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Conservapedia:History of the English Language

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This is a point by point essay describing and correcting the errors riddling Andrew Schlafly's history lecture on the origins of the English language. Much of this is culled together from a discussion here, and represents the thoughts of several users. As with many things associated with Andrew Schlafly, it must be taken with several billion grains of salt as he has been known to have his own problems with the English language.

Conservapedia's Text RationalWiki's Response


The development of the English language is divided into three periods": Old English (also called "Anglo-Saxon"), Middle English, and Modern English (which we speak today). Germanic tribes settled in England as long ago as about the time when the Roman empire fell, around A.D. 450. Old English developed and was used until shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, when Latin began to cause improvements in Old English and it upgraded to medieval Middle English. Modern English is considered to have begun shortly after the end of the Middle Ages in 1500..


The history of the English language goes back much further to the time of Proto-Indo European and the development of the Germanic branch of the language family. Schlafly describes Latin as "improving" Old English and "upgrading" it to Middle English. The Normans did fundamentally alter the nature of English, but it is disingenuous to say that Latin caused English to change. Languages are not actors. They are passive. The bilingual French nobility and, perhaps more importantly, those serving the nobility yet still working in the "real world", were the ones who changed English. English did not "desire" to conform, it did what all languages do: became a mixture of the Latinate/Germanic interactions. Language does not "upgrade" like software. It takes generations to "upgrade" in the context he implies.

Schlafly completely oversimplifies the influence of Latin on English, and either ignores or is unaware of the influence of Old French, the language of William the Conquerer and the Normans. He also presents the concept as if there were no Latin influence on English before 1066. The Norman conquest did have the greatest influx of Latinates into English, but this is hardly where it began. Latin's earliest influence on English would have been long before the Anglo-Saxon period. Roman trade and contact with Germanic tribes introduced several words, such "to cook" and probably the word "wine." Ecclesiastical Latin was the lingua franca of the Catholic Church, whose clergy were a large majority of the educated class in England long before the Normans arrived. Additionally, direct imports from Latin and Greek resumed as a result of the scientific revolution to lend an air of dignity to new scientific and technological discoveries.

Other languages had important influences on English, long before Norman French. The first would have been Celtic Britain's indigenous Celtic languages. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter argues that English's unique use of the verb "do" as an a supporting verbWikipedia (i.e. as an interrogative, to suggest emphasis, and "do not" or "did not" rather than simply using no or not) as well as English reliance on its progressive, rather than its indicative to show present actions, are remnants of an indigenous Celtic people trying to adjust their grammar to this new language of their Anglo-Saxon overlords. In the Danelaw, the area of Norse settlements in northern and eastern England, was where Old Norse was spoken, and although it was somewhat intercomprehensible with Old English, it was different enough that contacts between the two languages reduced a number of English's case endings and verb conjugations before the next Norse invasion. In addition Old Norse is the source of a surprising amount of common English vocabulary including its pronominal system. The French-speaking Normans (basically French speaking vikings), brought yet another language into the mix. The English language that emerged three centuries after the Norman invasion was not an improvement but an entirely new English language spoken largely by people in a nation whose literate class spoke an entirely different language.

He also makes no real mention of the influence of the Portuguese and Spanish trade communities that shaped the language of commerce and navigation as we know it.


A good dictionary will provide a date of origin of a word, and old dates are "13c" or A.D. 1200. For example, the date of first use of the word "chase", meaning "the hunting of wild animals," is listed by Merriam-Webster dictionary as "13c". More modern words, such as "homeschool", have more recent dates of first use, such as 1980 the case of "homeschool".
One can spend hours enjoyable learning about the history of human thought simply by looking at when words were first created for important concepts. For example, by looking up the word "tyranny" in the dictionary we see that it was developed in the 14th century (1300s), which was about the time that feudalism was being replaced by nation-states in England and France. There would have been no concept of "tyranny" under feudalism before that time. One can piece together much of English history simply by reading a dictionary!


At best this section is questionable; at worst, naïve. Schlafly does not mention--and perhaps does not even understand--that Merriam-Webster is referring to the first recorded use of a word. Even then, dating a word is significantly more complicated. In order to date the modern form of a word entering a language, linguists look at the pattern of change the word has gone through over time. Any given word will have had myriad of intermediary forms and dialectical variations as it moved through a language, or from one to another. "Chase", for example: "1297, from [Old French] chacier "to catch, seize," from [Vulgar Latin] *captiare..."[1]

Schlafly also fails to mention that the phonology of English is significantly different today than it was in the Middle Ages. The Great Vowel ShiftWikipedia would entirely change the spoken English language. Naturally, in depth discussion of more complex subjects like the GVS is not practical for a survey world history course for high schoolers, but Schlafly does not even make a cursory mention of phonology, an essential part of understanding the evolution of language.

