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A Chat With Anne Curzan

Date:June 12, 2007
Time:6 pm Pacific (GMT -7)
Topic:The history of English
Duration:One hour

Chat transcript below.

Anne Curzan is Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also has a faculty appointment in the School of Education. Curzan has been researching and teaching subjects in the history of English for over fifteen years, both at the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. Her research and teaching also cover language and gender, historical sociolinguistics, lexicography, and pedagogy.

She describes herself as a fount of random linguistic information--a source for answers to many of those questions about English you may have always wanted to ask. Her publications include the book Gender Shifts in the History of English (2003), the co-authored textbook (with Michael Adams) How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction (2006), and the co-authored guide for new teachers (with Lisa Damour) First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching (2nd ed, 2006).

Curzan is currently co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics and serves on the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary. In her spare time, she is an avid triathlete and Scrabble player.

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 25th online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Today, we are delighted to have Anne Curzan as our guest here. She's an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan. She is the author of three books and co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics. Her latest book is "How English Works".

Welcome, Anne Curzan!

Anne Curzan
Thanks. I'm delighted to be able to chat with you all tonight.

Anu Garg
The topic of today's chat is The History of English. This will be a moderated chat.

Tom - Pennsylvania
Welcome!

Bonnie Sbaiti -- Dallas
How DOES English work?

Anne Curzan
Well, that's a pretty big question, and it took us a whole textbook to try to begin to answer it! There are systems at work at all levels in English, from the sounds we use, to grammar, to rules of conversation, to dialect variation.

Other things we know: "English" is actually a bundle of dialects that we think of collectively as the one language "English." And English is always changing.

Bonnie Sbaiti -- Dallas
And the variation leads to change in the language, right?

Don Sanibel FL
Tell us about dialects.

Anne Curzan
Variation is often a sign of change in the language. For example, some of us say "sneaked" and some say "snuck" as the past tense of this verb changes. Some variation seems more stable as it differentiates dialects from one another (e.g., many speakers in the South merge the vowels in "pin" and "pen" whereas speakers of some other dialects do not).

Ann Weaver-Hart TX
How does it happen that some dialects become almost or completely unintelligible to speakers of the original language? Is it always a case of isolation?

Anne Curzan
Dialects are systematic varieties of a language. Now, the line between a dialect and a language can be a blurry one. Often dialects will be defined as varieties that are mutually intelligible, whereas languages are not. But there are languages that are mutually intelligible; and, for example, there are dialects of Chinese that, while they share a common written form, are not mutually intelligible in the spoken. As one linguist has put it, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. (Another linguist has turned it around to say that a dialect is a language that gets no respect.)

Samantha Netzley - Cincinnati
What I'm curious about is how and when English DOESN'T work. There are some concepts in other languages and in non-standard varieties of English that can't be expressed in standard English, right?

Anne Curzan
Linguists argue that any language and/or dialect can express anything its speakers need to express. Languages may do it differently, and sometimes speakers will borrow from another language and integrate a form or construction to do so. So, for example, in African-American English, invariant 'be' expresses habitual action. Other varieties of English can also express habitual action but typically with an adverb rather than with the verb itself.

Bonnie Sbaiti -- Dallas
There are also "chain" dialects, such as across the Arab world. Moroccan is comprehensible to Tunisians, and Tunisian to Egyptians, etc., but Moroccans and Lebanese have a really hard time understanding each other's dialects!

Tom - Pennsylvania
The dialect with the most speakers is probably considered "standard".

Anne Curzan
Given that living languages are changing all the time, so if you get separation (geographical, social, etc.), varieties of a language will change differently over time. The concept of an "original language" is, as Kelley has just pointed out, often a difficult one. You can imagine a scenario where speakers of one variety arrive in a new place and as they spread, that "original" variety changes differently in different communities to create multiple dialects. But language change and dialects are often much more complicated than that.

I think Tom is right that many people think of the "standard" variety as the "original" variety; and they often see nonstandard varieties as derivative of the standard. But this is not the case. Standard and nonstandard varieties all come historically from an earlier variety of the language and the standard has been elevated to the standard for social and political reasons. But it is not the "source" of other dialects; it is one dialect among many of the language.

Ann Weaver-Hart TX
So, in African American English, did the invariant "be" come from an African language? And when the "be" disappears from the sentence altogether, is that another borrowing, or something else?

Anne Curzan
The question of the origins of AAE is a complicated one (e.g., it clearly has a history of extensive language contact), and it is difficult to trace many of the systematic features of the dialect (e.g., invariant 'be') definitively back to one source. AAE is also characterized by "copula deletion" (the absence of forms of 'be') in some constructions; this is a feature that it shares to varying degrees with other varieties of English (i.e., they don't all allow forms of 'be' to be deleted in the same constructions), both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. (And as many of you know, I'm sure, many languages around the world allow for copula deletion.)

Karen - Portland OR
You are an historian of the English language. What, in your opinion, is the most important, or interesting, or whatever-you'd-like-to-comment-upon :-) change in the English language?

