Development of English

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Until the eighteenth century the uniformity was the result of social pressure rather than of educational theory. Early English grammars ( the first appeared in 1586 ) had been written either to help foreigners learn English or to prepare English students for study of Latin grammar. On the whole these books neither had nor were intended to have any influence on the use of English by native speakers. It was not until about 1750 that there was any general attempt to teach Englishmen systematically how to use their own language.

It is too bad that this attempt was not postponed for a few more generations. Since the really scientific study of various languages had not yet begun, the eighteenth century grammarians had to base their work on a set of theories that we now know are definitely wrong. For one thing, they thought that grammar had an absolute existence, and must therefore be the same in all languages. Since they believed that this grammar was well preserved in Latin and badly frayed in English, they often tried to reform a natural English expressions on a Latin model.

For another thing, they thought that the simplifying of inflections, which had been going on for centuries, was decay instead of progress. They could not do anything about the ones that had already completely disappeared, but they did make a deliberate and fairy successful effort to preserve those that were just disappearing. We would not have so many irregular verbs today if they had just let nature take its course.

Perhaps the most dangerous of their ideas was that they could keep the language from ever changing any more. They argued that Latin had remained unchanged for centuries, and they saw no reasons why English should not do the same. They failed to realize that the only reason classical Latin had remained unchanged was that the men who had written it had been dead for a long time. There were still scholars – there are a few even today – who could imitate classical Latin. But as a natural language for the people, Latin had developed, in different areas, into Italian, French, Spanish, and so forth. All of these languages, as well as English, are still changing, and we have every reason to believe that they will continue to change as long as they are used.

If these theories had merely been the bad guesses of a few scholars, they would not have done much harm. But they became the guiding principles in most scoolroom instruction just at the time when education was becoming general, and when the study of the English language was beginning to be recognized as an end in itself and not merely as a preliminary step to the study of Latin. As a result, during the two hundred years in which English has been seriously taught in our schools, it has been taught almost entirely on a set of theories which can now be proved unsatisfactory, so that a great part of the effort has been wasted.

Since most students find it hard enough to learn English grammar without making comparisons with other languages, we need not go into a detailed explanation of why the eighteenth-century theories were wrong. But the basic structural difference is easily grasped. Latin is a synthetic language. That is, it is highly inflected, and the relations between words are shown primarily by their endings. Old English was also synthetic, but modern English has become an analytical language.

Most of the endings have dropped off, and even those that remain are much less important than they used to be, since the relations between words are now shown largely by word-order and function words, such as connectives and auxiliary verbs. It is now rather generally held that the shift from a synthetic to an analytical structure is an improvement, but most eighteenth-century grammarians considered it a calamity

and tried to stop it.

One effect of this misdirected effort has been to interfere with the natural development of the language. By 1750 most of the Old English irregular verbs either had dropped out of use or had become regular: help, holp had become help ,helped; wash, wesh had become wash, washed, etc. A number of others were in the process of making the same change: blow, blew to blow, blowed; throw, threw to throw, throwed; etc. We should probably still have some irregular verbs even if eighteenth-century grammarians had not deliberately resisted this development, but there would certainly not be so many. Most of us probably have a feeling that such forms as blowed and throwed are intrinsically wrong; but our acceptance of helped and washed as correct shows that this is purely a matter of habit.

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