The Influence of Major Historic Events on the English Language Today

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Terminology

3. Modern English characteristics
3.1 Lexicon
3.1.1 Suffixes: Stress shifting
3.1.2 Allomorphy
3.1.3 Bound roots
3.2 Orthography
3.2.1 Phonological changes: Long Vowels and Diphthongs
3.2.2 Silent Graphemes
3.2.3 Digraphs

4. Historical explanations
4.1 Norman Conquest
4.1.1 New diphthongs
4.1.2 The fricative voice contrast
4.2 Great Vowel Shift
4.3 Loss of sounds

5. Conclusion

6. Literaturverzeichnis

1. Introduction

Approximately 400 million people around the world learn English as their first language. Further studies have shown that around 1500 million people are able to speak English to some degree. This does not take into account the tremendous amount of people who learn English as their second language. English itself was brought to England when Celtic was the main language before the German-speaking Anglo-Saxons came and influenced the existing language. It was then influenced by numerous other languages such as French which found its way into England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 (Hogg & Denison, 2008).

“Time changes all things: there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.” (de Saussure in (Bieswanger & Becker, 2008, S. 12)

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, linguists agree that living languages which are actively used are constantly changing throughout time. English is very interesting as it was so strongly affected even though only around 1500 years have passed since English came into existence. I became exceptionally interested in where the Modern English (ModE) irregularities and features originated from and how English developed into its contemporary form (Bieswanger & Becker, 2008, S. 12).

This is the reason why this Bachelor Thesis will be analyzing the English language by investigating selected historical events which influenced the English language system and are therefore reasons for the contemporary state of ModE. The following question for this paper arises: “What major historic events influenced the English language and what impact did they have in a degree that is still visible in Modern English?” At first, a terminology section will be provided to explain the terms which will be used. After that, by using diachronic facts, synchronic ModE characteristics in terms of Lexicon and orthography will be analyzed. Subsequently, Historical explanations will be given to underline the features and irregularities of ModE. This data will then be used to answer the question of this Bachelor Thesis.

2. Terminology

Before we can proceed there are terms which have to be clarified. In the area of writing, there is the term “orthography” that has to be explained. According to Gramley and Pätzold, orthography can be described as:” the set of conventions which are employed when writing a language.” (Gramley & Pätzold, 1992, S. 115).

However, the written system is not able to transmit as many meanings and as much information as the spoken realm which then leads us to the terms regarding the area of sounds. The field that investigates the language system with regards to sounds and their role in communication is called “phonology”. According to Lorenz, phonology studies speech sounds in order to comprehend language systems. In addition to that it analyzes which rules and conditions there are in terms of sounds which can be used in combination to utter words (Lorenz, 2013).

As phonology investigates the system of speech sounds, the term “phoneme” is linked to it. Herbst (2010) defines a phoneme as: “an abstract linguistic unit at the level of sound that serves to distinguish between linguistic forms with different meanings.” (Herbst, 2010). A phoneme is a minimal unit of the sound system of a language which distinguishes between meanings of lexemes. Phonemes can be used to form morphemes.

Another term that emerges in the area of orthography is “grapheme”. Dürscheid defines the term as the smallest segmental unit in the writing system comparable to the phoneme as the smallest segmental unit in the sound system. Graphemes and phonemes themselves do not carry any meaning but they differentiate between meanings. Therefore, not every letter can be considered to be a grapheme, only the ones that differentiate between meanings. For example, the words glow and grow.

The <l> and <r> both are graphemes because by switching them they change the meaning. Whenever the term grapheme appears in this essay it will be considered as the smallest segmental unit in the writing system that does not carry meaning itself but differentiates between meanings and is used to represent phonemes. The term letter on the other hand will be used to refer to the graphical building blocks in words which are used to describe what a word graphically looks like. In an alphabetic writing system such as English graphemes are used to transfer phonemes into the writing system (Dürscheid, 2002).

Another important term is “digraph”. A digraph is a group of two letters/characters used to transfer a phoneme or even a sequence of phonemes into the written system that cannot be represented by a single character. Due to the influence of other languages such as French, new phonemes had been established and inevitably had to be covered by new combinations of letters. The th, for example, represents the phoneme /ð/ in the word the or /Ɵ/ in this (Gramley & Pätzold, 1992).Digraphs are therefore considered to be meaning-distinguishing units next to graphemes.