Kelley - Lerdo DGO Mexico
Anne, could you tell us a little about examples of interesting/important moments of significant change in the English language?

Anne Curzan
Wow, great question! OK, let's start with some of the big changes. Old English had a case system, where all nouns, adjectives, and demonstrative pronouns were marked for number and case: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive (and sometimes instrumental). Now we have only remnants of that system: for example, we still have plural -s and possessive -s (a remnant of the genitive); we also still have a few -en plurals (children, brethren, oxen), which remain from a class of nouns (weak nouns) in Old English. (But I think "oxen" may not have long to live as the plural of "ox"!).

Then Old English also had grammatical gender (like German), where all nouns were classified as masculine, feminine, or neuter. I have done extensive research on how we lost that system, and it was replaced by the "natural gender" system in which inanimates are all neuter (it) and only animate beings are identified as masculine or feminine. Thirdly, English is characterized by the massive amount of lexical/word borrowing that speakers have done over the centuries. (Although I think perhaps it is more appropriately called "stealing," as we don't seem to have any plans to return the words!) The history of English is a history of language contact.

Bonnie Sbaiti -- Dallas
I've heard that the replacement of the inflectional system with word order was largely a response to the influx of Scandinavians and others into England as a way to simplify expression.

Ann Weaver-Hart TX
The case system you are describing closely matches Latin. Is that where it came from?

Anne Curzan
Indo-European had a case system, which is why we see case in many I-E languages. English is part of the Germanic branch/family of languages, as opposed to the family of Romance languages (Latin is a member of the Romance family of languages). The loss of inflectional endings in English is, I think, undoubtedly influenced by the extensive language contact with Old Norse in the north of England. The Norman Conquest in 1066 is often highlighted in histories of English, but the presence of Old Norse speakers in England in the centuries preceding the Conquest are, I think, critically important to understanding many of the changes in medieval English. It was clearly very close contact given that English borrowed "core" terms from Old Norse, such as sky, egg, and the pronouns they/them/their.

Kelly-Los Angeles
What do you think caused the loss of gender? And how long does it take to lose a part of grammar that is such a large part of a language?

Anne Curzan
There are other factors in the loss of inflectional endings, such as the pattern of putting stress on the first syllable of words, which can make inflectional endings less distinct.

I probably have studied the loss of grammatical gender too long to give a good succinct answer, but let me give it a shot! The loss of inflectional endings is one important factor. As these distinctive endings became less distinct, it affected not only case but also grammatical gender, as these endings helped to indicate the grammatical gender of the noun. Now the problem is that much of this change happened in what I sometimes call "the black hole" in the history of English: after the Norman Conquest, in the 11th and 12th centuries, we have very few if any texts written in English--so we are left to reconstruct some of the changes given what the features we find in Old English texts before the Conquest and early Middle English texts beginning in the 13th century.

As the forms of nouns, adjectives, and articles/demonstrative pronouns lost case and gender distinctions, the third person pronouns (now he/she/it) were the only forms left that indicated gender. Even in Old English, these pronouns would sometimes follow natural gender in reference to people; so, for example, with the grammatically masculine noun "wifmann" (woman), subsequent pronouns would often be "she" to refer back to the noun/to the person rather than "he." By Middle English, we find "he" and "she" coming to be used primarily to refer to animate beings and "it" to inanimate things.

In between, there seem to be patterns for how "it" spreads to refer to inanimate things; and, of course, this change is happening at different times and probably in somewhat different ways in dialects throughout England (e.g., it appears to have happened earliest in more northern dialects).

Traylorjim - Denver
I work at a recording studio that records books for the Library of Congress, and so am daily dealing with questions of pronunciation. My question is this: what pressures on a language cause the pronunciation of words to change drastically, such as at the Great Vowel Shift?

Ida Lanza -Los Angeles
I just joined the conversation so I am not sure if this question has already been asked, but I have noticed an increasing number of TV and radio people who incorrectly use the past participle of many common verbs (they simply use the past tense for the participle). Have you noticed this trend and will the past participle eventually just disappear?

Darwin Kemp- California
Is the usage of words like gotta, gonna, wanna, and the like detrimental to English? Such words are becoming more commonly used--will this lead the language to an evolution that will see it delimited syllabically? Would that be negative to the thinking process of such speakers?

Anne Curzan
Let me address pronunciation first. The changes in pronunciation probably only look "drastic" in retrospect; for speakers at the time, they were probably subtle variations in how people spoke. A contemporary example is the Northern Cities Shift that is happening here in the Midwest, where some of the vowels seem to be "rotating" such that, for example, "bag" can sound more like "beg," "bus" more like "boss," etc. And sometimes we don't even notice the changes that are happening. For example, right now, in many parts of the U.S., the vowels in "cot" and "caught" are merging (known as "the cot/caught merger"). Many of my students in Seattle (at U of Washington) did not notice that I have two distinct vowels in these words whereas most of them had merged the two vowels.

