Translit Logo

+353(01) 4595158

English Knight in his armour

Story of English and language change

We may remember this topic from school but looking back over it cannot do any harm. Lets look at some of the most important dates in the evolution of the English language and nation in general.


449 –  Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded Britain (before-Roman influence on original inhabitants Celts).

The early influence of Latin upon English was direct because some vocabulary items passed from Latin to the language of the Celts. Later they passed into English.

8th centuryVikings invasion (concrete nouns – sky, skin, scrape, get, leg, skirt etc.).

If a word has sk, sc or g(not dž) in it then it is 90% likely to be of Scandinavian origin …. As well as the word window (eye for the wind) — to supply the air, in that time.


1066 – Battle of Hastings;  Most of the English vocabulary came from the Norman Conquest *(65-70% of English vocabulary – romance (Latin, French, Greek)).

1612 Mayflower – Pilgrims in America – spread of English.


18th century – The English are brought to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

History of people of England


*German influence (about 7000 words in English vocabulary).

*Native Americans – hundreds of names of places, plants, animals (Ohio, Utah, tomahawk).

*Italian – words connected with music and theatrical performance (ballerina, violin).

*Russian – very few words.


  •         Great vocalic change in English from the 16th to the 20th century.
  •         It lasted about 400 years.
  •         Completed at the beginning of the 21st century, however some linguists claim it is not finished yet.
  •         U: av, I: ai, E: i.
  •         Old English: hús…tím…sé     Today: house…time…see.

New Zealand English: This is the most similar to British English, where as American English is the least similar.

Australian English – It was established by prisoners. The first newcomers to Australia from Britain.

English today –  Love, But, Son, Sun —  Old English — (lav, bat, san, san).

Old English: downstrokes – these are characters written by monks that changed you too – it was first read as (luv) and then as (lov).

London, Oxford, Cambridge – this is where the change took place.

Archbishop Lowth – Was an amateur linguist who introduced some changes: the B-sound was introduced artificially to make words look after Latin fashion.

debt – from Latin “debtoran”, doubt – “debiture”, subtle – “sublime”.


Double negation was present in British English until the 17th century but Archbishop Lowth said it is illogical because double negatives give positive. That´s why we have single negation.  

LOSS OF SOUND – the disappearance of words, constructions:

Example: cniht – today is knight — compensatory lengthening — the i was short, the ch was lost,the i was lengthened. Then i was long and it could be the subject of Great Vowel Shift.

Haplology: omission, this is the loss of two similar segments (Englaland – England).

Metathesis: the change of position of two neighbouring sounds (frist-first; hros-horse; aksjan-ask).

The loss of inflexion ends in the 12th century.


Borrowing – words, idioms, aphorisms, proverbs:

  1. a) direct borrowing b) translation c) adaptation

example: borrowing of the letter e: e-learning, e-bank, e-commerce, e-mail.


English is one of the most polysemous languages in the world. The existence of a great number of polysemous words in English is caused by the existence of no diminutive, augmentative suffixes in English. Polysemy means ambiguity.

Examples: Ms. Smith cannot bear children. – give birth, stand — lexical ambiguity.

        The Rabbi married my sister 2 years ago – lexical ambiguity.

        My uncle never smokes after sex. – lexical ambiguity.

        The girls drew five squares and triangles – grammatical am.(5s and 5t or just 2s and 3t????).

-On the basis of extralinguistic context, we can understand the meaning of a word:

example: Please – 1.Offering – 2. Refusal – 3. You can enter the room

Page of a book

Language does not tolerate synonyms much, because of the economy principle of language.

-absolute (coach-sofa).

-semi/partial synonyms.

Old English(OE) – shirta (covering for body).

Old Norse – skirta — skirt, shirt – today.

Shirt, skirt originally meant the same but the synonymic parallel was distinguished in sense – they have specialised in different kinds of clothing.


2 forces in language – economy driven plus precision driven.


  1. Complementary pairs – complement each other (alive/dead; asleep/awake)
  2. Relational opposites (give/receive; teacher/pupil)


*some are proceeded by articles: ‘the’ or ‘a’.

