Geographical Expansion of the English Language from the 17th to 19th c. English Outside Great Britain

§ 349. In the last three hundred years the English language has extended to all the continents of the world and the number of English speakers has multiplied.

We may recall that in OE and Early ME periods the English dialects were confined to part of the British Isles: they were spoken in what is known as England proper; from the 13th to the 17th c. the English lan­guage extended to the whole of the British Isles with the exception of some mountainous regions in Wales, Nothern Scotland and some parts of Ireland.

The number of English speaking people grew: at the end of the 11th c. it is estimated at one and a half or two millions; by 1700 English had over eight million speakers. In the course of two centuries of British expansion overseas, colonisation and emigration to other continents, the number of English speakers increased at such a high rate that by 1900 it had reached one hundred and twenty three million.

§350. England's colonial expansion to the New World began in the late 16th c. when her first colonies were set up in Newfoundland (1583). But the real start came later: in 1607 the first permanent settle­ments were founded in Jamestown and in 1620 the famous ship "May­flower" brought a group of English settlers to what became known as New England. These Puritan fugitives from the Stuart absolutism came from the London area, from East Anglia and Yorkshire; later colonists came from other regions, including Scotland and Ireland. Immigrants to the Southern areas were of a higher class origin; they received vast stretches of land from the kings of England and gave rise to the Southern "aristo­cratic" slave-owning plantators. Many immigrants from Great Britain settled in the West Indies, which became a part of the British Empire in the 17th c.

The colonists spoke different dialects of English. In North America those dialects gradually blended into a new type of the language, Ameri­can English; contacts with other languages, especially Spanish in the South and French in Canada, have played a certain role in its develop­ment.

American English was first proclaimed to be an independent lan­guage by Noah Webster (1758-1843), a schoolmaster from Connecticut. In his DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1828), the first in the world-famous series of "Websters", he showed the differences in vocabulary and pronunciation between the English of Britain and the English of the new independent state (after the War for Independence, which ended in 1783); Am E, in his opinion, was a pure uncorrupt de­scendant of Chaucer and Shakespeare, while Br E had been spoiled by linguistic change. He admitted, though, that the two types of English were basically identical.

§ 351. The expansion of English to Asia is mainly connected with the occupation of India. India was one of the main issues in the colonial struggle of European powers in the 18th c. The conquest of India had been prepared by the activities of the East Indian trade company found­ed in the 17th c. In the late 18th c. Britain secured partial control over the administration in some of the Indian provinces. In the first half of the 19th c. India became a British colony and Britain acquired other possessions in Asia, turning them into colonies, dominions or protectorates. Thus the English language extended to many areas in Asia, as the language of the state and writing.

§ 352. Australia was a place of deportation of British convicts since the late 18th c. A flow of immigrants were attracted to Australia, at first by the free grants of land, later — by the discovery of gold. The hulk of the population in Australia, as well as in New Zealand, came from Great Britain; their language is regarded by some linguists as an independent geographical variant of English, though its difference from Br E is not great: it is confined to some peculiarities of pronunciation and specific words.

§ 353. British penetration into Africa was a lengthy affair that extended over the 19th c. In consequence of financial dependence on British capital, Sudan and Egypt fell under British political control. Tropical Africa and South Africa were raided by the British navy, as sources of slave labour for America and the West Indies. Trade companies were supported by open warfare, and in a long series of wars many Afri­can territories fell under British rule. Cecil Rhodes and H. Kitchener undertook to extend British territories, so as to connect Cairo and the Cape colony by a stretch of British land. Numerous conflicts with the Dutch settlers in South Africa led to the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, which established the supremacy of the British. All these events were accom­panied by the spread of English to new areas.

