In defence of descriptivism

If we view language as a living organism, then change is just part of that. The development of limbs in our ancestors could hardly be considered a mistake. It was merely a development.

Using “literally” as an intensifier is merely a development. The word “awesome” used to mean “filled with awe”. It clearly doesn’t meant that anymore. In a much earlier stage of English, the equivalent of “hound” meant “dog”. The meaning changed over time.

Language viewed from the descriptivist point of view doesn’t treat these changes as mistakes, only changes. Was it a mistake that English dropped conjugation or the second person plural? No, it just changed.

If you are thinking to yourself, “But these people are saying something weird and different and it goes against convention. Look at what the dictionary says!”

All language is convention. We use the word “dog” because that is the word everyone uses. For some reason people started refering to the hairy four legged creature as a dog and now everyone does.

Now when you say that language is change, some people misinterpret this to mean that anything goes. That is not how it works. Language is convention. If I started chinging ill my A’s into I’s then my writing will be going igiinst convention ind will confuse ind innoy people. Of course, you can still read it and understand it because the change is not large.

But to use language effectively, you have to be aware of current convention and abide by it to make sure that you are understood and don’t confuse people. You can’t start calling a computer a dog and expect people will understand what you are trying to say.

But these conventions are very loose. Much looser than a lot of people would like. Is it “colour” or “color”? Depends where you are. Is “aint” a word? It is in many places and in others it isn’t used much, if at all.

Can you use “literally” as an intensifier? Well, this question is besides the point. People DO use “literally” as an intensifier. Ignoring that reality is like refusing to believe that birds exist.

You can argue that it robs us of a word which means “this is totally and 100% true” but there are ways of communicating this such as “I was no tired that I simply couldn’t move from the couch” or “I was so hungry I would have actually eaten anything that was put in front of me”.

I really don’t understand the vitriol people through at this different use of “literally”. If you really do care about language, then spend your energy on useful things, like helping people write more clearly and expressively. If you just want to scream at the fact that the world is changing, then go ahead. People havebeen lamenting change since time immemorial. But here we are, speaking dialectal Proto Indo European and everything is going pretty alright.

German vs Swedish

High German (Standard German) is a West Germanic language and Swedish is a North Germanic language. Despite being in different branches, they have a lot of similarities due to strong influence from the Hanseatic League which spoke a language closely related to High German called Low German (also called Low Saxon)

High German – Swedish
verändern – förändra
verbieten – förbjuda
versuchen – försöka
verbessern – förbättra
versammeln – församla
verhindern – förhindra
verloren – förlora
verursachen – förorsaka

What if William the Conqueror never existed?

What if William the Conqueror never existed?

William the Conqueror, as he was later known, is famous for invading England in 1066 and setting up a dynasty that has lasted until today. He came from Normandy which was French speaking and so the Normans brought a lot of French to England. 1066 is commonly regarded as the end of the Old English period and the beginning of the Middle English period. French became the dominant language after 1066 and English became merely the language of the peasants. It wasn’t until 1200 that English start reemerging as a written language.

Here is an alternate scenario.

Normandy was founded by Rollo, a Viking from Scandanavia. He was given lands in northern France in exchange for fealty to the French king. The problem at the time was Viking raids. Rollo, by training an army of Normans, was able to fend of the Viking raids and strengthen France’s position. Normandy, due to it being so close to England, was often a refuge for English nobles.

Edward the confessor was king of England from 1042 to 1066. His successor was Harold Godwinson. Harold was the son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdottir, sister-in-law of King Cnut the Great. Harold had connections all over England. He served as Earl of Hereford in 1058 and when he became king in 1066, he appointed his son Sweyn as Earl of Herford.

England continued to grow under Harold’s reign. He set up many new defences in the south and the east to fend off Viking attacks. The House of Wessex grew in power over the decades. Meanwhile in Normandy, Rollo’s descendant had continued to build up Normandy. The current Duke of Normandy Robert decided it was best to get along with France and worked to solidify Normandy’s position within the French Kingdom.

Royalty love forging alliances through marriage and Europe’s royal families were full of connections all over the place. In 1206, King Athelstan of Wessex married one of the Duke of Normandy’s daughters. This alliance would cause problems in later decades. King Athelstan never had any sons and after his death Duke Henry pressed his advantage by suggesting that one of his sons take over.

The Witan (Anglo Saxon council) decided that it would be better to keep England in Anglo Saxon hands and gave the Kingship to Egbert, the cousin of King Athelstan. Duke Henry was outraged and went to the King of France for help. King Louis jumped at the chance to get more land. With 6 months, Duke Henry and King Louis launched an invasion into England. It was no easy fight, but the French eventually emerged victorious. King Egbert became the last Anglo Saxon king.