The next term that has to be considered is “affix”. Affix means “to be attached” and they are studied in the area of morphology. Although they are not lexical themselves, so that they do not convey any meaning when being isolated, they have to be attached to a base. Functioning as auxiliary components, affixes can occur either as prefixes or as suffixes. Suffixes are succeeding the base and on the contrary, prefixes are preceding the base. In this Bachelor-thesis, the prefixes as well as suffixes will be analyzed. Keith et al. investigated the area of inflectional affixes and provide a table giving examples for their use.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 1: inflectional suffixes (Denning, Kessler, & Leben, 2007, S. 45)

In order to carry grammatical meaning, inflectional affixes are used to mark plurality, identify the degree of comparative adjectives or to identify the tense or person of a verb. Derivational suffixes, on the other hand, are characterized by turning one word into another. Therefore, the new word has a new meaning. (Denning, Kessler, & Leben, 2007).

In the area of phonology, there is another important term to be discussed which is called “stress”. According to Jensen there is no completely accepted definition of the term. However, among linguists, stress is divided into sentence stress and word stress. The former analyzes stress patterns in the area of sentences as for the latter marking the field of stress within lexemes. Due to the fact that this paper will be analyzing stress shifting suffixes, stress will be regraded in the area of word stress On the level of word stress, the distinction will be made between the syllable that receives the main stress and the second stress. According to that classification the stress shifting suffixes and their effect on the stress will be analyzed (Jensen, 1993, S. 77).

Another term in the area of lexical elements is “borrowing”. Borrowing is defined as:” borrowing is the general and traditional word used to describe the adoption into a language of a linguistic feature previously used in another.” ( (Myers-Scotton, 2002, S. 234). They were regarded as lexical items under the former term “loanword” (Myers-Scotton, 2002, S. 234). The given definition will be considered when using the tem borrowing.

Lastly, it is obligatory to provide a definition for the term “lexeme” as it will be used frequently in this paper. According to Rambaud, a lexeme can be defined as:”

an abstract unit of morphological analysis in linguistics, which roughly corresponds to a set of forms taken by a single word. […] Lexeme, thus, refers to the set of all forms that have the same base meaning.” (Hoste, Moreno, & Rambaud, 2015).

For example, runs, running and ran are all forms belonging to the same lexeme which is written as run (Hoste, Moreno, & Rambaud, 2015).

3. Modern English characteristics

This section will focus on the characteristics of Modern English (ModE). It is subdivided into two sections, beginning with the aspect of the ModE Lexicon, followed by an analysis of the orthography. Each of these sections will concentrate on various aspects of the regarding topic.

3.1 Lexicon

The English lexicon was influenced by various other languages, among them was French. By the end of the thirteenth century, approximately 10,000 French words have been established in the English vocabulary. Other Historical events took place which will be engaged in chapter four. According to these changes, many words and lexical roots found their way into ModE, whose word stock consists approximately up to 60% of words from French origin. Jackson and Amvela (2000) define Lexicology to be the analysis of the word stock of a language. Therefore, the Lexicon can be derived from lexicology, studying the different words of a language. The following sections will be based on this definition of the term “Lexicon”.

3.1.1 Suffixes: Stress shifting

Any given lexeme consists of one or several syllables. It is obligatory that one syllable receives the “primary stress” or “strong stress”. Syllables that receive stress can either be long vowels or diphthongs (Jensen, 1993, S. 77). Due to the fact that the English language has been influenced by many other languages, such as Germanic languages, Greek, Latin and French, which lead to borrowings and loan words, the principles of stress which are steady in other languages such as German do not apply to English. Germanic stress rules require words to always receive stress on the root of the lexeme. However, English has no such stress rules and is therefore often considered to be unpredictable in terms of the placement of stress. It can be stated that Polysyllabic words always receive “main stress” on one syllable and secondary stress on another syllable. Nonetheless, these rules are not consistent and suffixes can change the stress pattern when they are attached to the root (Meyer, 2005). English is confronted with three different types of suffixes which can change the stress pattern:

1. Stress-neutral suffixes (the suffix - y in cloudy does not change the stress compared to the input signifier cloud)
2. Stress-attracting suffixes (suffixes like - aire in bazzillionaire will shift the stress from the second syllable to the last syllable)
3. Stress-shifting suffixes (- ity in additionality functions as an example for a stress-shifting suffix as it transfers the stress from the second to the fourth syllable).