I have noticed the variation in the past tense/past participle that Ida mentions. So, for example, you will hear "have went" or "had ran." This actually seems to have a reasonably old history in English. One of my students read through over 20 grammar books from the 18th and 19th centuries and found references to (and condemnations of) both the past tense used as the past participle and the past participle used as the past tense (e.g., "I seen"). So it does not seem to be new to this century! Of course, most regular verbs in English have identical past tense and past participle forms (e.g., walked), so it is not surprising that some speakers, by analogy, may make the past tense and past participle identical for irregular verbs as well.

Traylorjim - Denver
These pronunciation differences are things we deal with every day at work! Many of my colleagues cannot distinguish differences between the words "marry," "Mary," and "merry," while to me these differences are very distinct. Interesting to think of this in a larger historical context!

Karen - Portland OR
I think the caught/cot and pin/pen vowel and marry/merry/Mary merges have been going on for some time in West Coast American English. I'm 50, and I distinctly recall being taught pen/pin as an example of a homophone when I was in grade-school (1960s). I was in college (in the 1970s) before I learned that this was not part of standard American English.

Anne Curzan
Forms like "gotta," "hafta," "gonna," etc. are very interesting in the history of English. Over the centuries, speakers have created new modals (e.g., will), and we still seem to be doing so, with forms such as "gonna." It is technically called "grammaticalization," where open-class/content words slowly become grammatical forms. A close colleague of mine is studying how this has happened historically with "supposed to" (now "sposta" when used as a modal).

Anne Curzan
I must say that I don't distinguish "Mary," "merry," and "marry" either!

Darwin Kemp- California
Could one be a great philosopher if he or she has not learned his or her language greatly? What I mean is, since language allows one to further investigate their subjective reality, can one, very strictly speaking, be a philosopher without words?

Anne Curzan
The question of the relationship of language and thought is an enormously complex philosophical and linguistic question, to which I will undoubtedly not be able to do justice here. Many of us would say that language undoubtedly influences thought, but that it does not determine it. So do the categories of one's language influence perceptions of the world--the answer seems to be probably yes. Can we perceive the world differently? Again, I think the answer is yes.

Darwin Kemp- California
I am eighteen years and I graduated from high school only six months ago. I do not wish to attend college, but would rather liberally read and gain an education that way. Would you recommend some books that would help me?

Anne Curzan
Darwin, there are lots of great books about language and about the English language specifically to read. If you want to read a new, very informative book about the history of English, you could read David Crystal's _Stories of English_. In Michael Adams and my book, _How English Works_, we tried to cover a lot of ground, including both the structure and history of English--and we provided recommended readings at the end of each chapter, which you might find helpful. That may work best, as there are so many areas in which you could read.

cks
What effect did Catholicism have on the English language?

Anne Curzan
The (re)introduction of Christianity to England at the end of the 6th century brought with it not only the Latin alphabet but also a significant number of borrowed words, including many religious terms (e.g., mass, altar, martyr).

Anu Garg
One last question...

Joseph Knight - Maine
I'm quite curious about the difference between the historical written English language, which we have access to, and the historical spoken English language, which is gone. Can the sounds be reconstructed from the modern form of the languages bits were originally taken from? There are very few audio recordings from the 11th and 12th centuries. :)

Anne Curzan
This is one of the biggest challenges of studying the history of English: we have no access to the spoken language before the 20th century. So what we are describing is the history of written English, trying to responsibly draw conclusions about what this means in terms of the history of the spoken language.

Anne Curzan
In medieval times, many of the available texts are very formal (e.g., religious texts, historical chronicles) and they probably are more conservative than the spoken language of the period (and do not give us access to colloquial language from that period). In later periods, such as the Renaissance, we often try to work with a range of written texts, from the more formal to the more informal (e.g., personal letters), in hopes that this will give us a better sense of the range of variation in the language of the period. In terms of reconstructing sounds, we draw what conclusions we can from spelling before the language was fully standardized (although we have to be very careful about what conclusions we can draw from any given spelling), as well as rhyme, which can be a very helpful clue.

Anu Garg
And that was our last question for today. It's time to wrap up the chat.

Anu Garg
Thank you, Anne Curzan, for taking part in this chat. For more, please check out her books: How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction (2006) and Gender Shifts in the History of English (2003).

Thanks to all the participants for being a part of this chat even though we couldn't field each and every question due to limited time.

Anne Curzan
Thanks so much for all the great questions! It has been a pleasure to chat with all of you.

Ann Weaver-Hart TX
Thanks, Anne!

hippop california
Thank you.

Traylorjim - Denver
Thanks very much, Anne, for boiling down an immense topic to some concise, informative, and entertaining answers!

Linda
Thanks for joining the group discussion, Professor Curzan; your contributions gave us a lot to think about.

Samantha Netzley - Cincinnati
Thank you very kindly.

lingobserver
Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Ms. Curzan. Listening to you motivates me to learn more about the history of the English language. I think it would help me as a teacher. Thanks again for taking the time to come and share!

Joseph Knight - Maine
Thanks, Anne!

Tom - Pennsylvania
It was great.

Anu Garg
Please send your feedback on Wordsmith Chat to (words at wordsmith.org) on how you enjoyed the chat and how we can make it better. Thank you.

Anne Curzan's picture

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