Duke Henry was named King of England and he pledged to always work towards the glory of all French people. All the Anglo Saxon nobility were kicked out and replaced with French nobles. King Henry and King Louis worked together on how best to consolidate their power in England and France. People from Normandy began arriving in England over the next few decades increasing the French influence.

The English language was sidelined and the peasants mocked for speaking English. French was the new language of the country. Relations between England and France continued to develop. A war council was established in 1306 where French people from England and France could best discuss strategies and share resources across the realm. England, with the help of France managed to push further west and north in England, pushing the native English into Wales and Scotland.

By the 1400s, England and France had become so integrated that talk was started about unifying the two countries into a United Kingdom of England and France. This happened a few years later in 1407. The English language had seen a rapid decline since the Anglo Saxon defeat in 1206. Now, less than 10% of people left in England still spoke English, and those that did were bilingual in French. By the 1500s, English was considered extinct in England.

This is merely one scenario. We can’t really know what would have happened. One thing I find fascinating about English history is all the connections between England and France. William the Conqueror attacked England due to a claim he felt he had on the English throne. Even without William the Conqueror, some sort of claim is bound to have been created at some point. Royal marriages connected all sorts of places.

The other thing I wanted to put into this alternate scenario is a small change which I think in our timeline ultimately saved English from the fate it suffered in this alternate scenario. Normandy, while technically under the power of France, never truly was a part of the Kingdom of France. Normandy used its own influence and claims over England, and there was nothing France could do about that.

Eventually France managed to take Normandy over from the Normans, but they never got England. These two things I think in the end saved English. While Normandy controlled England, French influence poured into England and it is during this time period that tons of French words became a part of English.

Just like the death of Gaulish in France, English in England would have eventually been ground down and have disappeared, leaving only loanwords in the new dominant language of the area. This French influence slowed down once Normandy lost to France and that wave of French people coming into England stopped. People in Normandy and people in England had a choice. Stay where they are, or go to the other. They would not be allowed to have land in both Normandy and England.

This made the French in England feel isolated from the French in France and they began marrying English girls and began feeling more English than French. The English girls taught their children English and now the nobles in England started being able to speak English again. Animosities between England and France would remain, some would say, to this day. England invaded France in the 1400s but never held the land for long.

In my alternate scenario, I made one important change. The Normans who founded Normandy decided to throw themselves fully into the French project. Remember, these people were not French. They decided to become French for the promise of land. In our timeline they never full assimilated into the larger French kingdom leading to the split between Normandy and France. In my alternate scenario, I decided to make the Normans much more sympathetic to the French, thus making Normandy a fully integrated part of France.

Without the need for the French to invade Normandy, Normandy never gets cut off and the connection between France and England never goes away. The constant influx of French would have spelled death for English in this timeline.

I know a lot of people day dream about what would have happened if William the Conqueror never existed and that English didn’t get so many French words, but history is complicated and we can never really know what would have happened. I wanted to make a scenario where a few small things changed, and the result is totally different than our timeline.

Thanks for reading 🙂

“ge-” in English and German

This post discusses cognates which are words that descend from a common source. Sometimes a word will have a different meaning to one of its cognates. Words often change meaning over time

The prefix “ge-” existed in Old English but the “g” was pronounced like Modern English “y”. This would often evolve into “i” (pronounced like Modern English “ee”) or “a” and then sometimes it just disappeared entirely by the time it got to Modern English. German however pronounces “ge-” with a hard “g” like the “g” in “gift”. This can make cognates harder to spot though so I decided to make a list of English and German cognates where the Old English version had a “ge-” in it. This way you can see how the word changed over time.

enough comes from Middle English ynough, Old English ġenōg cognate with German genug

alike comes from Middle English alike, Old English ġelīċ cognate with German gleich

moot comes from Middle English ȝemot, Old English ġemōt which means “society, assembly, court, council”

mind comes from Middle English ȝemunde, Old English ġemynd which means “memory, remembrance, memorial”

mad comes from Middle English madd, Old English ġemǣdd which means enraged

mean comes from Middle English imene, Old English ġemǣne which means “common, public, general, universal” cognate with
German gemein

sheriff comes from “shire reeve” where reeve comes from Old English ġerēfa

aware comes from Middle English aware, from Old English ġewær cognate with German gewahr

“not”, “niet” and “nicht” in West Germanic languages

niet in Dutch comes from Old Dutch niewiht from reconstructed form *niowiht from nio “never” + wiht “thing, creature”
nicht in German comes from Old High German niowiht, from nio “never” + wiht “being, creature”
not in English comes from Old English nāht short for nāwiht which is ne “not” + āwiht “anything”, which itself comes from
ā “ever” + wiht “thing, creatu