Example of the ‘the’: single mountains: the; famous forests: The Black Forest; the Netherlands, the United States of America, the United Kingdom but it is just Spain, Italy, France without the “the”.

– without the article; Lakes – with article only groups of lakes

*refer to objects – extent, extinct, fictional

*definite names – refer to definite objects


– vocabulary items: 1words, 2 compounds, 3 idiomatic expressions and 4 proverbs.

      1.Red carpet, red-coat, blackboard – subjects to change

      2. Cat, bird, meat – subjects to change

      3.To kick the bucket, rain cats and dogs

      4.Like father like son, Rome wasn’t built in one day

Idioms and proverbs are frozen units. They cannot be changed or altered. They do not change their meaning. Idioms are fixed phrases consisting of more than one word with meaning that cannot be guessed from the meaning of an individual part.

-They cannot be passivized and nothing can be added to them.



Bitch, she is! – offending, derision                  I bet she will win – act of betting

Old dog, you are!                                           I warn you not to go there – act of warning

Performative verbs: verbs that perform something (I am resigning my office. I name this ship…)


*there is a need to name new inventions (technology, science)

*concepts and words enter the language through osmoses with other culture (names of clothes…)

Process of blending – portmanteau words – combinations

  • the jugular effect: examples: yanigan – Yankee plus hooligan, drunch – drinking plus lunch, subtopia – suburbian plus utopia, brunch – breakfast plus lunch, smog – smoke and fog, blog – web and log



This is the process of cutting off a fragment of a word. What remains stands for the original word.

examples: pub – public house; private – private soldier…. Process of clipping is going on, accompanied by change of grammatical category – from adjective to noun

3 types of clipping:

fore (aeroplane – plane)         back (doctor-doc)      middle(influenza-flu)

omnibus-bus                          television-telly          detective-tec

The most frequent clipping is back clipping. Most frequently, nouns are subject to clipping. Sometimes shortening leads to narrowing of meaning. The shortened restriction variant is used only in one sense. Example: Doctor: medical doctor, PhD degree, doctor of the Church, Mr.Fix it –skilful person BUT doc – medical doctor!!!!!



         Change of grammatical category without addition of any elements

         Shift of stress pattern

Examples: noun verb: screen – to screen, tape – to tape, bank – to bank, audition – to audition

Sometimes compound words are subject to conversion: black-out, know-how, hair-do

Auxiliary verbs are subjects to conversion – I must do it/ Something is a must

Noun to adjective: key: key position, keyword, key man, key problem

Lexical revivals: words that existed in the past and are brought to life again, examples: frigate, corvette, armour, to wed (wedding)

Words have proper names and trade names. Proper names and trade names have contributed to the extension of vocabulary

examples: Rudolf Diesel-to diesel, diesel, diesel-powered, diesel-engine, diesel-train.

Quisling-Norwegian general who collaborated with Germans-Quisling-traitor, collaborator

Thermos – thermos(termoska)

INITIALS/ACRONYMS – words that are based on initial letters of various names (BBC, UFO, NATO, radar, laser) – it is a slow process that an acronym becomes a regular common name

VIPs, VIP room – already a new word with plural ending

AIDS – becomes common noun (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)

English language:
  1. a)      Cosmopolitan (Latin, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese)
  2. b)      No declensions, no conjugations (only Saxon genitive)
  3. c)      Tendency to reduction
  4. d)      FLEXIBILITY (polysemous, monosemous words, ambiguity)


Language change

Why does language change?


WORDS DISAPPEAR – change in lexicon, new objects appear that must be named

Names for objects: created or borrowed from a foreign language

Examples: omnibus used to be a trolley driven by horses — Today it is a bus. This occurs due to clipping (cutting of omni). It leads to a change of object and word; slide rule (počítadlo(abacus)– object disappeared

In the 10th century there was from and fro both had the same meaning. However fro disappeared and is now really only used in a phrase: to walk to and fro!!!!