§ 354. In the course of the 20th c. Great Britain lost the greater part of its possessions overseas and the use of the English language was re­duced. We should distinguish between countries with an English speak­ing population (or with a large proportion of English speakers) and countries in which English is used only as the state language, the main language of the press, radio and literature. The distinction, however, is not always possible, for in both groups of countries part of the popu­lation is bilingual, and the proportion of English speakers cannot be precisely estimated. The list of countries with an English-speaking pop­ulation outside the British Isles includes the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the South African Republic.


1. What historical conditions account for increased dialectal diver­gence in Early ME?

2. Compare the position of the Old Scandinavian and Anglo-Norman (French) in Early ME (comment on the geographical, social and lin­guistic differences).

3. Account for the shift of the dialect type of the speech of Lon­don in the 14th c. Why is the name "English" language more justified than "Anglo-Saxon" or "Saxon" though in the OE period one of the Saxon dialects. West Saxon, was the main form of language used in writing?

4. Describe the events of external history which favoured the growth of the national literary language.

5. Can the evolution of language be controlled by man? Recall the efforts made by men-of-letters in the "Normalisation period" to stop the changes and improve the language.

6. Comment on the following quotations:

J. Hart (1570): "The flower of the English tongue is used in the Court of London."

G. Puttenham (1589): "... ye shall therefore take the usual speach of the Court, and that of London whithin IX myles, and not much above I say this but that in every shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of every shire..." Discuss the social and geographical basis of the literary English language.

Chapter XIII

§ 855. The most conspicuous feature of Late ME texts in comparison with OE texts is the difference in spelling. The written forms of the words in Late ME texts resemble their modern forms, though the pronunciation of the words was different. Before considering the evolution of English sounds one must get acquainted with the system of ME spelling in order to distinguish between sound changes and graphical changes.

In the course of ME many new devices were introduced into the system of spelling; some of them reflected the sound changes which had been completed or were still in progress in ME; others were graphic re­placements of OE letters by new letters and digraphs.

§ 356. In ME the runic letters passed out of use. Thorn — þ — and the crossed d đ, ð — were replaced by the digraph th, which retained the same sound value: [θ] and [ð]; the rune "wynn" was displaced by "double u" — w —; the ligatures æand œfell into disuse.

§ 357. After the period of Anglo-Norman dominance (11th-13th c.) English regained its prestige as the language of writing, though for a long time writing was in the hands of those who had a good knowledge of French. Therefore many innovations in ME spelling reveal an influ­ence of the French scribal tradition. The digraphs ou, ie, and ch which occurred in many French borrowings and were regularly used in Anglo-Norman texts were adopted as new ways of indicating the sounds [u:], [e:], and [tʃ].

Compare the use of these digraphs in some borrowed and native ME words: ME double ['duble] from O Fr double and ME out [u:t] from OE ūt (NE double, out);[34]ME chief [tʃe:f] from French and the na­tive ME thief (NE chief, thief);ME chaumbre ['tʃaumbrə], chasen ['tʃa:zən] (NE chamber, chase)from French, and native ME child [tʃi:ld], ME much [mutʃ]. The letters j, k, v, and q were probably first used if imitation of French manuscripts. The two-fold use of g and c, which has survived today, owes its origin to French: these letters usually stood for [dʒ] and [s] before front vowels and for [g] and [k] before back vowels; cf. ME dentil [dʒen'til], mercy [mer'si] and good [go:d], cours [ku:rs] (NE gentle, mercy, good, coarse).

§ 358. Other alterations in spelling cannot be traced directly to French influence though they testify to a similar tendency: a wider use of digraphs. In addition to ch, ou, ie, and th mentioned above Late ME notaries introduced sh (also ssh and sch)to indicate the new sibilant [ʃ], e.g. ME ship (from OE scip), dg to indicate [dʒ] alongside j and g (before front vowels), e.g. ME edge ['edʒə], joye ['dʒoiə], engendren [en'dʒendrən] (NE edge, joy, engender); the digraph wh replaced the OE sequence of letters hw as in OE hwæt, ME what [hwat] (NE what). Long sounds were shown by double letters, for instance ME book [bo:k], sonne ['sunnə] (NE book, sun), though with vowels this practice was not very regular, e.g. long [e:] could be indicated by ie and ee, and also by e, cf. ME thief [θe:f], feet [fe:t], meten ['me:tən] (NE thief, feet, meet). The introduction of the digraph gh for [x] and [x'l helped to distinguish between the fricatives [x, x'], which were preserved in some positions, and the aspirate [h]; cf. ME knyght [knix't] and ME he [he:] (NE knight, he); in OE both words were spelt with h: OE cnieht, hē.

