Modern English Inflection: A Simplified Evolution

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Modern English

Inflection of words may have simplified and adjusted from Roman times but did not die out, yet modern English is not considered an inflectional language. Crystal’s writes (The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language P32), that some scholars suggest Norse and Old English formed a pidgin to facilitate understanding between the two peoples resulting in “a loss of word endings and a greater reliance on word order”. Whatever the correct theory of inflectional re-modelling in England, the Viking landings probably affected lexis, morphology, sounds and syntax of Old English.

King Alfred had promoted Old English rather than Latin as a national language instructing much Latin work to be translated into the favoured West Saxon dialect. Many manuscripts perished in the Viking invasions, but some survived like Caedmon’s story translated from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, being one of the few traceable works of medieval times. Dick Leith draws from the extract (Graddol, Leith & Swann P111) to observe Old English spelling and vowel sounds, for example using huse [u] instead of the diphthongized house [au], (U210 Audio Cassette 1 Band 3 “The sounds of Old English”) which would later be found in use in the South of England: Leith shows on the tape that some Old English sounds are still heard in northern parts today by highlighting a woman speaker from the East Riding of Yorkshire, pronouncing /flour/ [? ] , rather than a diphthongized [a ? ] sound as in the Wallingford speaker on the cassette.

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“The most significant differences in pronunciation between Old and modern English concern vowels”, (Graddol, Leith & Swann P114).

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“Great Vowel Shift”

This adoption of “rounded” vowel sounds became known as the “Great Vowel Shift” and helped characterize much of England’s speech as it spread out from London. It is not entirely clear why diphthongs occurred at this time, but the French must take some responsibility, for example changing Old English /i?? / to /th/, leading to a diphthong “thou” [a ? ] created from the Old English word “i?? u”meaning “you”. Both “thou” and “thee” were probably derived from “vous” & “tu”, while writing long vowel sounds were marked by doubling the vowels character, for example, see (rather than se), that we see in modern English.

Leith also tells us on the tape that consonant and consonant clusters in the modern language have been weakened. Old English hrofe translated as “roof” in modern English has lost the initial “h” in spelling as in pronouncing “gh” final in “knight and “plough”. The word /often/ sometimes pronounced as /’? fen/ dropping the consonant /t/. The French influenced the spelling of English consonant sounds: To pri?? cis some of Crystal’s examples, (“The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language” 2004 PP42/43), “Old English / t? / sc is replaced by sh making scip into ship; / t? / c is replaced by ch as in church; d?

cc or gg becomes dg as in bridge”. Furthermore, “Qu” to replace cwene with quene easily recognised as “queen” in modern English: and /v/ was introduced sometimes replacing phonemically the same letter /f/, for example Old English heofon becoming heaven was probably introduced by the Normans. Norman influence on spelling and pronunciation is clear to see, yet there are still areas in England even today where an Old English “sound” can be heard in speech. It is a popular belief that the Norman Conquest of 1066 was a disruptive influence on the stable inflective language of Old English.

French introductions to Old English

French introductions to Old English were many as the Normans further regionalized English speech and spelling. English now had a northern Scandinavian and a southern French influence. “Striking dialects differences” (Graddol, Leith & Swann P72) were heard. Observing written work of the twelfth and thirteenth century we start to see French influencing English verse. The poem “The Owl and the Nightingale” written around 1200 in southern England, “is evidence of one abrupt break with the past”, (Graddol, Leith & Swann P123): Ich was in one sumere dale In one sui?? e di? ele hale Iherde ich hlode grete tale.

An hule and one ni? tingale i?? at plait was stif and stark an strong Sumwile softe an lud among Source: (Graddol, Leith & Swann P124). The extract shows French influence, which paid great attention to rhyme and layout of verse rather than stress and alliteration of Old English: Yet we still see the Old English ? (yogh) and i?? (thorn) used, as well as alliteration and stress on consonant sounds, “Stif and stark an strong” using non diphthongized vowel sounds, similar to Old English poems five hundred years earlier. For example Caedmon writes: “heofon to hrofe, halig Scyppend”.

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Modern English Inflection: A Simplified Evolution. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Modern English Inflection: A Simplified Evolution
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