Words disappear because there is a need to name the same thing in a different way (5-guľa, šajba, šupa, bomba – deprived of emotions) —-emotional load

Words disappear when they lose emotional load they carry. They are substituted by other words that have an emotional load.

SEMANTIC CHANGE – study of sound changes; studies of semantic changes (changes of meaning)


Strengthening example: marvellous – makes you surprised, today: great, awesome

Weakening example: weakening of negative load, word may acquire positive load (brutal, terrible)

WIDENING – affects native words but also borrowed ones

It`s one of the most frequent changes in language as well as Narrowing

examples: bird – young bird — today: any bird;

Also connected with the growing degree of abstractions:

pipe – musical instrument — today: any object similar to a pipe

town – an enclosed piece of land — today: inhabited area

journey – one day trip — today: any long trip

arrive – to come to the shore — today: to come

NARROWING OF MEANING – converse process – the word continues to exist with a specialised part of the original meaning. In a historical perspective, a word of wide meaning acquires narrowing sense.

example: meat—food— today: particular food

example: will – future — grammatical marker that goes through the process of grammaticalization

Will you have some orange juice? – will – willingness — from lexical to gramme. 

Do it that way, if you will. Will – willingness (will want)

I love Susan and marrying her I will! – want (old English: willian – want)

Very frequently restriction of meaning affects those words taken from everyday language to specialised jargon.

Example: Latin: operation action, performance

English: operation – action, performance but medical operation-surgery, military operation

word situation in American English: problem to solve

Specialisation: more frequent than a widening of meaning!

  1.       Primary meaning
  2.       Transferred meaning

Examples: grasp – primary meaning: to seize by hand…transferred meaning: to understand

chair- primary meaning: seat…transferred meaning: professorship


METAPHOR – This involves making a comparison by using a word with one meaning, to stand for something with a similar meaning. The basis of a metaphor is the similarity.

In the process of comparison. The area of similarity is always there although we may not be able to discover the nature of it

An example:

a leaf and, to turn over a new leaf (to start a new period of life) – physical similarity

X is a kind of Y

  1. Names of plants are based on appearance…snowdrop, eggplant, sunflower
  2. Names of objects are used for body parts …. Onion, bean (head in English), bread basket(stomach)
  3. Concrete unit for concrete unit …. This place is hell. His talk was a lecture.

Classification of similarities

  1. Similarity of shape (eye of the needle, bottleneck, teeth of comb)
  2. Of position (footnotes)
  3. Of function (bonnet of car)

Dead metaphors – These are words or expressions, that were in the past. They were used metaphorically and with time acquire a quality of ordinary words. Example: daisy (sedmokráska) – day´s eye

Synaesthesia – A metaphorical process in which a stimulus to one sense such as smell is simultaneously perceived by another sense example: sour – taste but also sour face; warm – temperature but also a warm reception


yellow – a coward (English), jealousy (Slovak, Polish);

green – unexperienced (zelenáč);

red – anger, love, passion;

white – innocence.

FOODSEMY: application of food-related lexical items with reference to people
  1. Chaucer – honey She is apples – she is nice (Australian)


Cheesecake – young girl o provocative display  

Sweetness is positive!  Sugar, sugar-baby, honey, candy, stud muffin (man J)

to be a lemon – to be a trouble…to go lemony at someone – to be angry with someone

meat – human body for sale (meat market, meat rack)

gammon – nonsense (originally – a ham)        

mutton – prostitute    Proscuitto

Cockney English – East End London; Characteristics:

– p, t, k are replaced in final position (stop, cat, kick)

– (h)is, (h)er is omitted  – rhyming slang (rhyming phrases) such as trouble & strife =wife

Language develops and changes over time. It`s an active element used by a particular community that transfers its fundamentals to the next generations.

It is an important part of human identity that constructs the sense of belonging in that particular culture using the language. It is a gift and is magic. Sometimes it can be a trouble. Sometimes all you have to do is just talk to solve this trouble.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein says: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Step over the limits because that is where life starts.

Share this post