Development of English

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At the same time, many of those troublesome verbs like sing and take, which have separate forms for the past participle, were simplifying to a single past form. This change also was resisted, on the theory that the small number of inflections was the greatest defect in our language. The fact that only about forty of our verbs now have these separate forms proves conclusively that we dont need them, and most of them would probably have disappeared by now if they had been allowed to depart in peace. But after two centuries of insistence on the importance of these unfortunate survivals, we may never get rid of them.



Of course the language continued to change in spite of all objections; and if the grammarians had done no more than slow up the rate of change it could be argued ( although not proved ) that their efforts had on the whole been useful. But they did something much worse than this. By insisting on rules which often had no foundation in the speech habits of the people, they converted grammar into an artificial and generally distasteful subject. When a Frenchman studies French grammar, he is learning how educated Frenchmen actually talk and write; and in his later life he can practice what he has learned in school with a comfortable assurance. But a good deal of what an Englishman or an American learns under the name of grammar has nothing to do with the use of our language; and a good deal more is in direct conflict with the actual practices of most educated people.

The result is that many Americans go through life feeling inadequate, even guilty, about their language habits. Even if they actually speak English very well, they seldom have the comfort of realizing it. They have been taught to believe in a mysterious perfect English which does not exist, and to regard it as highly important; but they have never had the structure of the language explained to them.


In the early part of the seventeenth century English settlers began to bring their language to America, and another series of changes began to take place. The settlers borrowed words from Indian languages for such strange trees as the hickory and persimmon, such unfamiliar animals as raccoons and woodchucks. Later they borrowed other words from settlers from other countries for instance, chowder and prairie from the French, scow and sleigh from the Dutch. They made new combinations of English words, such as backwoods and bullfrog, or gave old English words entirely new meanings, such as lumber ( which in British English means approximately junk ) and corn ( which in British means any grain, especially wheat ). Some of the new terms were needed, because there were new and un-English things to talk about. Others can be explained only on the general theory that languages are always changing, and American English is no exception.

Aside from the new vocabulary, differences in pronunciation, in grammatical construction, and especially in intonation developed. If the colonization had taken place a few centuries earlier, American might have become as different from English as French is from Italian. But the settlement occurred after the invention of printing, and continued through a period when the idea of educating everybody was making rapid progress. For a long time most of the books read in America came from England, and a surprising number of Americans read those books, in or out of school. Moreover, most of the colonists seem to have felt strong ties with England. In this they were unlike their Anglo-Saxon ancestors, who apparently made a clean break with their continental homes.

A good many Englishmen and some Americans used to condemn every difference that did develop, and as recently as a generation ago it was not unusual to hear all Americanisms condemned, even in America. It is now generally recognized in this country that we are not bound to the Queens English, but have a full right to work out our own habits. Even a good many of the English now concede this, though some of them object strongly to the fact that Americanisms are now having an influence on British usage.

There are thousands of differences in detail between British and American English, and occasionally they crowd together enough to make some difficulty. If you read that a man, having trouble with his lorry, got out his spanner and lifted the bonnet to see what was the matter, you might not realize that the driver of the truck had taken out his wrench and lifted the hood. It is amusing to play with such differences, but the theory that the American language is now essentially different from English does not hold up. It is often very difficult to decide whether a book was written by an American or an English man. Even in speech it would be hard to prove that national differences are greater than some local differences in either country. On the whole, it now seems probable that the language habits of the two countries will grow more, rather than less, alike, although some differences will undoubtedly remain and others may develop.

: 14/04/2007