§ 359. Some replacements were probably made to avoid confusion of resembling letters: thus o was employed not only for [o] but also to indicate short [u] alongside the letter u; it happened when u stood close to n, m, or v, for they were all made up of down strokes and were hard to distinguish in a hand-written text. That is how OE munuc became ME monk, though it was pronounced as [muŋk] and OE lufu became ME love [luvə] (NE monk, love). This replacement was facilitated — if not caused — by the similar use of the letter o in Anglo-Norman.

The letter y came to be used as an equivalent of i and was evidently preferred when i could be confused with the surrounding letters m, n and others. Probably y acquired the new sound value [i, i:] when the OE vowels [y, y:] shown by this letter had changed into [i, i:] (see § 375). Sometimes, however, y, as well as w, were put at the end of a word for purely ornamental reasons, so as to finish the word with a curve; ME nyne ['ni:nə], very ['veri], my [mi:] (NE nine, very, my). w was inter­changeable with u in the digraphs ou, au, e.g. ME doun, down [du:n] and was often preferred finally: ME how [hu:], now [nu:], lawe ['lauə], drawen ['drauən].

§ 360. The table on p. 186 summarises the peculiarities of spelling in Late ME. It includes the new letters and digraphs introduced in ME and the new sound values of some letters in use since the OE period (the other letters of the English alphabet were employed in the same way as before.)

For letters indicating two sounds the rules of reading are as fol­lows.

G and c stand for [dʒ] and [s] before front vowels and for [g] and [k] before back vowels respectively (see the examples in § 357). Y stands for [j] at the beginning of words, otherwise it is an equi valent of the letter i, as in NE, e.g. ME yet [jet], knyght [knix't], also veyne or veine ['veinə] (NE yet, knight, vein).


Peculiarities of Middle English Spelling

Letters indicating vowels Letters indicating consonants
Single letters
a [a] c [s] or [k]
y, as well as i [j] f [f]
o [o] or [u] g [dʒ] or [g]
  j [dʒ]
  k [k]
  s [s] or [z]
  v (often spelt as u)[v]
  y [j]
ee [e:] or [e:] ch, tch [tʃ]
ie [e:] dg [dʒ]
oo [o:] or [ɔ:] gh [x] or [x']
ou [u:] or [ou] ow [u:] or [ou] qu [kw] th [θ] or [ð]
  sh, sch, ssh [ʃ]
  wh [hw]

The letters th and s indicate voiced sounds between vowels, and voiceless sounds — initially, finally and next to other voiceless con­sonants: ME worthy ['wurði], esy ['ɛ:zi], thyng [θiŋ], sorwe ['sɔrwə] (NE worthy, easy, thing, sorrow). Note that in ME — unlike OE — this rule does not apply to the letter f: it stands for the voiceless [f] while the voiced [v] is shown by v or u; cf. ME feet [fe:t] and vayn [vein] (NE feet, vain).

As stated above, o usually stands for [u] next to letters whose shape resembles the shape of the letter u, though sometimes even in the same environment it can indicate [o], cf. ME some ['sumə] and mone ['mo:ne] (NE some, moon). To determine the sound value of o one can look up the origin of the sound in OE or the pronunciation of the word in NE: the sound [u] did not change in the transition from OE to ME (the OE for some was sum); in NE it changed to [ʌ]. It follows that the letter o stood for [u] in those ME words which contain [ʌ] today, otherwise it indicates [o] Cf., e.g. ME some ['sumə], not [not] (NE some, not).

