the North-East and of the Norman Conquest.

In the areas of Scandinavian settlement OE and O Scand intermixed. The two OG languages were not too far apart to allow of a good deal of mutual understanding; they had a large common vocabulary, with certain differences in pronunciation and inflectional endings. Probably distinct pronunciation of the roots was therefore more essential than the pronunciation of endings; consequently grammatical inflections could be missed out and dropped. (Cf. OE sunu, O Scand sunr; OE swan, O Scand svanr; OE fæder; O Scand faðir NE son, swan, father)2. The direction of the diffusion of the changes from the North to the South seems to support this hypothesis; the Northern dialects showed a high degree of levelling and simplification as early as the 10th c., when the other dialects still retained the OE inflectional system. Nevertheless, it should be recalled that some of the simplifying changes started in the South and spread north those were, e. g. the grammatical changes in personal pronouns. It may be added that this theory leaves out of consideration the interdependence of changes at different linguistic levels and especially the phonetic and syntactic developments, which began a long time before the Scandinavian invasions.

550. Another theory ascribes the simplification of the noun and adjective morphology to the mixture of English with O Fr, though this tongue was not closely related to English. According to this view the French language of the Norman rulers of Britain could have played a more decisive role in the grammatical changes than O Scand for the simple reason that it had a far greater effect on the development of English as a whole (and particularly on its vocabulary). It is thought that any mixture with a foreign tongue leads to an unsettling of the inflectional system; mixture with O Fr could favour the tendency to greater analyticism because at that time French had a more analytical grammatical structure than English. This theory, however, is not confirmed by the chronology of the changes: at the time of strongest French influence the 13th and 14th c. English had already lost most of its inflections and had acquired many of its analytical features.

551. We should also mention one more popular theory which attempted to explain the grammatical changes in English the so-called theory of progress advanced by O. Jespersen. O. Jespersen protested against the interpretation of the history of all IE languages as grammatical degeneration and decay. He tried to show the advantages of the analytical type of language over the synthetic type and presented the history of English as the only way to progress and a superior kind of language. He believed that the general tendency of all languages was towards shorter grammatical forms, though languages differ much in the velocity with which they had been moving in this direction; on this way to an ideal grammatical structure English had reached a more advanced stage than other languages, which testifies, according to O. Jespersen,[66] to a superior level of thinking of English-speaking nations. The theory of progress was severely criticised for its racial implication and for merely reversing the old argument of 19th c. comparativists that the IE parent-language was superior to modern languages because it was highly inflected. The state of inflections and the nature of form-building means employed cannot determine the level of development of language, though they characterises its grammatical type. It has been observed that in some languages grammatical forms evolved in the opposite direction: analytical forms merged into synthetic ones or died out, giving way to synthetic forms (e. g. in French and in Russian); this proves that the trend towards a more analytical type is not the only way of evolution and progress.

552. With the exception of the theory of progress, all the other views outlined above are partly correct, since each factor played a certain role in grammatical changes, though it was only one of their causes, and not the only cause. Like other changes, grammatical changes were brought about by numerous intra- and extralinguistic factors, such as the internal tendencies operating at different linguistic levels, the inter-action of these tendencies and the specific external conditions which determined the linguistic situation at different historical periods. Without going into details we can ascribe the main events in the history of English grammar to anumber of major causes and conditions.

553. The simplification of the nominal paradigms and the replacement of synthetic means by analytical means of word connection took place mainly in the Early ME period. We should recall that even in OE the nominal system was in some respects inconsistent and contradictory: there was little regularity in form-building and the meaning of many cases was vague; these conditions pre-determined possible changes. The main factors which brought about the changes can be described as tendencies of different levels.

The phonetic reduction of final unaccented syllables, originally caused by the Germanic word stress, made the grammatical endings jess distinct; in Early ME many inflections were weakened and some of them were lost. The main trend in the morphological system was to preserve and to work out reliable formal markers for the most essential grammatical distinctions (in the first place, the distinction of number in nouns); this was achieved by means of analogical levelling grammatical analogy led to the regular use of the same markers for similar forms. The lexical and syntactic levels furnished diverse means, which could make the meaning and the use of forms more precise and differentiated, such as prepositions which accompanied the forms of cases and different types of word order; the use of these reliable means favoured the indistinct pronunciation of the endings and their confusion in writing.

Those were the internal, or intralinguistic conditions of grammatical changes in Early ME.

There is no doubt that the extralinguistic conditions contributed to the changes. The linguistic situation in Early ME speeded up the grammatical changes. The increased dialectal divergence of the feudal age, the two foreign influences, Scandinavian and French, and the break in the written tradition made for a wider range of variation, greater grammatical instability and more intensive realisation of internal tendencies.

The transformation was on the whole completed in the 14th-15th c., when some of the co-existing forms and syntactic patterns used in free variation were selected and adopted by the language system and by the prevailing literary dialect the dialect of London. The selection of forms was determined by the same internal tendencies and by the changed linguistic situation: the dialects had intermixed and their relations and inter-influence reflected the economic, social and demographic events of the time.

554. The growth of analytical forms in the verb system and the formation of new grammatical categories were also to a certain extent pre-determined by the state of the verb system in OE: the paradigm of the verb was relatively poor and, in addition to categorial forms of the verb system, the language made wide use of verb phrases and verb-prefixes to express a variety of meanings connected with the main meanings of the verb forms temporal, modal and aspective. The main changes of the ensuing period consisted in the enrichment of the verb system which came to include new forms in the paradigm and to develop new oppositions and categories. The verb system has expanded and has become more symmetrical. These alterations were primarily conditioned by internal factors of language evolution, such as the shift of some abstract meanings from the lexical to the grammatical level (e. g. the modal and temporal meanings), and the strive for a balanced regular arrangement of grammatical oppositions. The developments in the verb system, unlike those in the nominal system, were not confined to Early ME; they extended over many hundred years and were associated with different kind of external conditions and new stimuli of development: the growth of culture and the written forms of the language, the formation of the national literary language with its functional and stylistic differentiation and the need for more precise and subtle means of expression.

