An antidote to ignorance.
I was searching through Spaces [the now defunct Microsoft blog host –JH] before for “Old English” out of curiosity. Of course, I forgot about things like “Old English sheep dog” and “the good old English weather”, but where the phrase was being used of the English language, it was being used with cringe-inducing inaccuracy. I felt it was my duty to be a source of enlightenment on the subject. [Oh, crap. Here we go again. –ed.]
English is typically divided into three periods – Old, Middle, and Modern. I would argue that contemporary English really belongs to the next stage in the history of the language and that what we now call the Modern English period is going to have to be renamed.
English is an Indo-European language belonging to the West Germanic branch of the Germanic sub-family.
Old English (449 – 1100)
Although the Old English period starts in AD 449 when Hengest and Horsa turned up in Britain as migrant workers looking for a job, Old English wasn’t a distinct language until some time after that. Even then, it was probably still mutually intelligible with the Continental Germanic languages for some time. There were several dialects of Old English, the most extensively recorded of which was West Saxon, although Modern English is the descendant of Anglian.
Old English (specifically West Saxon) had seven vowels, long and short; and three diphthongs, long and short. There were roughly eighteen consonantal phonemes, not including long consonants which were also phonemic. Descriptions of OE consonantism in the usual handbooks don’t tend to make the observation that there was a lot of allophony (i.e., sounds that depend on the environment in which they occur, but don’t serve to distinguish one word from another). In some cases, one grapheme had to serve for more than one speech sound (e.g. g for both [g] and [j]).
Primary stress was assigned to the initial syllable of nouns and adjectives (excluding prefixes such as ge-) and the root of verbs (hence verbal prefixes were unstressed). Secondary stress was partly quantity sensitive and partly lexical.
Old English was an inflected language. Nouns had four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative) while adjectives and pronouns had an instrumental case in addition to these four. The verb was divided into two classes, strong and weak. Strong verbs showed vowel change in the past tense and past participle (e.g. drīfan “to drive”; drāf “drove (sg.)”; drifon “drove (pl.)”; “drifen (past part.)”), while weak verbs added –de/-don in the past tense, and –ed, –od in the past participle (e.g. fremman “to do”; fremede “did (sg.)”; fremedon “did (pl.)”; fremed “done (past part.)”). The verb also distinguished a subjunctive mood from the indicative, although it was limited to –e in the singular and –en in the plural.
This is an aspect of Old English that is also in transition throughout the Old English period. The syntax of Old English is very similar to that of Modern German. Roughly speaking, constituent order in main clauses is SVO; in subordinate clauses SOV; and sentence-initial adverbs trigger subject-verb inversion. Verbs could still case mark dO nouns in cases other than the accusative, and the sense of a preposition might be clarified by the case that it took.
The lexicon of Old English is predominantly Germanic. There are a few words that entered West Germanic from Latin and other sources before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain. During the Old English period, other words would have entered the language from Latin via the church, and some words from North Germanic were probably adopted during the Viking Period, although evidence for these usually doesn’t turn up until the Middle English period.
Middle English (1100 – 1500)
After the Norman Conquest, English disappeared for a time as a written language, but when it eventually re-emerged in the 12th century, it was still predominantly English. It is during the Middle English period that increasing numbers of words enter the language from French, although it’s not until the end of the Middle English period that the language starts to look vaguely recognisable to a modern audience. French culture also had a major impact on English literature.
No one form of Middle English was standard, hence there is a lot of information about the dialects of the language. By the end of the period, London English is becoming the standard form of the language.
Because of the loss of inflectional endings, sounds which were previously allophonic became phonemic. For example, [v, ð, z] which had previously been restricted to a voiced environment came to stand in a word-final position (hence MnE noun-verb pairs such as proof ~ prove; bath ~ bathe; house ~ hou[z]e). The vowel system is similar to Modern Italian with a distinction between high mid and low mid vowels. Vowels still retain their Continental pronunciation. The diphthongs of Old English are lost and a new set of diphthongs arises.
