Friday, April 20, 2012

Fun Friday Facts #35: History of English Edition

Happy Friday everyone! This has been one of the best writing weeks I've had in a long time, and to celebrate, let's take a look at the language that makes it all possible: English!

I'm going to have trouble finding pictures for this one.

Here's one that I can't wait to lord over my British friends as soon as I see them again:

1) Starting with the English colonization of North America in about 1600, a distinct dialect of American English began to emerge. If you're American and you know any British people at all, you'll be familiar with that freaking annoying habit they have of belittling you for your linguistic “mistakes.”

In fact, many of the “Americanisms” that the British like to pretend they don't understand are actually older British expressions that solidified when they reached the American colonies. These include the use of “loan” as a verb, the use of “trash” instead of “rubbish,” and the use of “fall” instead of autumn.

2) While we're talking about the British, they also keep bothering me about the spelling/pronunciation of the American word “aluminum.” As in, how in God's name could we make such an obvious mistake?

Sir Humphrey Davies, the English chemist, discovered aluminum in 1807. It forms a base of the chemical compound alum, so Davies named it “aluminum.” Later, in 1812, Davies changed the name to “aluminium,” because his classically-educated colleagues liked the sound of it better.

That makes perfect sense.

Did you get that, Britain? The American spelling is the older, and, therefore, more correct spelling.

3) The ampersand was once the 27th letter of the English alphabet. The character dates back almost 2,000years, and first appeared in Roman cursive. Those old Romans used to link the E and the T together when they wrote out the Latin word “et,” which meant “and.”

Like this.

This linking together of letters to form commonly recognized symbols is known as a “ligature,” and it was common in old Roman cursive. As the centuries passed, other common ligatures disappeared from Latin cursive and the ampersand began to evolve in appearance, until it became the critter we know and love today.

Evolution: Not a lie. ~ Alatius

From at least 1111 AD, the ampersand was included as a letter in the English alphabet. The word “ampersand” came to being in the 1800s, when school children reciting the alphabet finished with the phrase “and per se and,” where “per se” means “by itself” or “singularly.” This phrase was gradually squished together and mispronounced because that's what schoolchildren do.

Tee hee.

4) English emerged in the 5th century AD as tribes from what are today Germany and Denmark invaded the south and east of England and pushed the native Celts into Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Their dialects blended together to form “Englisc,” or Old English. Old English picked up Latin words already in use by the natives, including “candle,” “belt,” “wall,” and “wine.” With the introduction of Christianity late in the 6th century AD, even more Latin words joined Old English. These were mostly religious words like “bishop,” “eucharist” and “presbyter.” When the Norse invaded in the late 9th century AD, they brought words like “window,” “skin,” “egg” and “husband.” After William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, Old French became the language of court and government, Latin was the most widely used written language, and English became the vulgar tongue of the lower classes. The lower classes cooked for the upper classes, which is why the words for livestock and game animals – swine, sheep, ox, cow, deer, calf – are so different from the words for their meats – pork, mutton, beef, venison, and veal.

<Obligatory picture with funny caption.>

5) People who learn English as a second language often find it pretty confusing, in part because it's not phonetic and has a lot of unusual vowel sounds. This is due to what linguists refer to as the Great Vowel Shift, which took place mostly between 1350 and 1500 AD. Many vowel sounds disappeared from the language and those that remained became shorter and began to be pronounced higher in the mouth. For instance, before the vowel shift, “wipe” would have been pronounced more like “weep,” “house” more like “whose,” and “boot,” more like “boat.” By the end of this lingual shift, the language had changed enough to be mostly incomprehensible to speakers of earlier Middle English.

Historians don't know why the language would have evolved so drastically over such a short period of time, but they suspect it may have occurred as a result of the Black Death.

Oh Black Death, you so crayzee.

The Black Death caused most of the people in northern England to move south, stirring up the the island's dialects. A revision of standard pronunciations would have been necessary, just for the sake of clarity. The decimated aristocracy were forced to begin marrying beneath themselves, which created a new level of social mobility in a culture where the upper and lower classes spoke two different languages. English spellings were first recorded and standardized in the middle of the vowel shift, which accounts for all our bizarre, non-phonetic spellings.

And now you know.