555. The changes at the syntactic level can, on the whole, be attributed to the same factors which operated in the evolution of English morphology. The predominance of syntactic ways of word connection, the strict word order, the wide use of prepositional phrases were a part of the general transition of English from the synthetic to the analytical type. Syntactic changes were linked up with simplifying changes in morphology and made a part of a single historical process (see 553).

The other major trend of syntactic changes can be defined as growing complexity of the word phrase and of the sentence. The extension of word phrases, the growth of predicative constructions, and the development of the complex and compound sentences made a part of the formation of the literary English language, and particularly its Written Standard and multiple functional styles.


1. Compare the historical productivity of different form-building means: synthetic (inflections, sound interchanges), analytical, suppletive.

2. Which part of speech has lost the greatest number of grammatical categories? Which part of speech has acquired new categories?

3. Describe the sources of the modern pl forms of nouns and the spread of the ending -(e)s.

4. Compare the development of case and number in nouns, adjectives and pronouns.

5. Illustrate the process of replacement by tracing the history of the pronouns she, they, their, him, you, its.

6. Comment on the forms of pronouns in the following quotations:

'tis better thee without than he within; Between who?; Nay, you need not fear for us; Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye. (Shakespeare)

7. What is the connection between the growth of articles, the history of pronouns and the decline of adjectival declensions?

8. Comment on the following statement made by S. Johnson in his DICTIONARY: He shall seldom err who remembers that when a verb has a participle distinct from its preterite as write, wrote, written, that distinct participle is more proper and elegant, as the book is written is better than the book is wrote though wrote may be used in poetry... What events called forth this remark?

9. Make a list of verb inflections in Mod E and trace their origin (show their grammatical and dialectal sources).

10. Why would it be incorrect to apply the terms strong and weak to Mod E standard and non-standard verbs?

11. Describe the development of the principal forms of the following verbs: OE fēdan w. I, wēpan str. 7, āscian w. II, sincan, windan str. 3.

12. Point out traces of OE pret.-pres. verbs in modern modal verbs.

13. Have all the phrases consisting of have plus Part. II, be plus Part. I and shall/will plus Inf. become grammatical forms? Describe their histories as instances of splitting.

14. Use the following quotations to describe the history of the Continuous forms:

It was not for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding on Black Monday. (Shakespeare)

The clock struck ten white the trunks were carrying down ... (J. Austen, late 18th c.)

15. What developments in English syntax can be illustrated by the following quotations:

Madam, my interpreter, what says she? Whereupon do you look? Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck. And yet methinks I have astronomy...

How likes you this play, my lord? (Shakespeare)

16. Recall some instances of grammatical changes which involve several linguistic levels: morphological, syntactic, phonetic, lexical.

17. In his theory of progress O. Jespersen asserted that English, being an analytical language, was more advanced than other languages. Consider and criticise some of his arguments:

(1) The forms are generally shorter, thus involving less muscular exertion and requiring less time for enunciation.

(2) There are not so many of them to burden the memory.

(3) Their formation is much more regular.

(4) Their syntactic use also presents fewer irregularities.

(5) The clumsy repetitions known under the name of concord have become superfluous.

(6) A clear and unambiguous understanding is secured through a regular word order.

Chapter XVI

Preliminary Remarks. Types and Sources of Changes ( 556-560)

556. According to the estimates made by modern philologists, in the course of the thousand years from OE to modern times the English vocabulary has multiplied tenfold. Perhaps, if it were possible to count all the meanings expressed by lexical items in different historical periods, the figure would be much higher.

Among the changes in the vocabulary we can distinguish losses of words or their meanings, replacements and additions.

557. Like many other lexical changes losses were connected with events in external history: with the changing conditions of life and the obsolescence of many medieval concepts and customs.

Some regulations and institutions of OE kingdoms were cancelled or forgotten in the ME period. OE witenaʒemōt assembly of the elders ceased to exist under the Norman rule; OE Daneʒeld, the tax paid to the Scandinavians, was not collected after the collapse of the Danish Empire both words have survived only as historical terms. OE werʒeld was a fine paid by the murderer to the family of the murdered man; the word became obsolete together with the custom.

Some rituals of the heathen religion were abandoned after the introduction of Christianity and their names dropped out of use, e.g. OE tiber, blōt which meant sacrifice.

In OE there were many groups of synonyms whose differentiation became irrelevant in ME; therefore some of the synonyms fell out of use. For instance, OE here, fierd, werod indicated an armed force, an army (here must have had a negative connotation as it was used only in reference to a hostile army, the Danes). The distinction between the synonyms was lost when they were all replaced by the ME borrowings from French army, troop.

The English vocabulary suffered considerable losses when a whole stylistic stratum of words, the specific OE poetic vocabulary, went out of use together with the genre of OE poetry; those were numerous poetic synonyms of ordinary, neutral words, stock metaphors and traditional kennings.

Many words current in ME fell out of use and became obsolete in NE, e.g.: ME chapman pedlar, ME romare pilgrim to Rome, ME outridere rider visiting the manors of a monastery, ME gypoun short jacket.

