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Erosion or development?

January 28, 2008

Hello again,

One of the problems with observing current develops in the English language is that it is difficult to know what long-term effects the changes will have. Modern English is virtually a different language from Old English but the ...

...metamorphosis was an incremental process. Of course special circumstances following the Norman Invasion accelerated the change, as English lost its status for a few hundred years and was not used nearly so much in the written form. This meant that as English re-emerged and became a serious medium for the written word, those using it had to record what that heard.

Today’s use of language is infinitely more complex. In some ways the written word has lost it power. That is not say that people do not write but they write most communications today at great speed: emails and text messages have therefore developed codes that make it easy to send fast communications. At the same the time, audio-visual material is very prevalent so that the spoken language is much more widely available. A radio or television broadcast, or a film, can be listened to by millions of people simultaneously.

Although Old English was a synthetic language with inflected forms that showed the relationships of words within a sentence, Modern English is highly analytic and uses word order and prepositions to show such relationships. This process of losing inflections is continuing. The –er ending for comparative adjectives seems to be dying ou. Last week I heard: “it’s more calm in Baghdad”, “she’s more happy in her new role”. But at least that structure has a logic to it. This is not true of the use of “of” as a substitute for the auxiliary verb “have”. This is a development that has infiltrated writing from the spoken language, as the contracted form “’ve” sounds like “of” and since fewer people are taught grammar, people write what they hear. To my chagrin I recently found an English teacher’s note on a forum that contained the construction: I would of done…”.

If we make a comparison with the spread of Latin, we have the example of Vulgar Latin gradually becoming a whole range of Romance languages that are today quite distinct from each other. With so many varieties of English already in existence, I wonder whether the changing tongue of Chaucer and Shakespeare will suffer the same fate.

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