Re: In Defense of Bourgeois Pedants

Subject: Re: In Defense of Bourgeois Pedants
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 05 Dec 2000 14:11:03 -0800

Rick Kirkham wrote:
> > If anything, the English of
> > the 1200s is simpler, and reads almost like a Basic Old English.
> Middle English is simpler because it is uninflected, not because it as a
> sub-set of Old English. It is *not* the latter.

Middle English (or modern, for that example) is not uninflected,
just very weakly inflected. Pronouns are still inflected, and so is
the possessive; "'s" is the possessive because the Old English
genetive ending was "es."

But my point was that, in many of the surviving texts, the
vocabulary is simpler and the sentence structure less elaborate. The
reasons are complex, but include the fact that Old English poetry
may have contained words that were already archaic, and that a
reliance on analytical sentence structure limits syntax. Also, many
surviving OE texts may have been produced by or for the educated
elites, while many Middle English texts weren't.

> Doesn't this support *my* belief rather than yours? It reinforces the
> differences between English of 750 and English of 1200.

Not really. The changes that accelerated in the 11th century were
happening before then. My point is that the analytical sentence
structure that English eventually settled down to was already widely
used in the Old English period, so the change to weak inflection
wasn't as great as it might seem.

> > One proof is the survival of Old English/Old Norse words in
> > dialects in Scotland and the North of England, all of which are far
> > closer to Middle English than standard English: for example, "ken"
> > for "understand," "gang" for "walk" or "go" and so on. The northern,
> > late middle ages poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is
> > especially interesting in this respect.
> You've lost me here. How does any of this show that a 750 AD Englishman
> could communicate with a 1200 Englishman "fairly easily"?

The northern dialects are much closer to Middle English than modern
standard English, yet are reasonably intelligible even if you were
raised speaking standard modern English.

> I'm not in a position to make an independent comparison of my own. I have
> found examples of middle and old English on the web (e.g. the Lord's prayer)
> and I can barely understand about half the words of the middle English, and
> the Old English might as well be Martian.

Once you get past some of the spelling differences, Old English is
less Martian than you might think. For example, "daeg" may look
unintelligible to you until I spelled it as "day." Hearing it spoken
slowly helps, too.

But I should also stress that I am talking about the early part of
the Middle English period, not the later. Your point is far more
valid for Chaucer than for writings from the 1200s.

Opinions vary, but many linguists see the largest change in English
as occurring somewhere between about 1400 and 1550. Sometimes it's
called The Great Vowel Shift, although, if I understand it properly,
much more than vowels were involved.

Accordingly, I *have* to rely on
> authority. But that shouldn't bother you. If a direct comparison would yield
> the results you claim, then other experts will have reached the same
> conclusion, so you should be able to cite others who think a 750 AD
> Englishman could communicate with a 1200 Englishman "fairly easily". (You
> mentioned your old professor. What's his name? Let's track him down and ask
> him.)

Well, he's easy to find, but don't expect many answers. He's dead.

Seriously, though, nothing I say is especially unusual or
controversial. In fact, it's based on a fairly basic understanding -
strictly undergrad work with a little independent study. That's one
reason why I don't have references at my fingertips. Another is that
it's some years since I studied Old and Middle English extensively.

I'm sorry if I sound evasive, but I didn't start discussing the
issue with scholarly references in mind. If I can dig out my
textbooks from the bookshelves, maybe I can find some. If not, you
shouldn't need to find any exotic works.

> As someone who seems to know both ME and OE, your ability to creatively
> imagine what it would be like to know only one and not the other is only
> marginally better than mine. Your personal success at understanding both is
> not an accurate measure of whether a 750 AD Englishman could communicate
> with a 1200 Englishman "fairly easily".

It's not just imagination. It's also a sense of share vocabulary and
grammatical structure. Undoubtedly, it's an imperfect one, but what
else do I have? For that matter, the same could be said of the
original statement that modern people could understand people from
Shakespeare's days.

> (I know English and Latin and I'm
> always impressed by the number of cognate terms, but it does not follow that
> someone who knows only one of them could "easily understand" the other.)

Where this comparision falls down is that Latin was an influence on
English, but not a direct ancestor. Middle English didn't emerge out
of nothing; it began with Old English grammar and syntax.

Anyway, this has been a long discussion to come from a simple point.
It doesn't really matter to what extent speakers from 1200 and 750
could understand each other; although I suggest that they could.
What I was originally saying that English has evolved at different
rates through its history, and that the greatest change was
somewhere in the transition from the Late Middle Ages to the

Come to think of it, the printing press may have had as much to do
with the standardization of English as grammars. It's much easier to
standardize when you can see a word on the page than when you speak.
Also, mass production - which the printing press basically is -
seems to encourage standardization of everything.

But none of this has much to do with tech writing. Let's take it
off-line before we exhaust Eric's (and everybody else's) patience.

Bruce Byfield, Outlaw Communications
Contributing Editor, Maximum Linux
604.421.7189 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

"The squire has a piece of paper that says he owns the land,
The bishop has a bible that says our souls are damned,
Mackenzie had a printing press, it's soaking in the bay,
And if Mackenzie comes again, there will be hell to pay."
-Dennis Lee, "Mackenzie"

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