Losses could also affect the plane of content, Though the word survived, some of its meanings became obsolete. Thus OE ʒift had the meaning price of a wife connected with one of the early meanings of the verb ʒyfan (NE give) give in marriage; OE sellan lost the meaning give which it could express in OE alongside sell; OE talu meant number, series and story, narrative, while its ME and NE descendant tale retained only the latter meanings.

Though losses proper can be illustrated by numerous examples in all periods, they played a less important role in the development of the vocabulary than replacements and additions.

558. It has been calculated that from 80 to 85% of the OE words went out of use in the succeeding periods. Most of these words were not simply lost; they were replaced by other words of the same or similar meanings. The replacement came as a result of the co-existence and rivalry of synonyms and the ultimate selection of one of the rivals. Thus OE clipian came to be replaced by ME callen, NE call; OE niman was ousted by ME taken, NE take-, the pronouns hie and hēo were substituted for by they and she-, OE morðan was replaced by become; NE river took the place of OE ēa; NE table the place of OE bord and so on and so forth.

Replacements could also occur in the sphere of content: the word was retained but its meaning was changed or was replaced by a new meaning. Thus OE drēam meant joy but acquired an entirely different meaning, formerly rendered by OE swefn; OE cnihf boy, servant changed its meaning to ME and NE knight; OE clerec clergyman developed into ME clerk student, scholar and NE secretary in an office. Sometimes the meanings of the word changed when its referent (the thing it denoted) underwent some kind of changes, for instance, ME carre wheeled vehicle now indicates a motor car or part of a train (sleeping car), NE car, Early ME carriage; coche denoted an old form of carriage pulled by four horses, while its descendant, NE coach, has acquired the meaning of car, carriage in a train.

The one-to-one replacements illustrated by the examples above did not increase the number of words in the vocabulary. Most replacements however belonged to the split-type: one item was replaced by two or more, or one meaning differentiated into several meanings. These changes should be classified as additions to the vocabulary.

559. Additions embrace a large number of vocabulary changes. The sum total of this type of change far offsets the process of obsolescence and decay. Among additions we can find pure innovations, that is entirely new words which did not take the place of any other items but were created to name new things, new ideas and new qualities, e.g. ME citee town with a cathedral, duke, duchesse, prynce new ranks and titles; NE bourgeois, potato, nylon.

Many additions to the vocabulary were due to the differentiation of synonyms. The co-existence of synonyms did not necessarily result in the ousting of one by the other as shown in 558. Both words or even several words of close meaning could survive with certain differences in stylistic connotations, combinability and other features. For instance OE nēah, nēar, nēara survived as ME neer, its ME synonyms were cloos and adjacent, their NE descendants and synonyms: near, close, adjacent, neighbouring. Another example: OE heard, ME hard, ferme, solide, NE hard, firm, solid, severe.

The development of new meanings in the existing words extended the vocabulary and led to the growth of polysemy and homonymy. For instance, OE cræft meant science, skill, strength; in ME and NE craft lost the meaning science but acquired new meanings group of skilled workers, guild and vessel; ME journee meant days work, sometimes days march, later travel, journey.

560. The sources of new words are usually divided into internal and external. Internal ways of developing the vocabulary were productive in all historical periods. Word-formation and semantic changes were equally prolific in the creation of new words and new meanings; they were exceptionally productive in the periods of rapid vocabulary growth, such as the Renaissance period.

The role of external sources in the extension of the English vocabulary is very considerable, perhaps far more so than in most other languages. It is commonly acknowledged that one of the most drastic changes in the English vocabulary is the change in its etymological composition. While the OE vocabulary was almost entirely Germanic and on the whole was highly resistant to borrowing, the language of later periods absorbed foreign words by the hundred and even made use of foreign word components in word formation. As a result the proportion of Germanic words in the English language has fallen; according to modern estimates the native Germanic element constitutes from 30 to 50% of the vocabulary; the other two thirds (or half) come from foreign sources, mainly Romance.

This does not mean, however, that the native element in English is insignificant or that over half of all the words are direct borrowings. The importance of the surviving native words is borne out by the fact that they belong to the most frequent layer of words, and that native components are widely used in word-building, in word phrases and phraseological units.[67] It should also be realised that the foreign origin of a morpheme does not mean that every word containing this morpheme is a borrowing. When the loan-words were assimilated by the language which happened some time after their adoption they could yield other words through word-formation or develop new meanings on British soil; these new items are specifically English words and meanings and are, therefore, as native as the Germanic heritage. For instance, the foreign root pass (from French passer) is used in numerous composite verbs (verb-adverb combinations) like pass away, pass by, pass for, pass through, etc.; in phraseological units like pass by the name of, pass a remark, pass the ball; in derived and compound words, e.g. passer-by, passing, pass-book. All these words and phrases originated in the English language and cannot be treated as borrowings, though they contain the foreign component pass.

The influx of borrowings was directly dependent on the linguistic situation in the country, on the extent of bilingualism in the community, and on the position and role of the foreign language. The linguistic situation in ME was most favourable for strong foreign influence first Scandinavian then French. Foreign words were adopted in large numbers in the succeeding periods as well and their sources became more diverse: English freely borrowed both from classical and modern sources though at no other time the immediate effect of the foreign impact was as manifest as in ME.

Scandinavian Influence on the Vocabulary ( 561-566)

561. The historical events which led to the contacts between OE and O Scand were described in Ch. V and X. The Scandinavian invasions had far-reaching linguistic consequences which became apparent mainly in ME; the greater part of lexical borrowings from O Scand were not recorded until the 13th c.