The digraphs ou and ow were interchangeable. Their sound value can be determined either by tracing the words to OE prototypes or by taking into account the modern pronunciation. They indicate [u:] in the words which contained [u:] in OE, since the OE [u:] had not changed, and which have [au] in NE, e.g. OE hūs > ME hous [hu:s] > NE house. If the modern word has [ou], the corresponding ME word should be pronounced with the same diphthong [ou], e.g. ME snow [snou], NE snow, as ME [ou] has not altered (the origins of the diph­thongs are described in § 380).

Long sounds in ME texts are often shown by double letters or di­graphs. The length of the vowel can sometimes be inferred from the nature of the syllable; open syllables often contain long vowels, while closed syllables may contain both short and long vowels. The succeed­ing consonant groups can also serve as indicators: vowels are long before a sonorant plus a plosive consonant and short before other consonant sequences, e.g. ME maken ['ma:kən], lat [la:t], lok [lɔk], bihynden [bi'hi:ndənl, bisetten [bi'settən] (NE make, late, lock, behind, beset). (See § 370 ff. for quantitative changes of vowels in Early ME which ex­plain the causes of these differences.)

(In reading ME texts there is no need to observe the distinctions of sound length but these distinctions are most important for a proper understanding of ME and Early NE sound changes.)

§ 361. The opening stanzas of the Prologue to the CANTERBURY TALES by G. Chaucer (late 14th c.) are given below with transcription and translation; the word stress is shown as required by the iambic meter of the poem and is therefore marked both in monosyllabic and polysyllabic words.

(1) Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

[xwan 'θat ap'rillə 'wiθ his 'ʃu:rəs 'so:tə]

(2) the droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

[θə 'druxt of 'martʃ haθ 'persəd 'to: θə 'ro:tə]

(3) And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

[and 'ba:ðəd 'evri 'vein in 'switʃ li'ku:r]

(4) Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

[of 'xwitʃ ver'tju: en'dʒendrəd 'is θə 'flu:r]

When April with his sweet showers

The draught of March has pierced to the root,

And bathed every vein in such liquor,

Of which (whose) virtue (power) engendered is the flower;

(5) Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

[xwan 'zefi'rus ɛ:k 'wiθ his 'swe:tə 'brɛ:θ]

(6) Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

[in'spirəd 'hað in 'evri 'hɔ:lt and 'hɛ:θ]

(7) The tendre croppes, and the younge sonne

[θə 'tendrə 'kroppəs 'and θə 'juŋgə 'sunnə]

(8) Hath in the Ram his halve cours y-ronne,

[haθ 'in θə ram his 'halvə 'kurs i-'runnə]

When Zephyr also with his sweet breath

Inspired has into every holt and heath

The tender crops, and the young sun

Has in the Ram half his course run (has passed half

of its way in the constellation of Ram).

(9) And smale foweles maken melodye,

[and 'smalə'furləs 'ma:kən 'melo'diə]

(10) That slepen al the nyght with open ye —

[θat 'slɛ:pən 'al θə 'nix't wiθ 'ɔ:pən 'i:e]

(11) So priketh hem nature in here corages —

[sɔ: 'prikəθ 'hem na'tju:r in 'her ku'radʒəs]

(12) Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

[θan 'loŋgən 'folk to: 'go:n on 'pilgri'madʒəs]

And small birds sing (lit. fowls make melody)

That sleep all the night with open eyes (i.e. do not sleep) —

So raises nature their spirit (lit. pricks their courage) —

Then folks long to go on pilgrimages,

(13) And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

[and 'palmrəs 'for to: 'se:kən 'straundʒe 'strɔndəs]

(14) To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes...

[to: 'fernə 'ha:lwəs 'ku:ð in 'sundri 'lɔ:ndəs]

And palmers — Id seek strange strands,

To ancient saints known in different lands ...

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