In Schlafly's view, a concept does not exist unless one can put a word to it. Before we deconstruct this concept, it should be noted that Schlafly is completely wrong about the concept of tyranny not existing prior to the adoption of the word "tyranny": the Old English word for this was nýdgeweald.[2] Schlafly does not understand that there could be an older, different term for a word, replaced by a "modern" one. Even if he were correct that there was no specific word for "tyranny" before the rise of the nation states, he does not provide any evidence that "There would have been no concept of 'tyranny' under feudalism." For example, the aforementioned verb "to cook" comes from Latin's coquere[3]and was introduced into the Germanic languages around the time that they were beginning to separate from each other. By Andy's logic this would mean that the Germanic tribes lacked an idea of cooking their food until they met the Romans.

It is illustrative to note that Schlafly inadvertently provides us with an example against his view. Above he uses the term "homeschool" as an example of a modern neologism. Yet children were educated at home long before the 1980s as his lectures and "thought questions" endlessly point out; this was in fact the norm for most people throughout history, and there were advocates for the concept of homeschooling as opposed to public schooling in the United States as early as the 1940s. According to Schlafly, this should not have been possible.


The oldest dates or origin are for numbers. The number "six", for example, is listed as having an origin of "bef. 12c," which means before A.D. 1100. That places the date of first use of simple numbers as before Middle English, and originating with Old English.


If we are charitable--that is, assume that Schlafly means that the current words for simple numbers have the oldest origination date, and therefore have remained unchanged the longest---then it is unclear what Schlafly's point here even is. Why is this significant at all? It may well be, but he has not justified its inclusion in the least. In fact, Schlafly really has no idea about the chronology of language -- in fact, there are a few words in English that are even more recognizable than the cardinal numbers; in reconstructed form, "apple" (PIE *h2ebeli-) has had only minor sound changes in perhaps as long as ten thousand years. Cardinal numbers are much older than the thirteenth century and are relatively conservative across the IE languages. "Six" comes from the PIE *s(w)eks, which thanks to various sound change laws, became *seks in proto-Germanic, sas in Sanskrit, hex in Greek, sex in Latin (Spanish seis, Italian sei), Old Church Slavonic sesti (Russian шесть "shest"), amongst others.[4] However, if we take the meaning of this passage at face value, and recall the above comments on the word "tyranny", then we are left to assume that Schlafly believes the early Anglo-Saxons had no concept of simple numbers until they had words for them (note wording of the phrase "first use of simple numbers"), and that these words were simply developed in the aether of their imaginations. This is demonstrably false. The English words for numbers are derived from Proto-Germanic (compare English "one, two, three, four" with German "ein, zwei, drei, vier"), and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European. They came to their present forms in the same way the Romance Languages came from Latin.


More generally, the study of the origin of a word is known as "etymology". Some even specialize in the field of "linguistics", which includes all aspects of languages. Beware, however, distortions in the field by those who insist that all languages are equal. They also claim that all religions are equal in truth or value, and that is no more true for religion than it is for languages. Every language has advantages or disadvantages, and the path of world history is in some ways the triumph of superior languages over inferior ones.


While Schlafly's comment that all languages have advantages or disadvantages might be accepted without comment by linguists, what he implies is that those differences make languages better than others, rather than just different. He neither defines so-called "superior" and "inferior" languages, nor does he explain why his linguistic social Darwinism is relevant to a discussion on the history of English. He also does not provide any examples of how English functions differently from other languages, nor where and how history could possibly be related to this linguistic superiority. Linguists would suggest, for example, that English is "better" at absorbing new words into the lexicon, and that it has for this reason become more precise as codification and relies less on context (making it a "better" language for scientific descriptions, perhaps). Japanese, on the other hand, codifies significantly less and relies far more on context, making word play easier, and giving poetry and written art a dimension English cannot have. Despite this, Shakespeare "managed" with the "limitations" of English, and Japan has no lack of technical minded engineers. Ultimately, all languages must, in some way, be able to convey the needs of the speakers, or the language will change to adapt to those needs.