As mentioned before, the presence of the Scandinavians in the English population is indicated by a large number of place-names in the northern and eastern areas (former Danelaʒu): most frequent are place- names with the Scandinavian components thorp village, toft piece of land, by from O Scand byr village, beck rivulet, ness cape, e.g. Troutbeck, Inverness, Woodthorp, Grimsby, Brimtoft.

The fusion of the English and of the Scandinavian settlers progressed rapidly; in many districts people became bilingual, which was an easy accomplishment since many of the commonest words in the two OG languages were very much alike.

Gradually the Scandinavian dialects were absorbed by English, leaving n profound impression on the vocabulary of the Northern English dialects.

In the beginning Scandinavian loan-words were dialectally restricted; they increased the range of language variation; later due to dialect mixture they penetrated into other parts of the language space, passed into London English and the national language. It is noteworthy that the number of Scandinavian loan-words in the Northern dialects has always been higher than in the Midlands and in the South. Probably in Early ME there were more Scandinavian words in current use than have survived today. Some words died out or were retained only in the local dialects, e.g. kirk church, daʒ dew. The total number of Scandinavian borrowings in English is estimated at about 900 words; about 700 of them belong to Standard English.

562. It is difficult to define the semantic spheres of Scandinavian borrowings: they mostly pertain to everyday life and do not differ from native words. Only the earliest loan-words deal with military and legal matters and reflect the relations of the people during the Danish raids and Danish rule. These early borrowings are Late OE barda, cnearr, sceʒp (different types of ships), cnif (NE knife), lip fleet, orrest battle. Among legal terms are Late OE laʒu, ūtlaʒu, feolaʒa, hūsbonda (NE law, outlaw, fellow, husband), and also the verb tacan (NE take).

The word law is derived from O Scand lóg which meant, that which is laid down. It was adopted as early as the 10th c. and was preserved together with its derivatives: ME outlaw, NE in-law, lawyer, ME bylaw goes back to byr town and lawe, and denotes town or local law. The word husband was originally a legal term house holder, one who owns a house; similarly fellow which stemmed from O Scand fēlagi, indicated one who lays down a fee, as a partner or shareholder. In the subsequent centuries many Scandinavian military and legal terms disappeared or were displaced by French terms.

563. Examples of everyday words of Scandinavian origin which have been preserved in present-day Standard English are given below in alphabetical order according to the part of speech. The simple character of the borrowings is well illustrated by the lists of nouns, adjectives and verbs. Nouns bag, band, birth, brink, bulk, cake, crook, dirt, egg, freckle, gap, gate, keel, kid, leg, link, loan, raft, root, score, scrap, seat, skill, skim, skirt, skull, sky, slaughter, sneer, steak, thrift, window, wing; adjectives awkward, flat, happy, ill, loose, low, meek, odd, rotten, scant, scarce, sly, tight, ugly, weak, wrong; verbs bait, bask, call, cast, clamp, crawl, cut, die, drown, gape, gasp, hit, happen, lift, nag, raise, rake, rid, scare, scatter, scowl, snub, take, thrive, thrust, want.

564. A most convincing proof of the close contacts between the two languages in everyday life and of bilingualism prevailing in many areas is the replacement of some native form-words by Scandinavian borrowings, It must be mentioned that form-words are rarely borrowed from a foreign language. The Scandinavian pronoun pegg (3rd p. pl) was first recorded in ORMULUM, a text which contains many Scandinavian loan-words (c. 1200, North-East Midland dialect). Gradually they, together with the forms them, their, themselves displaced OE hie. It is believed that the final selection of they (instead of hie) was favoured, if not caused, by the resemblance of ME descendants of several pronouns of the 3rd p.: hie, hē, and hēo, (they, he, she). It was at that ti me that OE hēo was replaced by she.

Other form-words borrowed from Scandinavian are: both, though, fro (which was used interchangeably with the native parallel from and has been preserved in the phrase to and fro).

565. Vocabulary changes due to Scandinavian influence proceeded in different ways: a Scandinavian word could enter the language as an innovation, without replacing any other lexical item; such was probably the case of law, fellow, outlaw. More often, however, the loan-word was a synonym of a native English word and their rivalry led to different results: the loan-word could eventually disappear or could be restricted to dialectal use (e.g. Late OE barda ship, lip fleet); it could take the place of the native word (e.g. they, take, call, which replaced OE hie, niman, clipian); both the borrowed and the native words could survive as synonyms with a slight difference in meaning. Cf. NE blcom (from O Scand blóm) and native blossom; ill (from O Scand illr)and native evil; sky (from O Scand sky cloud) and heaven: die and starve; bask and bathe; want and wish. In the course of semantic differentiation the meaning of one or both words became narrower and more specialised and the spheres of reference of the synonyms were divided, e.g. OE steorfan had a more general meaning die before deyen was adopted from O Scand deyia (NE die); NE starve has narrowed its meaning to die of hunger; sky and heaven have different spheres of application, the same is true of other pairs of synonyms. Sometimes the semantic difference is very slight but the survival of both synonyms is supported by their stylistic or syntactic distinctions (cf. want and wish, happy and merry, scare and frighten, skill and craft).

It is interesting to note that sometimes the Scandinavian parallel modified the meaning of the native word without being borrowed. For instance, OE drēam indicated joy, but acquired the meaning of the Scandinavian parallel, hence NE dream; OE sēman reconcile acquired the meaning befit, hence modern seem. OE plōh was a unit of measurement of land, from Scandinavian it obtained the modern meaning of plough agricultural implement.

