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Teaching the History of the English Language: An Interview

By Chris C. Palmer and Colette Moore

The study of the history of the English language (HEL) reaches back to the fifth century and around the globe. Instructors face the challenges of teaching this vast subject in one semester and of engaging students with unfamiliar material and techniques. The MLA’s forthcoming book Teaching the History of the English Language, edited by Colette Moore and Chris C. Palmer, guides instructors in designing an HEL course and helping students question notions of linguistic correctness. We asked Moore and Palmer to talk about the importance of studying the history of the English language today.

MLA: Why is it important to study the history of the English language (HEL) today?

CCP and CM: HEL offers several important lessons for writers and speakers. First, language continually changes to reflect a changing world. Second, every era has had multiple Englishes in use. Third, Standard English did not always exist, and it was constructed over time. Standards are always subject to change as cultural preferences change. Even the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook reflects changes in language use since the first version was released in 1977.

These facts help explain why we have multiple English dialects today and even multiple standards for written English—for example, the –er in words like center, a pattern championed by Noah Webster in the early 1800s to distinguish American spelling from the British –re in centre. The study of HEL can thus upend common misconceptions—for example, the idea that nonstandard dialects are simply deviations from an ideal standard that’s always been around. It can also encourage writers and speakers to recognize the vitality and legitimacy of the English they use at home, school, or work.

MLA: English is always changing. How does knowing the history of the language help us better understand those changes?

CCP and CM: Let’s consider, for example, the recent rise of the gender nonbinary (i.e., not solely male or female) use of they as a third-person singular pronoun. Looking to linguistic history provides valuable perspectives that inform current debates about the use of they.

For English speakers who might regard the third person pronouns he and she as fixed—as the only options for singular human referents—the history of English shows that the pronoun paradigm has undergone numerous changes already. While he and she are both old forms, they have different histories: he emerged from the earliest stages of English, while she was not used until the Middle English period. (The earliest speakers used other feminine pronouns, such as hēo and hīe.) Moreover, in the Early Modern English period, the singular second-person pronouns thou and thee were replaced by the plural pronoun you, a change still reflected in Standard English. You is both a singular and plural ungendered pronoun; they is now sometimes being treated the same way. Singular they referring to a person of unspecified gender also has a long history, going back to Middle English. So speakers have been using they as a singular and plural pronoun for many centuries.  

For English speakers who wonder why the usage of singular, nonbinary they hasn’t universally taken hold yet, the history of English pronouns also shows that usage changes do not typically occur overnight. Historical linguists have found that nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are much more open to innovation and change than conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns. The shift from thou and thee to you developed in some registers and some regional dialects before others, and use of thou decreased over a couple of centuries. Since use of they to refer to a singular, nonbinary identity is a relatively recent change in the language, it may take some time before it extends widely across registers and dialects.

MLA: What are some interesting examples of how grammar and spelling have changed over time?

CCP and CM: For native speakers of English, studying languages, such as Spanish, with grammatical gender can feel puzzling; it can seem counterintuitive to use masculine or feminine pronouns to refer to inanimate objects. But English used to have grammatical gender: the Old English word for cheese was masculine, for example, and the Old English word for butter was feminine. Students are always startled to learn that English has shifted in this regard.

Further, students who have grown up in a culture of spelling bees and spelling tests are often surprised to learn that standardized spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon. The eccentric spelling of some English words often reflects changes in pronunciation: preserving in written form the vestiges of sounds that used to be pronounced, like the k in knight or the e in name.

MLA: Is there anything surprising from the past that carries forward into present-day English?

CCP and CM: Our students are often pleasantly surprised to find out just how much their own language has been influenced by historical events affecting English speakers from long ago. A highlight in our HEL classes involves discussions of the consequences of the Norman Conquest, such as the “Frenchification” of English vocabulary, as English-speaking peasants borrowed words from the French-speaking nobility in medieval England (and as those nobles increasingly shifted to English usage over time). These events are perhaps most visible today in our words for some animals and their meats: cow versus beef, deer versus venison, sheep versus mutton. The first of each pair is native to English, while the second is borrowed from French. The native and borrowed histories of these words reflect differences in social class from the period: the English peasants were often working in the farms, pastures, or forests, so their words for the animals in nonconsumable form were maintained. In contrast, the nobles were encountering the animals in a culinary form, so their words for the meats were taken up into the language.

These sorts of distinctions in our vocabulary go beyond animal words, of course. One of our contributors, Robert Fulk, illustrates in his chapter how much we still differentiate formal from less formal writing by shifting between words borrowed from French and words native to English. Compare the sentence “Those who come early can help with the drinks” with the more formal (and Frenchified) version: “Those arriving in advance will be permitted to assist in regard to the beverages.” This knowledge is the basis for an important writing tip we often tell our students: one way to make writing sound more formal is to replace words native to English with (usually polysyllabic) words borrowed from French or Latin; one way to make writing more conversational is to replace words from French or Latin with words native to English. Of course, you’ll need a good dictionary to put this tip into practice effectively!

Found this interview interesting? Buy the book to learn more about HEL and how to teach it!

Published 23 April 2019

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