You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Modern Scholar: History of the English Language

I picked out Michael D. C. Drout's lecture course "History of the English Language" because I have enjoyed his other courses on fantasy and science fiction. I also have a strong interest in language and history, and I regret not taking the English history class in college when I was an undergraduate.

The professor starts with an overview of linguistics in general, including phonics and sound changes. He talks about understanding language as a communication system that links symbols or signs to their meanings. And he talks about different kinds of syntax. The two basic kinds of syntax are analytic, where word order defines meaning, and synthetic, where sentence meaning is formed through suffixes or prefixes added to words.

I really appreciated the linguistics lesson, and it proved critical to understanding the changes to English over the centuries. English started with the Angles and Saxons when they invaded the island when the Romans moved out. The language was closely related to Germanic. The Angles and Saxons brought different dialects to different parts of England. Old English was a synthetic language and the grammar had gender. There were no silent E's--all the E's were pronounced.

When the Danes invaded in the 900's, the new language meant a lot of changes in order to communicate. Old English became more analytic, and lost the dual case, leaving just singular and plural. After the Norman invasion, French was spoken as the language of the courts and law. Many whole realms in English became French, such as law, culinary, and finance. But it wasn't until 1204 when the French ties were severed that the languages started to blend and become Middle English.

The change from Middle English to Modern English meant the loss of "thee" and "thou", which is still causing problems to this day. More importantly, the Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of many words. Vowel pronunciation moved generally forward in the mouth. This change happened quickly, and by Shakespeare's time, the language and pronunciation had largely settled down. There has still been a huge addition of words to the English language, but the syntax, grammar, and pronunciation has stayed largely the same.

I was fascinated to learn that modern American accents are closer to an historical pronunciation of the 18th or 19th centuries than British accents today. The professor also talks about different dialects and how there is an accepted accent in each culture, along with more flavorful accents that people will use to show solidarity.

The lecture was one of the best I have listened too. I learned a lot about the English language, and removed some of my misconceptions. I enjoyed seeing and hearing the same passage in Gothic, Old English, and Middle English. At times I felt he moved too fast and could have used more examples for word changes, especially from Middle English to Modern English. But overall it's an A.


Blogger Deirdre said...

Thanks for the review. I'm really interested in listening to these books on tape so it's nice to see a good review.

2:39 PM, February 13, 2008  

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