566. Since both languages, O Scand and OE, were closely related, Scandinavian words were very much like native words. Therefore, assimilation of loan-words was easy. Both in ME and nowadays it is difficult to distinguish Scandinavian loans from native words. The only criteria that can be applied are some phonetic features of borrowed words: the consonant cluster [sk] is a frequent mark of Scandinavian loanwords, e.g. sky, skill (see the lists above); [sk] does not occur in native words, as OE [sk] had been palatalised and modified to [ʃ]: cf. ME fish, ship (from OE fisc, scip, see 403).[68] The sounds [ʃ] and [sk] are sometimes found in related words in the two languages: native shirt and the Scandinavian loan-word skirt are etymological doublets (which means that they go back to the same Germanic root but have been subjected to different phonetic and semantic changes; cf. also scatter and shatter, scream and shriek).

Other criteria of the same type are the sounds [k] and [g] before front vowels, which in native words normally became [ʧ] and [ʤ]. Cf. kid (from O Scand) and chin (native, from OE cin), girth (from O Scand) and yield (from OE ʒieldan). These criteria, however, are not always reliable. ([k] could sometimes be retained in native words before a front vowel as well, e.g. king, see 142, 403.)

The intimate relations of the languages, among other things, could result in phonetic modification of native words. Words like give, get, gift are included by some scholars in the list of Scandinavian loan-words on the basis of this criterion, but are also regarded as instances of phonetic influence upon native words; we may say that ME gyven, geten and gift were Northern variants of the words whose pronunciation was influenced by Scandinavian; nevertheless, they are native words. The same is true of the word sister, which goes back to native OE sweostor and to O Scand systir.

French Influence on the Vocabulary in Middle English ( 567-574)

567. The French language was brought to England by the Norman conquerors. The Normans remained masters of England for a sufficiently long time to leave a deep impress on the language. The Norman rulers and the immigrants, who invaded the South-Western towns after the Conquest, spoke a variety of French, known as Anglo-Norman. This variety died out about two hundred years later, having exerted a profound influence upon English. In the 13th and 14th c. English was exposed to a new wave of French influence; this time it came from Central, Parisian French, a variety of a more cultivated, literary kind.

The effect of these successive and overlapping waves was seen first and foremost in a large number of lexical borrowings in ME. At the initial stages of penetration French words were restricted to some varieties of English: the speech of the aristocracy at the kings court; the speech of the middle class, who came into contact both with the rulers and with the ruled; the speech of educated people and the population of South-Eastern towns (see Ch. XI, 285 ff.). Eventually French loanwords spread throughout the language space and became an integral of the English vocabulary. Early borrowings were mostly made in the course of oral communication; later borrowings were first used in literature in translations of French books.

The total number of French borrowings by far exceeds the number of borrowings from any other foreign language (though sometimes it is difficult to say whether the loan came from French or Latin). The greater part of French loan-words in English date from ME.

568. During the initial hundred and fifty years of the Norman rule the infiltration of French words into the English language progressed slowly. Early ME texts contain very few French words: only twenty French words are found in ORMULUM (c. 1200, North-East Midland). More words are recorded in manuscripts coming from the southern regions: 150 words in Layamons BRUT and up to 500 words in ANCRENE RIWLE (South-West Midland). On the whole, prior to the 13th c. no more than one thousand words entered the English language, whereas by 1400 their number had risen to 10,000 (75% of them are still in common use). The majority of French loan-words adopted in ME were first recorded in the texts of the 14th c. Chaucers vocabulary, which amounts to 8,000 words, contains about 4,000 words of Romance origin, i.e. French and Latin borrowings.

Among the earliest borrowings are Early ME prisun (NE prison). Early ME castel (NE castle), Early ME werre (NE war). Late OE prӯto, prut (NE pride, proud).

569. The French borrowings of the ME period are usually described according to semantic spheres.

To this day nearly all the words relating to the government and administration of the country are French by origin: assembly, authority, chancellor, council, counsel, country, court, crown, exchequer, govern, government, nation, office, parliament, people, power, realm, sovereign and many others. Close to this group are words pertaining to the feudal system and words indicating titles and ranks of the nobility: baron, count, countess, duchess, duke, feudal, liege, manor, marquis, noble, peer, prince, viscount. It is notable that very few words of these semantic groups are native, e.g. lord, lady, king, queen, earl, knight. (OE cniht originally meant boy, servant, OE earl man, warrior.) These borrowings show that the Normans possessed a far more elaborate administrative system and a more complex scale of ranks.

The host of military terms adopted in ME are a natural consequence of the fact that military matters were managed by the Normans and that their organisation of the army and military service was new to the English. The examples are: aid, armour, arms, army, banner, battle (from O Fr and ME battaille), captain (from earlier cheftain), company, dart, defeat, dragoon, ensign, escape, force, lance, lieutenant, navy, regimentt, sergeant, siege, soldier, troops, vessel, victory and many others. It is interesting that some of the loan-words from French were originally borrowed from Germanic languages at an earlier stage of history, e.g. ME werre (from O Fr werre, Mod Fr guerre) entered O Fr, or rather its parent-language, the spoken Latin of Gaul, at the time of the first Franconian kingdoms. (Other words with similar histories are: guard from O Fr guards, cf. O Scand vordhr; garden from O Fr garden, jardin, cf. OHG garto).

A still greater number of words belong to the domain of law and jurisdiction, which were certainly under the control of the Normans. For several hundred years court procedure was conducted entirely in French, so that to this day native English words in this sphere are rare. Many of the words first adopted as juridical terms belong now to the common everyday vocabulary: acquit, accuse, attorney, case, cause, condemn, court, crime, damage, defendant, false, felony, guilt, heir, injury, interest, judge, jury, just, justice, marry, marriage, money, penalty, plaintiff, plead, poor, poverty, properly, prove, rent, robber, session, traitor.

