English evolution

dinosaur statue

English should be a relatively easy language to learn and use. After all, it has no genders (masculine or feminine), most plurals are made by the simple addition of ‘s’, and most verbs have a past tense that ends in ‘-ed’. But of course that’s only half the story.

All languages display forms and features that ‘break the rules’. In many cases, differences come about because the written form of the language developed separately and at a different pace from the spoken form. In English, we see this in the case of

  • unspoken or ‘silent’ letters in words like ‘knight’ (pronounced with an initial ‘k’ sound as late as the 15th century);
  • added written letters like the ‘s’ in ‘island’ (it was spelt ‘iland’ until the 16th century, and is still pronounced that way);
  • curiosities such as the letter-group ‘ough’, which can be pronounced in multiple different ways. Try ‘Although the ploughman thought he had a cough, he found out soon enough it was a hiccough.’
  • semi-archaic words such as ‘aye’, ‘betwixt’, ‘ere’, ‘hither’, ‘thou’, and ‘whereof’.

Such is the fossil record of English, a language whose dynamic and turbulent past has been recorded in changes to spelling, sound and meaning over centuries.

There have been attempts to regulate and standardize the language. In the 18th and 19th centuries, dictionary-makers Samuel Johnson in England and Noah Webster in the USA used their publications to prescribe spellings based on the way they understood the evolution of language. We have Webster to thank that Americans use ‘color’, ‘honor’, ‘favor’ and ‘labor’ (modelled on Latin), instead of British equivalents like ‘colour’ and ‘honour’ (whose spelling is influenced by French).

Other attempts were less successful. Recognizing the complexity of the apostrophe — even for native users — the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw refused to use the punctuation mark in his own plays, insisting that publishers followed his instruction when printing words like ‘dont’, ‘Ive’ and ‘cant’.

And in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell foresaw the rise of an entirely ‘politically correct’ form of English. In ‘Newspeak’, language is reduced to its bare minimum, all possibilities of ambiguity stripped away, and words redesigned to reflect the binary vision of the Party: ‘goodthinkful’ referring to what is politically acceptable; and ‘ungood’ to what is not.

Newspeak may seem absurd, but in the real world many countries still try to preserve a pure or clean version of their language by committee. The Académie française is perhaps the most well-known example. This group decides whether English words can be admitted into French, which spellings should be allowed, and even whether to keep certain written marks. In 2016 they caused a huge storm by decreeing that the circumflex accent in words such as ‘coût’ (meaning ‘cost’) should be banned, and that the word ‘oignon’ (‘onion’) should henceforth be spelt ‘ognon’.

There is no such regulation for English. The Oxford English Dictionary is often cited as an authority, but it is largely descriptive rather than prescriptive, acting more as a record of the language’s continuing evolution.