English: The Lost Years

In the year 1005, the English Language had undergone several major variations. Heavily dependent on Latin - the scribe would be responsible for writing down whatever records need be kept. The common people spoke an entirely different language than that in which records and written journals of their transactions.

The first standard of any language, is its spelling. Without it, words cannot be accurately transcribed. However, this is a modern notion. In the year 1005, and in the intervening years between 1005 up until 1500 , spelling was fluid. The language of the common people - that found its way into writing - was largely a transciption of sounds and accents. They transcribed language phonetically - applying the representation that they felt best approximated the sound that they heard. As accents differed, so did the representation. The concept of a standardized spelling was alien - there was no right, or wrong way - to spell.

In actual speech, we have something called Feedback. We also design it into directed dialogue as well. If we don't understand something, we can interrupt the speaker .."What? What did you say?" ... But not written language. And so we have to rely on standards. Spelling, Grammar, and Context. Spelling is the first and easiest way to apply any standard to any language - if you spell incorrectly, you will be considered a mark of laziness, stupidity, or carelessness. Since I live in Georgia, I get two of them for free. I have actually seen a Federal Bureau of Land Management Sign with a spelling error in it.

Written language doesn't have feedback, so we need standards. For English, standardization started out somewhere around 1005 A.D. Why did it take almost six hundred years before a standard spelling emerged? What happened for more than 600 years? These are called. The Lost Years..

For the first few hundred years, blame the French. Why? Because its fun to blame the French. They get really bent out of shape about it. I just had some Chili Cheese Freedom fries for lunch, and I'm writing on my lunch break. Also, this is my blog, so I'm going to start off by blaming the French. In the years of the Norman conquest - in which French scribes really didn't care what sort of conventions were being applied around them. Being French, they shrugged off any vernacular representation. I can imagine that it might not have been a bad thing to have spent a few hundred years in the company of the French - they're really pretty fun to be around - and the time passed quickly. However, by the end of the Norman Conquest and the 100 years war, England probably had enough. It was too late for certain words. The word qwayne had become the word queen.

The French, during their sunny vacation in England - changed alot of things. And so for a while, there were three languages. Latin - the language of the priests and scribes, French - the language of the royal scribes and the court , and the language of the common people .. otherwise known as "English". Menage a trois is never really as easy as it looks - there were hard feelings. Those who spoke English decided there was no way they were going to speak French and as soon as the French left, things were set back to normal. The Queen, of course, had been changed by the experience.

Around 1005, you would inflect the word to give someone a clue as to what kind of grammatical expression you were trying to write. This is important. I can use periods, commas : sometimes even a colon; semicolons, more commas and maybe even an exclamation mark!

The words themselves in old English were inflected as part of the grammar. Instead of sequencing the words, the endings were changed. Shakespeare, even as far forward as 1600, was still doing this. For example, he worked alot with the contrast between thou and you , and the associated inflection thou knowest .

So the first of a set of two lost eras comes to a close - coming about largely due to the fact that the pronunciations of words changed, inflections changed. The spelling adapted to allow these changes to be recorded. So, four hundred years. It's a long time, but then again, we spent it with the French.

In 1550, there was a Renaissance. People were interested in where words came from. Working mostly from latin, they went back and tried to trace the spellings of words from their origin. In so doing, they actually added letters to the spellings of words. For example, the word iland , was traced back to its 'source', and the person who did the tracing - wishing to reconcile it with the latin word for island 'insula'... added an 's' to the word, giving us island.

This is basically, mad science at play in the 16th century. Where the 'etymologies' settled down - largely came back to a rapidly developing standard of 'one letter, one sound' and simple application of the KISS rule. For example, the word 'hadde' which means 'had'.. pretty much disappeared on its own, to be replaced by the simpler one - largely because typesetting had taken hold and books were being printed. The typesetters were indisposed to wasting ink and spending too much time putting together long words when they could put together shorter ones. Entropy deals the death blow to the last of the lost years of English.

By 1700, most of the spelling glitches had been worked out and English actually ended up being relatively standardized. There were some pretty strange things that happened - for example, there was this thing that happened in the early 1700's, where people got off on capitalizing the first letters of all nouns. But this was one of the practices that ended up being vulnerable to assassination by those who could teach the language and standardize it - and there were places in society now where people could actually find work, standardizing the language. This was a good example of a rule that showed up out of usage, and was killed off by people whose job it was - to standardize language.

By 1770, and with the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary - society at large had embraced the concept that there was such a thing as "correct" spelling. Just a hundred years before, it was perfectly acceptable to spell your own name any of five or six different ways at any given time, and nobody seemed to mind. With Noah Webster coming along right at about this time, the lost years had come to an end.

Nothing can be more ridiculous than a servile imitation of the manners, the language, and the vices of foreigners.

A difference between the English orthography and the American .. is an object of vast political consequence.

In August 2005, an entire week was given over to a series of TV shows on accent, tone, rhythm and prosody. A celebration of regional dialect, and accents. It was called Voices Week and it was to be an audio Snapshot of Great Britain. A sort of "Day in the Life" , for language buffs.

Language was people. You filmed them. You got to watch the dialect change from grandparents, to grandchildren. People held strong, and positive attitudes regarding how they spoke - and most often it was inside their own families that the accents tended to color themselves.

New patterns of speech are arising as a result of the institution of the Internet. Only very rarely, are such sources as the O.E.D capable of actually tracing the origin of a word . That's their dirty secret. Our dirty secret is that we know where the words are changing - and what new elements of speech are being introduced... things like emoticon, hyperlink, embedded image and media. We don't yet have a way of coherently describing them, but we will one day. There are very good people at work on things like this. When and not if, a handbook for the usage and grammar of embedded media in documents - finally shows up, there will be a collective sigh of relief, and then someone. Somewhere. is going to say:


And the third era of the lost years of English will draw to a close, when we realize that Hyperlinking - is an element of grammar. Embedded media - takes objective forms - and the capability now exists within our language to express, communicate and use as a clarifying force - our human prosody. The undeniable move towards text message as an intermediary form of communication stands to this fact. We can feel a give and take in a series of text messages that gain color. And if we do not have a mechanism for simultaneous feedback, we've got comment systems. Enjoy! Let me know what you think? Am I chasing parked cars, here?