A targe number of French words pertain to the Church and religion, for in the 12th and 13th c. all the important posts in the Church were occupied by the Norman clergy: abbey, altar, archangel, Bible, baptism, cell, chapel, chaplain, charily, chaste, clergy, divine, grace, honour, glory, lesson, miracle, nativity, paradise, parish, passion, pray, preach, procession, religion, rule, sacrifice, saint, save, sermon, tempt, vice, virgin, virtue.

570. Besides these spheres which reflect the dominant position of the Normans in Britain as conquerors and rulers, there are many others which reveal the influence of the Norman way of life on the English.

From the loan-words referring to house, furniture and architecture we see that the Normans introduced many innovations, which became known to the English together with their French names: arch, castle, cellar, chimney, column, couch, curtain, cushion, lamp, mansion, palace, pillar, porch, table, wardrobe. Some words are connected with art: art, beauty, colour, design, figure, image, ornament, paint. Another group includes names of garments: apparel, boot, coat, collar, costume, dress, fur. garment, gown, jewel, robe.

Many French loan-words belong to the domain of entertainment, which is natural enough, for the Norman nobles amused themselves with various pastimes. The borrowed chase competed with its native synonym hunt, which has survived as well; other examples are: cards, dance, dice, leisure, partner, pleasure, sport, tournament, trump. Some of these words can be described as relating to knighthood, such as adventure (ME aventure), array, chivalry, contest, courteous, honour, romance.

We can also single out words relating to different aspects of the life of the upper classes and of the town life: forms of address sir, madam, and also mister, mistress (as well as master and servant); names of some meals dinner, supper and dishes. It was first noticed by J. Wallis (1653) that the names of meals are often French, whereas the names of the animals from whose meat they are cooked are English. Cf. beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, brawn, venison (French loan-words) and native English ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, bear, deer. The prevalence of French terms in cooking, as well as in clothes, can be accounted for by the fact that the French led the fashion in both these spheres, and that French professional cooks and tailors had settled in Britain. It is notable that town trades bore French names while simple country occupations retained their native names: cf. butcher, carpenter, draper, grocer, painter, tailor coming from French and the native miller, shepherd, shoemaker, smith.

Finally, many French loan-words cannot be referred to a definite semantic sphere and can only be listed as miscellaneous, e.g.: advice, air, allow, anxious, boil, carry, change, close, cover, cry, deceive, double, eager, enjoy, enter, envy, excuse, face, firm, flower, honest, hour, joy, large, letter, manner, move, necessary, nice, noise, obey, occupy, pale, pass, please, previous, push, river, remember, satisfy, search, scissors, single, sudden, sure, travel, treasure, very, use.

571. French influence led to different kinds of changes in the vocabulary. Firstly, there were many innovations, i.e. names of new objects and concepts, which enlarged the vocabulary by adding new items. Secondly, there were numerous replacements of native words by French equivalents, which resulted in a shift in the ratio of Germanic and Romance roots in the language, e.g. the loan-words very, river, peace, easy displaced the native OE swipe, ēa, frip, ēape. The adoption of a word synonymous with a native word did not necessarily lead to replacement. Most frequently the co-existence of a borrowed and native synonym ended in their differentiation, they were both retained as they differed in style, dialect, shades of meaning or combinability. This third kind of influence enriched the English vocabulary even more than the adoption of pure innovations. The influx of French words as well as the later borrowing of Latin words is one of the main historical reasons for the abundance of synonyms in Mod E. The difference between the native and borrowed words often lies in their stylistic connotations: French loan-words, particularly those which were adopted in Late ME (and later) preserve a more bookish, literary character; hence such pairs of words as French commence native begin, conceal hide, prevent hinder, search look for, odour smell, desire wish.

572. The impact of French upon the English vocabulary was not limited to the borrowing of words or roots. The vocabulary was also enriched by the adoption of French affixes. Derivational affixes could not be borrowed as such; they entered the language in scores of loanwords, were unconsciously or consciously separated by the speakers and used in derivation. They could become productive in English only after the loan-words with those affixes were completely assimilated by the language; that is why the use of borrowed French affixes dates largely from the Early NE period (see 598, 609 ff.)

573. Assimilation of French words by the speakers of English was a more difficult process than assimilation of Scandinavian words. The French language belonged to a different linguistic group and had very little in common with English.

Anglo-Norman words must have been very hard to pronounce as they contained many sounds which did not exist in English, such as nasalised vowels, the sound [y] and soft, palatalised consonants. Word accentuation in O Fr was foreign to English, a language of the Germanic group: in French the main stress fell on the ultimate or penultimate syllable of the word. Nevertheless, phonetic assimilation of borrowed words progressed quickly. The foreign features were lost and the words were adapted to the norms of English pronunciation. French sounds were replaced by resembling English sounds. Thus French [y] was reflected in English as [u] or [ju], e.g. O Fr juge, ME juge, NE judge, O Fr vertu, ME vertu, NE virtue. Palatalised [l] and [n] were shown as ordinary [l] and [n] or as sequences [il, in], cf. e.g. O Fr faillir, which contained [l], and ME fallen, NE fail; O Fr compagnie ME companye, NE company. The nasalised vowels lost their nasal character; e.g. O Fr chambre, ME chaumbre, NE chamber, O Fr changier, ME chaungen, changen [a:]. NE change.

(Sometimes the difference between the French and the English word is accounted for not only by assimilation but also by the peculiarities of the Anglo-Norman variety of French: e.g. ME variants of changen contained the diphthong [au], chaungen (also straunge, comaunden) like the corresponding Anglo-Norman word; the difference in the consonants of Fr changer and NE change [ʃ] and [ʧ] reflects the dialectal difference between Anglo-Norman and Parisian French).

