The Evolutionary Change of The English Language

One of the most intriguing aspects of the English language is how it has unfolded through so many drastic changes and influences in the latter stages of its evolution.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the English language is how it has unfolded through so many drastic changes and influences in the latter stages of its evolution.

The English language is undoubtedly considered as one of the most powerful and influential languages, globally recognised all over the world. This attainment would not have been possible if it were not for the persuasive roles other countries played via influence within the following factors:

  • Technology
  • Media
  • Individual personalities i.e.Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson
  • Linguistic concepts – Functional Theory and Substratum Theory
  • Changes in society and culture – borrowing from different languages
  • Political Correctness
  • Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism

There are numerous other factors that impacted language change dramatically.

Thus, one of the most intriguing aspects of the English language is how it has unfolded through so many drastic changes and influences in the latter stages of its evolution. In regards to this, these different theories and causes will be put forward for analysis to find out how the English language really has changed in the previous centuries.

The English language took a humongous leap towards its evolutionary era in 1476 the year of the first English printer brought forward by William Caxton, who learned the trade of printing and also set up a printer’s shop. Via the means of this invention, books could now be copied through methods of printing, rather than producing handwritten copies which were very time-consuming. This lead to a new revolution of education as more and more people learned to read English due to the language finally being standardised.

A century after this alteration to the English language, one man stood out from afar and appeared to be amongst the leading voices of the English language – his name was William Shakespeare. He is well-known all around the world for his beautiful and unique poetic styles used in his sonnets, writings and plays but many seem to forget his profound influence towards the change of the English language. His works contributed highly towards standardising grammatical aspects of the language including spelling and vocabulary which we still use in the present day.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare”, by Buaidh, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An astounding fact that often causes one’s eyes to dilate with disbelief is that Shakespeare introduced a whopping 1,700 original words into the English language, of which many are still commonly read and used, such as ‘addiction’, ‘remorseless’, ‘lonely’, etc., with only a few being archaic, although 400 years have since passed.

Another English language guru goes by the name of Samuel Johnson, a lexicographer, who published his long-awaited ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ after 8 years of diligently compiling it.3 This meant that 40,000 well-described words were made available to millions of people around the world which was of particular aid to UK’s education system made possible through indirect, prior assistance from Shakespeare and the invention of the printer. However, these are just a couple of individual examples of the past who transformed English whilst it was being moulded together but the outcomes were taken to a more progressive degree by prescriptivists and descriptivists attitudes.

Samuel Johnson was a prescriptivist himself; meaning, one who believes in regulating and promoting one variety of a language, especially with cautious attention towards good use of grammar. Whereas, the descriptivist movement is non-judgemental, accepting that language change is inevitable whilst also lending more focus on how English is actually spoken and written, hence due to plentiful factors such as migration, changes in society, global influences and many more, it can be strongly argued that descriptivists are the mainstream, being more suitable in today’s day and age with their contemporary attitude.

Moving on from individual personalities to theories, we see many lexical changes that have been caused or introduced by external factors. One major cause of language change is functional theory. This theory suggests that language changes as the needs of its user alters, in regards to vocabulary. Many scientific developments along with technological advancements have brought about countless new words into the English language, i.e. ‘to tweet’ (verb), ‘selfie’ (noun), ‘hackable’ (adjective) and so on. However, not only have words been added and dropped, but many words have had their definitions tweaked due to technology. The noun, ‘scroll’, initially meant:

‘a roll paper for writing on’

Though, now it can be used as a verb, ‘to scroll’, referring to:

‘moving displayed text in a particular direction on a computer screen.’

Another example would be ‘to tweet’, which used to be predominantly known to refer to:

‘a chirping noise of a bird’

However, since the rise of the internet this term has also been given the following meaning:

‘making a posting on the social media website Twitter’

It is evident therefore that technology plays a symbolic role in language change and contributes massively towards it.