The stress system of Middle English is more like that of the modern language with primary stress occurring at the right edge of words. This seems to be a reinterpretation of the native pattern rather than a departure from it because of the influence of Romance loan phonology.
Middle English retained a range of inflectional morphemes, but there is further loss and merger. Nouns retain traces of some of the old inflectional endings, but the use of the -s ending as the plural and genitive of nouns in general increases. High frequency vocabulary resists this either successfully (e.g. man, woman) or unsuccessfully (e.g. lady). Various strong verbs are transferred to the weak class, although there is at least one instance of a French verb (strive) being assimilated to the strong verbs.
The loss of inflectional endings has some effect on the syntax of English because word order becomes increasingly important as an indicator of the relationship among phrases in a sentence. Middle English tolerates a wider variety of structures than the modern language, and there are new structures (especially periphrastic forms of the verb) entering the language. The genitive inflection is still limited to the head of its phrase, hence the well-known phrase from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde “King Priamus son of Troy” (i.e., “the son of King Priam of Troy”).
Large numbers of words enter English from French as the language of government, the law, and commerce. Numbers of Latin words also enter the language from this time on. Although English remains a Germanic language, the large number of French words entering the lexicon indelibly changes the look of the language. Many words from Old Norse appear at this time, but must already have been in spoken English. These words include “they, them, their; leg” and various others which belong to high frequency vocabulary.
Modern English (1500 – )
By the end of the Middle English period, London English has become established as the standard form of the language. The same forces that were at work during the Middle English period still affect the early modern language. The impact of the Renaissance results in a further increase in the number of words from French and Latin so that it was possible to discuss new ideas. There was also a general belief that English suffered from monosyllabism and needed to be enriched with polysyllabic words.
Although English is regarded as a poor cousin at the start of the period, it has risen to become a world language during that time. The British Empire has left a legacy of new forms of English around the world (American, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian etc.) and is, in many countries, an official language beside indigenous ones.
The major change of the modern English period is the Great Vowel Shift. Roughly speaking, low and mid vowels were raised; high vowels were diphthongised. Vowels lost their old Continental values. The process was gradual and seems to have taken about three hundred years. Pope is still rhyming “tea” with “obey” in the early 18th century. A few words, such as “break”, “steak” and “great”, resisted the change. The period has seen no significant changes to the consonantism of English. One major distinction that comes from extensive borrowing is two levels of phonology, one for Latinate words and the other for native words.
Stress assignment follows the Latin pattern of penultimate if heavy, otherwise antepenultimate, but the application of this process is affected by word class. Verbs apply this to the final ~ penultimate syllable, but quantity remains the key factor.
There is a further reduction in the morphology of English with endings such as the 2nd sg form of the verb (thou …est) being lost, and the old 3rd sg pres. -eth being displaced by -(e)s. A few verbs such as “hast, hath”, and “dost, doth” remain for a time. The inflectional endings of nouns are limited to -(e)s for both the genitive (sg. and pl.) and the plural. The genitive inflection ends up being attached to phrases rather than just the noun heading the phrase, thus making “King Priam of Troy’s son” grammatical. Borrowings from Latin and Greek led to the addition of some irregular plurals beside the usual inflections (e.g. formula, pl. formulae, formulas). The structure of the verb becomes more complex, hence “might have been being eaten” with slots for modal – perfect – passive and continuous forms.
The borrowing of words from other languages has continued throughout the period, but has decreased in quantity. These days, English is more likely to be a source of new lexical items in other languages. In contrast with the start of the Modern English period, English has no shortage of lexical resources at its disposal. Even then, it is not above borrowing new terms from other languages or even within its own store with borrowings between dialects.
Everything written above came straight off the top of my head. It’s no substitute for doing research in a library and gleaning information from a variety of well-researched and informed sources.