The stress in French loan-words was shifted in conformity with the English rules of word accentuation, due to the rhythmic or recessive tendency (see 363). This was probably a slow process, since in Chaucers time (14th c.) we still find many words accented in the French way, like ME nature [na'tju:rə], condicioun [ˏkəndiˊsiu:n]. By the 17th c. they sounded [ˊnɛ:ʧə] and [kənˊdiʃn].

The degree of phonetic assimilation of foreign words is further attested by their participation in the sound changes of English. ME borrowings from French underwent the same Early NE phonetic changes as native words, and as words borrowed in the preceding periods, e.g. long accented vowels were subjected to the Great Vowel Shift, final unstressed vowels were reduced and dropped, e.g. ME robe [ˊrɔ:bə] > NE robe: ME changen ['ʧa:nʤən] > NE change.

Grammatical assimilation of borrowed words evidently did not give much trouble to the speakers. They freely added English grammatical endings to the stems of the borrowed words and used them in all grammatical forms like native words: e.g. countable nouns took the universal ending -(e)s in the pl, all the verbs (except strive) became weak and took the suffix -d- to form the Past and Part. II.

A most important aspect of assimilation was the participation of borrowed words and their components in word formation. As early as ME some French roots came to be combined with English affixes and other roots, e.g. Late ME verrai-ly, un-fruit-ful, gentil-man, gentil- woman (NE very, unfruitful, gentleman, gentlewoman). These words are hybrids as their component parts come from different languages. French derivational affixes began to be used in word-building some time later.

574. Since the French loan-words of the ME period were completely assimilated, it is not easy to identify a French borrowing and to distinguish it from native words or borrowings from other languages. Some French loans have retained their bookish character, hut this stylistic connotation is even more typical of later borrowings from classical languages (cf. e.g. sorrow, sorry native, grief Fr, affliction L). Many French words are polysyllabic, but so are many native words and borrowings from other languages. More reliable criteria are French suffixes and prefixes frequently occurring in borrowed words: -ment, -ty, -ion, re-, de- and others (see 616); and yet, since they came to be employed as derivational means in English and yielded new specifically English words, they cannot serve as absolutely reliable marks of French words.

Borrowings from Classical Languages, with Special Reference to the Age of the Renaissance ( 575-583)

575. The Latin language continued to be used in England ail through the OE and ME periods in religious rituals, in legal documents, and in texts of a scientific and phylosophical character. After the Norman Conquest it was partly replaced by official Anglo-Norman. The main spheres of the Latin language were the Church, the law courts and academic activities.

Latin words were borrowed in all historical periods. In ME they were certainly less numerous than borrowings from French; their proportion was high only in religious texts translated from Latin. John Wyclif (late 14th c.), one of the most prolific borrowers from classical languages, introduced about a thousand Latin words in his translation of the Bible.

576. The extraordinary surge of interest in the classics in the age of the Renaissance opened the gates to a new wave of borrowings from Latin and to a lesser extent from Greek (some Greek borrowings were adopted from Latin in a Latinised form, others came directly from Greek). In the 16th and 17th c. Latin was the main language of philosophy and science, its use in the sphere of religion became more restricted after the Reformation and the publication of the English versions of the Bible (see 311, 320).

Many classical borrowings came into Early NE through French due to continuous contacts with France, for the French language had adopted many loan-words from classical languages at the time of the Renaissance. Sometimes the immediate source of the loan-word cannot be determined. Thus the words solid, position, consolation, and many others, judging by their form, could be adopted either directly from Latin or from French, having entered the French language some time before; such borrowings are often referred to as Franco-Latin.[69] They should not be confused with loan-words from O Fr, which usually go back to Latin roots, for French is one of the descendants of Latin; words borrowed from O Fr differ from their Latin prototypes as they have been subjected to many changes in French.

Some loan-words from O Fr were re-shaped by the erudites of the age of Renaissance according to their Latin prototypes though their forms were historically correct, since they were adopted from O Fr. This Latinisation in the 15th-16th c. produced words like describe in place of Chaucers decrive(n), equal instead of egal, language instead of langage, debt, doubt and adventure instead of the earlier detie, doute, aventure. Some corrections even affected the pronunciation: language, adventure.

577. Adoption of classical words may have been facilitated by the large number of French loan-words in the English language of the 15th and 16th c. This is how O. Jespersen accounts for extensive borrowing of Latin words:

The great historical event, without which this influence would never have assumed such gigantic dimensions was the revival of learning. Through Italy and France the Renaissance came to be felt in England as early as the 14th c., and since then the invasion of classical terms has never stopped, although the multitude of new words introduced was greater, perhaps, in the 14th, the 16th, the 19th than in the intervening centuries. The same influence is conspicuous in all European languages, but in English it has been stronger than in any other language, French perhaps excepted. This fact cannot, I think, be principally due to any greater zeal for classical learning on the part of the English than of other nations. The reason seems rather to be that the natural power of resistance possessed by a Germanic tongue against these alien intruders had been already broken in the case of the English language by the wholesale importation of French words. They paved the way for the Latin words which resembled them in so many respects, and they had already created in English minds that predelection for foreign words which made them shrink from consciously coining new words out of the native material. If French words were more distingues than English ones, Latin words were still more so, for did not the French themselves go to Latin to enrich their own vocabulary?[70]

One of the reasons for the influx of Latin words at the age of the Renaissance was that many of the new ideas encountered in classical works were not susceptible to precise translation therefore scholars often preferred to retain the Latin terms. (Yet it does not mean, as O. Jespersen suggests, that word-formation was at a standstill; at the time of great vocabulary extension all sources of replenishing the vocabulary were used, internal sources in particular.)