On the one hand, functional theory provided lexical change due to our needs but on the other hand, substratum theory changed the language due to influences of different languages i.e., when immigrants travel to a new area or when indigenous residents learn the language of newly arrived conquerors, it leads them to adopt language imperfectly. During the British Empire, Britain encountered this effect as English words were adopted into Hindi but also vice versa, as words such as ‘jungle’, ‘jugger naut’, ‘shampoo’, ‘thug’, ‘bungalow’, ‘pyjamas’ were borrowed into English. Not only has Hindi influenced the English language but so have French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese and countless other languages, making it a language that has been globally influenced by immigration, trade and war. It is interesting to note that, French and Latin have had a great impact on the English language from early 11th century through the Norman Conquest onwards. While most other languages have had a more contemporary effect on the language, still moulding English into the universal language it is. The borrowing of words from different countries has come to impact the language in many ways; namely food, customs, clothes, animals, inventions and so on. i.e. France has greatly influenced the language via food and beverages; ‘croissant’, ‘champagne’ and ‘baguette’. Besides, Arabic has gone rather far beyond this and has been the target of loanwords for many centuries whilst falsely seeming to have an unmerited impact on the English language. These range from astronomical terms such as ‘alkaline´ (القلوي) and ‘algebra’ (الجبر) to vast technical terms like ‘cotton´(قطن) and ‘mascara’ (المسکرۃ), which like the English ‘masquerade’ originally derives from the Arabic مسخرة – an event during which people wear masks as seen in carnivals. If we were to look at the Holy Qur’an, we would encounter countless instances where the word ‘earth’ (الارض) (appears, of which the pronunciation seems to sound very alike, though the etymology from most sources does not date back as far as the Arabic use of الارض.

Moreover, technology also has its firm place in the substratum theory, not in same manner of necessity as the functional theory but in more relevance to influence. The term ‘like’ is a fine example of this concept as it has sneaked its way into British English through American films, and has since then become common in our dialects, especially amongst the youth – a case of Americanisation. Both, American and British English have been merged many a time. The British are now also prone to saying ‘movie’, which is actually an American term, instead of the original British English term ‘film’ due to the arguably, overly influential film industry.

There is of course another influential branch attached to technology that has moulded the language to what it is today: the internet. Well-renowned professor of linguistics often recognised as ‘the English Language Guru’, David Crystal suggests that the root cause of new colloquialisms spreading like wildfire is due to the internet. In an interview, 6 years ago when the internet was rapidly erupting amongst the youth, he stated,

“Language itself changes slowly but the internet has speeded up the process of those changes so you notice them more quickly”

Further vocabulary has been added and semantics have changed via the means of the internet, but we tend to forget about regional dialects that have also been modified as a result of several factors. Take Estuary English for example, which predominantly spoken amongst cities and towns surrounding the River Thames but also spreads further north and south of the river. It is a variation of Cockney and Received Pronunciation, also known as Queen’s English. It is called Estuary because the dialect was first noticed to have spread around the Thames Estuary; due to Cockney speakers moving to London’s nearby areas after the Second World War.

This shows that migration did not wholly flow overseas from Asia, Europe, South America etc., but also within the UK itself. For example, we can vividly see the influence Jamaica has brought about with BBE (British Black English) in London areas, which is a mix of English and Jamaican Creole. Non-standardised words like ‘bare’ (a generic intensifier) and ‘clapped’ used as an alternative for ‘ugly’ have been picked up by many Brits living especially in London. These instances are also rather common in distant cities such as Birmingham which carries a multicultural language effect as a result of influential roles played by Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. Some words of Brummie dialect include ‘cob’ (a bread roll) and ‘pop’ (a carbonated drink). Americanisation is still influential and will most probably only get more impactful as the decades pass. It is very likely that the word ‘pop´ originated from the American term ‘soda pop’, which carries the same meaning and has thus been adapted but also abbreviated.

Not only is there a great variety of differing dialects in Britain but accents have also been altered. In Multicultural London English (MLE), glottal stops, which cause the letter ‘t’ to be silent mostly at the end of a word are very common, as noticed in words such as ‘hat’, ‘plant’, ‘meat’ etc. Another additional and noticeable feature of MLE is the lengthening of the ‘a’ sound in words like ‘man’ and ‘bat’. These changes have influenced many Londoners’ accents, also being one argument put forward by those who support the substratum theory, stating that not only the lexis is altered but accents and dialects are also touched upon when influenced by other languages and merged together. Yet, many people regard this effect as damaging and destructive to the language as they believe that the English language should prevail as it traditionally stands but some have a positive approach towards this outcome as it demonstrates the English language is more open to accepting change.