Old and Middle English: We cannot even understand Old English today, and it was somewhat primitive even when it was spoken. Here is an example that concerns an early attempt by Pope Gregory to convert the Norman-Saxons to Christianity:
Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, "Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon."

Some simple pronouns like "he" are recognizable, as are the Old English equivalents of verbs like "were". Here is what that passage means, according to Merriam-Webster:

Again he [St. Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, "Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels' companions in heaven."
Middle English was an improvement due to the importation of Latin from Europe into England, at least among scholars. John Wycliffe used Middle English when he did the first new translation of the Bible in nearly 1000 years


Schlafly seems to assert that Anglo-Saxon was "primitive" because it did not have enough Latin words. It is true that with the importation of words from Latin, English gained more precision--but this does not mean that Latin had that precision. It did not. Nor does this imply an improvement. It does not. When a generic Latinate word is imported into a language that already has a word with the same meaning, the Latinate often becomes a specialized word. For example, chaise is simply "chair" in French, but in English a chaise is a very specific kind of chair. Also, imported legalistic, religious, and scientific terms from Latin, French, Italian, and Greek are "recodified" to mean particular terms within the English language. The source languages were not "better" for having a word like "octa" (eight) and "pous" (foot), and the "eight foot creature" is hardly a "technical, 2 dollar, non-primitive term" in the source language.

While some Old English words have been almost completely displaced by their Romance counterparts most English's vocabulary is Germanic. The Swadesh listWikipedia is a kind of linguistic measuring stick to show word changes. Comparing the words found on the Old English Swadesh List to their modern equivalents shows that English is still firmly rooted in the Germanic tradition.
Schlafly makes another major error in calling Anglo-Saxon primitive, as in many ways Old English grammar was much more complex, especially with regards to inflection. Old English still had a functioning case and gender system inherited from its Indo-European legacy. One could of course argue that streamlining of grammar makes a language easier to use, that this can be viewed as an improvement, and that this process has occurred to some degree in every language with a long history. In English's case it was because a lot of Danes needed to easily communicate with their Anglo-Saxon neighbors. But if Schlafly's thesis is that modern English is better than Old English because the latter was more primitive, he's got it completely backwards.

Why wouldn't Wycliffe translate the Bible into Middle English? It was what he and the people around him spoke. He didn't pick it because he thought it was better than Old English nor was he trying to impress people with a Romance influenced vocabulary. Those people had all died. English had undergone enough changes that Wycliffe and the author of Beowulf would have had a very hard time communicating.


[Past this point Schlafly goes on a tangent about the English theologian, John Wycliffe. The following section is a few paragraphs further along.]

Shakespeare, the greatest playwright in world history, wrote in English around 1600. He used modern English, but the language has changed much in 400 years since then. His language was easily understood then, but some parts are difficult to understand today. The term "copyright" did not exist yet, and Shakespeare never published any of his plays in writing because he had no legal protection against someone copying his work; all his works were written and preserved after he died. Here is the beginning of Mark Antony's famous speech in Shakespeare's famous play, Julius Caesar:

[Schlafly proceeds to quote, in full, Marc Anthony's speech from the top of Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.]

By the end of this famous speech Marc Antony had turned the crowd in favor of Caesar and against his murderer, Brutus.


Schlafly is partially correct. Many linguists categorize Shakespeare as a speaker and author of what's known as Early Modern EnglishWikipedia. It's essentially recognizable to a modern reader or listener and doesn't require special translations like Beowulf or Chaucer might. It is ironic, then, that Schlafly chose a speech that is not particularly archaic when one considers there are portions of Shakespeare that are still confusing to modern specialists. If a modern English speaker from today met the Bard or an Elizabethan she might think that the he speaks with a hard to understand accent and uses vocabulary and sentence structures that is archaic. Andy also seems to change his point in mid-lecture from the differences between two eras of Modern English to something about copyright and Marc Anthony's rhetorical skills. Some of Shakespeare's plays were published during his lifetime (1564-1616) although the first collected works came later, but this had nothing to do with the absence of copyright law. Early editions of some of his plays appeared in 1594, his collected sonnets in 1609, and the first collected edition of his plays was the First Folio in 1623, but England's first copyright law was enacted in 1710 (the earlier Licensing of the Press Act 1662 imposed some restrictions on copying but was nothing like modern copyright law).[5][6][7]

See also[edit]


  5. Publishing Shakespeare, Folger Shakespeare Library
  6. Shakespeare's First Folio, British Library
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Copyright.