578. In considering classical borrowings a distinction must be made between genuine Latin and Greek words, which were used in ancient times with the same (or roughly the same) meaning, and those which were based on Latin and Greek roots but were made up as new terms in modern times.

Borrowings which were adopted in their original form (and meaning) or with slight adaptation, such as the dropping or change of the ending largely date from the 16th c. They mostly indicate abstract concepts and belong to the vocabulary of educated people or even erudites.

In some cases it has been possible to specify the date of the borrowings and the authors who used them initially. Numerous Latin and Greek words were first used by Thomas More (early 16th c.), who wrote in Latin and in English; among his innovations were anticipate, contradictory, exact, exaggerate, explain, fact, monopoly, necessitate, pretext. Many classical borrowings first appeared in Shakespeares works: accommodation, apostrophe, dislocate, misanthrope, reliance, submerge.

The following list includes loan-words of the 16th and early 17th c. which still circulate today (unless indicated in brackets, the words are of Latin origin): anonymous (Gr), aspiration, census, contempt, criterion (Gr), explicit, genius, gesture, history, index, include, individual, inferior, interrupt, item, major, minor, ostracise (Gr), popular, reject, submit, suppress. As the borrowings extended to other spheres of usage they could lose their learned character, e.g. add, animal, correct, discuss, obstinate, necessary, picture, quiet, student, suggest.

Some borrowings have a more specialised meaning and belong to scientific terminology (for the most part, they go back to Greek prototypes and may have been taken either from Greek or from Latin and French in a Latinised form), e.g. acid, analysis, antenna, apparatus, appendix, atom, axis, complex, curriculum, diagnosis, energy, formula, fungus, inertia, maximum, minimum, nucleus, radius, species, terminus, ultimatum. A distinct semantic group of Greek loan-words pertains to theatre, literature and rhetoric: anapest, comedy, climax, critic, dialogue, drama, elegy, epilogue, episode, metaphore, prologue, rhythm, scene, theatre. Like all borrowings, classical loan-words could undergo a shift of meaning upon entering the English language or some time later. Thus the original meaning of L musculus (NE muscle) was little mouse, cosmetic came from Greek kosmos universe, order (hence adornment and was also adopted in the original meaning (NE cosmos); atom meant something indivisible and changed its meaning due to the new discoveries in physics; climax meant a ladder in Greek.

579. In addition to true borrowings, classical languages have provided a supply of roots in the creation of new words. Words like protestant, inertia, are based on classical roots but were created in modern times. Thomas Elyot (16th c.) introduced the Greek word democracy, first used the word education in the modern sense, and created the word encyclopaedia from Greek component parts.

Words of this type were not necessarily created in England; they could be borrowed from contemporary languages but, nevertheless, they constitute part of the classical element in the English vocabulary. Nowadays they form the basis of international terminology, which is the chief element that modern languages hold in common.

The vast body of international terms continued to grow in the 18th 19th c. A new impetus for their creation was given by the great technical progress of the 20th c., which is reflected in hundreds of newly coined terms or Latin and Greek words applied in new meanings, e.g. allergy, antibiotic, cyclotron, hormones, orthopedic, protein, stratosphere all based on Greek roots; examples of new application of Latin terms are facsimile, introvert, quantum, radioactive, relativity; some terms are Greco-Latin hybrids, as they combine Latin and Greek roots: socio-logy, tele-vision (Cf. the use of tele in numerous compounds denoting instruments or branches of science concerned with transmitting information at a distance: telegraph, telephone, telepathy, telescope, telegramme.)

580. In addition to words and roots, Latin and Greek have supplied English (as well as other modern languages) with a profusion of derivational affixes which have become productive in the English language of the recent centuries. These suffixes can be seen in the following classical loan-words: humanism (-ism from the Gr -ismos, L -ismus); protagonist (from the Gr -istes, L -ista); fraternize (from the Gr -izein, L -izare). The Greek prefixes anti-, di-, neo-, the Latin (and French) prefixes de-, ex-, re- and others occur in numerous modern words combined with other components of diverse origin (see below).

581. One of the effects of the classical borrowings on the English language was the further increase of the number of synonyms. Replacement of native words by classical loan-words is of rare occurrence; a normal result of the adoption of Latin words (in case they were not innovations proper) was an addition of another synonym to the existing set. The following examples illustrate three sources of synonyms (or near-synonyms) and their semantic and stylistic differences;

Native English French Latin
break sever separate
reckon count compute
size calibre magnitude
kingly royal regal

It is evident that Latin and French words are more bookish than native, Latin words being sometimes more elevated than French ones.

Some French and Latin loan-words in the English vocabulary go back to one and the same Latin root, i.e. they are etymological doublets. They differ in sound, form and in meaning, as the borrowings from O Fr have undergone many changes both in the history of the French langua


  1. Analyze the meanings of the italicized words. Identify the result of the changes of the connotational aspect of lexical meaning in the given words.
  2. Changes in Matter
  4. Changes of Short Vowels in Early New English
  5. Changes of Stressed Vowels in Early Old English
  6. Changes of Unstressed Vowels in Early Old English
  7. Consonant Changes in Pre-Wrilten Periods
  8. Crime. Causes of Crime
  9. Decay of Declensions and Grammatical Categories
  10. Development of Nominal Grammatical Categories
  11. Development of Verbal Grammatical Categories


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Compound and Complex Sentences | APPENDIX

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