English, like all the other languages we have in the world, hasn't stayed constant over time. Over the centuries, it's evolved to a degree that when we look back, we can't even understand the language we started with. The history of English, as we're looking at it, starts with Old English, although there were Celtic languages spoken on the island of Great Britain before then, too. Old English was a Germanic language, with an extensive system for marking verbs to show the role they played in the sentence, sounds we don't really use anymore but are still maintained in our spelling, more German word order... it showed much more clearly it was a part of the Germanic language family than current English does today.
Middle English was influenced heavily by the arrival of Norman conquerors taking over England, and bringing over their French ways, with changes in vocabulary, sounds, and word order. The use of Latin as a scholarly language also played its role here. This era, exemplified by Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry in the 14th century, is still not Modern. But you stand a better chance of working out what's being said than Old English.
But as we approached the 16th century, English gained more prestige, started getting used in a wider variety of settings, and came more into its own. We've been in the Modern English period for a few hundred years now, and once we get past the Great Vowel Shift, it's easier to hear what we're saying and understand. It might be hard to get Shakespeare, but it's doable! And the language is still changing today; as long as we keep speaking it, it will keep evolving.
We talked a bunch about how Old English (the ancestor of today’s English, which was spoken from about 400 C.E., until at least 1000 C.E.), had a really different system of sounds from what Modern English has now. What we didn’t really mention much is how much everything else about the grammar was different, too.
One really noticeable example is how nouns (and adjectives) used to work. English used to have a really complex system marking the relationship between the words in a sentence. For instance, a word like “book” would actually show up differently depending on if it was the subject or object of the verb. So if it’s the subject, you get “bōc”, in a sentence like “sēo bōc is hefig”, “the book is heavy”. But turn “book” into an indirect object, for example, and you get “bōce”, like in “se wīfmann ingang þā bōce” (“the woman went into the book”).
This is called case, and a lot of languages throughout history have had it, like German or Latin. In fact, Old English had five different cases, and on top of that, it had three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), and even beyond those, two different patterns for how that all played out in the morphology, known as declensions. Most of that has been left behind as English continues to evolve, but you need only look at weird plurals like “oxen” or “geese” to see remnants of Anglo-Saxon history along for the ride.
The English house has been renovated several times over the past 1500 years. It’s a vibrant, living language, and because of that, communities of speakers keep contributing new things to how it works. As a matter of fact, linguists have identified a number of ways English is evolving right now. Here’s a couple of them!
For one thing, the way we use the infinitive form of our verbs has been undergoing a shift in the past several decades. So a sentence that used to be more commonly expressed with the infinitive, like “she started to jump into books after becoming a literary detective”, increasingly takes the “ing” form instead, like “she started jumping into books after becoming a literary detective”. Both are still correct, but there’s a definite tendency for the second one to gain in usage and the first one to fade. Take a moment and see which comes more naturally to you! Odds are, you might say “jumping” before you jump to “to jump”.
You’ve probably never noticed this shift before, and if it turns out you use it, you probably haven’t been doing it on purpose. Another big example of current change in English, though, is at least partly intentional. With changing perspectives on gender, society, and language use, there’s been an ongoing search for a good gender-neutral pronoun in English. We used to have three third-person pronouns, back in the Old English days: hē, for he; hēo, for her; and hit, for it. (Let’s set aside for the moment that pronouns, just like nouns and adjectives, had case inflection too). Over time, “hit” came to be used pretty much only for inanimate objects; when people wanted to refer to a singular human being without referring to their gender, they often defaulted to the masculine.
So you get sentences like “Every person should get his own dodo”, even when persons can be male or female in context. Reacting to the sexism of having a masculine grammatical default, a lot of people have been looking for alternatives, and one alternative that’s becoming more and more prevalent is using “they” here. Which sounds more natural to you now, the sentence above or the one with singular they, “Every person should get their own dodo”?
For now, some people have pushed back against this use of they. But that’s also part of the process of language change! As long as we keep using it and trying to find new ways to say things, we won’t ever get stuck in one place.
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about Old, Middle, and Modern English, the changes and the causes of change. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!