This is the first post in a series on the English language. It will feature descriptions of features of English phonology, morphology, and syntax, a discussion of various prescriptive rules, and finally a discussion on views on the state of the English language. To start this series off, I first want to address a few things. The first of these is descriptive and prescriptive linguistics. Second, I wish to have a general discussion of the English language The final thing I want to address is the historical development of English.
When looking at the grammar of a language there are two ways in which you can approach the material. One of these is linguistic prescriptivism. Linguistic prescriptivism is a method by which a standard of a language is determined. By this, I mean that rules are devised to describe the ideal version of the language by the views of society. The other method is descriptive linguistics. In this branch of linguistic study, the goal is to analyze the language as it is used in every day life to describe objectively the underlying linguistic structures. It may appear at first glance that these are two conflicting ideologies. One is set on imposing on people what is the "correct method", the other is an aim to reveal the complexities of what speakers are doing. But the two can complement one another. Indeed, both have their own importance. Rules can be developed out of general linguistic descriptions which can then go on to create a standard by which formal communication is facilitated. Prescriptive forms of a language have their place. They keep cohesion behind a form of a language by which those who are educated in these rules can communicate successfully. But at the same time, there are places where prescriptive forms do not matter as much. This is the case in many social situations. In informal settings, people can revert to their own unique idiolect which may vary in certain phonological, syntactic, lexical, morphological, and orthographic manners. In a word, an idiolect is a person's personal dialect. Everyone speaks a dialect of English. Even the standard variety is a dialect. Dialects are, contrary to popular belief, nothing bad. They are not deficient or incorrect ways of speaking. They are simply a different variety with the same intrinsic value as every other variety. Language is a dynamic phenomena. In the immortal words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, "Panta rhei," all flows. Language changes, which can bring about opposing viewpoints concerning linguistic prescriptivism. Some view prescriptivism to be a bad thing, hindering process of language evolution, while others view it as a way of preventing the degradation of the language. In my opinion, I think that both linguistic descriptivism and prescriptivism are both pragmatic ways of viewing a language's grammar. Both have their place within the world of grammar, whether it be to describe differences in dialects or to set down a standard so people can communicate much more easily and systematically.
So, a few things about English. English is an Anglo-Frisian language descending from the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. In the United States alone over 250 million people speak English. It is the official language in 54 countries, 27 non-sovereign entities, the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, et al. There are many dialects of the language across the world. Some are similar to others and can be easily understood by most speakers. Others, not so much. Many of these highly variant dialects are pidgins and creoles of English. Pidgins occur when two or more groups with no common language interact. In order to establish relations and communication, simplified forms of languages are developed, with one of the languages being the dominant language. They are generally not stable and contain some variety between speakers. Pijin, spoken on the Solomon Islands, is an example of an English pidgin which does not resemble the standard variety:
Tanggio tumas fo helpem mi. Thank you very much for helping me
Nem blo' mi Charles. My name is Charles.
A creole language is also a language created as a result of the encounter of several different languages. Creoles differs from pidgins in that it is a full and stable language. One theory on creole languages is that they are the antecedent of pidgins which are nativized by children as a first language. The result is that features of languages which are missing from the pidgin get filled in. Tok Pisin is a pidgin of English which is currently undergoing creolization. The following is an example of the Lord's Prayer translated into Tok Pisin:
Papa bilong mipela
Yu stap long heven.
Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.
Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.
Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,
olsem ol i bihainim long heven.
Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.
Pogivim rong bilong mipela,
olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.
Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.
Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.
Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.
English has gone under many changes over the centuries. English came into being after the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britannia. It was a very different language from the one we speak today. It was highly Germanic and much more synthetic than English is today. It featured five grammatical noun cases(nominative - agent/subject, accusative - patient/object, genitive - possession, dative - indirect object, and instrument), two grammatical numbers (singular and plural), and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter). Nouns came in numerous declensions, divided as either weak or strong. The Anglo-Saxon verb was extremely complex. There were nine conjugations of verbs with only two tense distinctions (past/non-past). It was very different from what we think of as English and most would not be able to understand it. For example, today, I would probably get strange looks and be told to learn English if I said, "Is hēr ǣnig þe Englisce spricþ?" Is there someone here who speaks English? Anglo-Saxon English was spoken up until the 11th century and was influenced greatly prior to then by Latin brought in by missionaries and Scandinavian languages durring the time of the viking raids. In 1066, a new element was brought into the realm of English. This was the arrival of the Normans, and with them they brought Old Norman, an Indo-European language which descended from Gallic Vulgar Latin. This new addition would change the appearance of English greatly. One of the reasons is that with the change in power came a change in the language used for politics, polite discourse and literature. The result was a reduced morphological system, changes in phonology, and the addition of loan words from Norman French. Several linguists have proposed the idea that Middle English was a creole formed from the interaction of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. This form of English lasted until the 1400s. In this period there were more phonological, morphological and lexical changes. Printing began in 1476 - by Will Caxton - in England resulting of in standards of the language became established. Orthography remanded fluid until 1755 with Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language. From this point on English resembled, relatively, what we speak today. This was the establishment of Modern English.
In the next Part of this series I will discuss temporal elements of English.