More worryingly perhaps is the Political Correctness movement which has caused several controversial changes that can often lead to an argument. This aim of this movement which erupted in the 1980s was that certain ideas, expressions and behaviours should be forbidden by law, and people should be punished. Nowadays, their simple objective is to refrain from causing emotional harm and prevent people from being offended.

However, this eventually became very questionable, ironic and hypocritical as it seemed that they were taking away the freedom of expression, instead. This has been very frequent in immeasurable cases that have occurred in the past few years, causing havoc in the media. The UK council itself was to blame in one instance. In 2008, the council banned the term ‘brainstorming’ and replaced it with ‘thought showers’. What was the reason for this? The straightforward explanation was because local lawmakers assumed that the term may offend an epileptic which was not the case as this issue was not raised by epileptics themselves. Another eccentric instance derived from certain US schools as they introduced the phrase ‘holiday tree’, in place of ‘Christmas tree’, as terms of simply giving opinions, descriptions and being limited to speech as the semantics have changed in a bizarre fashion that oblige us to really carefully consider the words we use, especially in the media and public.

Having briefly mentioned descriptivism and prescriptivism beforehand, it is vital to refer to Jean Aitchison, an avid descriptivist, by comparing her views to the theories mentioned above. In her book, Progress or Decay (1991), she refers to 3 metaphors:

  1. ‘the damp spoon syndrome’
  2. ‘the crumbling castle’
  3. ‘the infectious disease’

The first one implies that language changes due to laziness (as a damp spoon is typically left inside a sugar bowl), with the examples of the conditional verbs ‘, got to’ and ‘going to’, often being replaced with ‘gotta’ and ‘gonna’. On the contrary, the crumbling castle suggests that English was gradually assembled until it reached its peak of maximum splendour, “golden era” as they call it which supposedly occurred at an unknown time in the past. However, one disagreement is that no such era can be found when English did indeed reach perfection. Nevertheless, the illustration Aitchison wanted to demonstrate is that English once was a beautiful castle which has unfortunately now been decaying and crumbling, meaning that English language change has caused the language to perish – arguably relatable to political correctness as it often sparks arguments, too. The last accusation, ‘infectious disease’ is indicating that we somehow catch and pick up changes from around us through social contact, also implying that English is no longer the original language it once was as it has changed dramatically.

One cannot fail to appreciate personalities like Shakespeare and his ongoing legacy, Samuel Johnson and William Caxton who have given English language a sense of brilliance and eloquence which certainly guided English language towards correct standardisation in education.

Prescriptivists evidently support standardisation, as already mentioned, but one could say that descriptivists are the new and relatable era of linguists, as language change cannot be avoided due to factors such as functional theory and substratum theory, involving generational changes with media, technology and migration entering a new age and requiring new terminology which was all simply too inevitable. What is also clearly noticeable is that we have not only borrowed words from migrants overseas affecting lexical change but have also taken up variations in accents and dialects as well – still being altered in different regions of England as time passes. Then we see fascist groups like the Political Correctness Movement causing disorderly chaos in the language world, as people are forced to think thoughtfully about what they may say and how they are to phrase it, in order to avoid offending anyone which is awkwardly more often than not, decided upon by lawmakers, rather than those who may be offended.

Prescriptivism and descriptivism have undoubt edlybeen substantial, contributing elements towards the evolution of the English language with standardisation developing drastically and correct grammar being enforced upon all to keep education in safe hands. In spite of this, Jean Aitchison’s theories argue that the language is decaying due to laziness and influence from other languages. Nonetheless, whether English language changed in the past few decades and centuries has been advantageous or detrimental, we do not know, but it is a firm fact that without external influences, significant personalities and worldly advancements, the English language would not be where it is right now, and it can therefore be argued that English has indeed become amongst the most influential, most recognised and most adaptable universal languages in the world.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Usama Mubarak

Usama Mubarak

Student Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

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