In contrast to inflectional suffixes like the plural -s, comparatives/superlatives or tense indicators who do not affect the stress pattern of the lexeme which they are attached to, there are several suffixes which influence the stress placement. According to Teschner et al., around 1,500 word families can be affected by stress shift when a suffix is attached. This comprises around 30% of all English lexical families. Another 90% of these lexemes receive a shift in stress from just four different suffixes: - al, - ity, - tion and - ic (s). For further explanation, the following table illustrates these four suffixes and how they shift the stress (Teschner, 2004).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 2: The four most important stress-shifting suffixes (Teschner, 2004, S. 34).

Indicated by the stress marker ´ the scheme makes clear that whenever one of these suffixes is attached to a given lexeme, the stress shifts according to the examples. For the suffixes -al and -ity, the stress moves from the first or second syllable to the antepenultimate (agriculture -> agricúltural). For -tion and -ic(s), there is a noticeable change in stress to the penultimate syllable of the lexeme, for example abolish -> abolition or alcohol -> alcoholic. These four suffixes approximately account for 90% of all shifts in stress. Apart from that, there are seventy-four suffixes which procure a shift regarding the main stress of a lexeme (Teschner, 2004).

The reason for this large amount of different suffixes can be found in the history of the English language. In the process of borrowing as well as being strongly influenced by other languages the corpus developed in such a way that most of these suffixes originated from foreign languages such as Greek, Latin (suffix - ity) or French. No Germanic vernacular suffixes cause a change in the stress placement (McArthur, 2005).

3.1.2 Allomorphy

In the field of morphology, allomorphs are two or more realizations of one and the same morpheme (Skandera, 2005). There are allomorphs which are in free variation and can be used interchangeably. The English language also provides rules which make it possible to determine which allomorphs, that do not occur in free variation, can occur based on the lexical context that surrounds them. Allomorphs can occur as prefixes and suffixes. Allomorphs operating as suffixes are determined by their phonological environment. The plural –s has three different phonological allomorphs and their use is prescribed based on the phoneme which precedes the suffix. The hissing /s/ sound in tents or ghosts is used when the prevenient sound is voiceless. Sibilants like in crash or fudge are followed by the allomorph /ɪz/. Lastly, whenever a vowel or a voiced consonant precedes the plural –s, the /z/ allomorph must be used (Carstairs-McCarthy, 2002). However, Brinton indicates that there are not just phonologically determined allomorphs, but also ones which depend on the grammatical context.

In addition to allomorphs in the position of suffixes, they can also occur as prefixes. In addition to that, they can be used either in free variation or as bound allomorphs. Tokar states that the negative prefix allomorphs /in/, /im/, /il/ and /ir/ are used in complementary distribution to create negative forms such as impossible or inadequate. This means that rules determine which allomorph has to be chosen. In this case, these rules are based on the sounds that surround the allomorphs mentioned above. Three rules have to be considered regarding allomorphs in complementary distribution:

1. Whenever the given morpheme starts with a bilabial /p/ or /b/, the negative prefix allomorph /im/ is used, for example impatient or imbalance.
2. Negative morphemes are formed by using the morph /ɪ/ whenever the first sound of the morpheme is /m/, /l/ or /r/ (e.g. immora l, illegal or irretrievable).
3. If the first or the second rules do not apply, the prefix allomorph /in/ is used (e.g. inconceivable or inadequate).

All three of these rules signify that the allomorphs mentioned here only occur in complementary distribution. The phonological environment prescribes which allomorph has to be used (Tokar, 2012). Brinton (2010) provides another chart containing morphs that build plural noun forms which are grammatically oblique:


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The Influence of Major Historic Events on the English Language Today
University of Erfurt
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influence, major, historic, events, english, language, today
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Philip Wunderlich (Author), 2016, The Influence of Major Historic Events on the English Language Today, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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