I’m re-reading part of A History of the English Language (Baugh and Cable, 5th ed.) this morning. The authors provide a nice, if sometimes technical, approach to the history of English, from its lost-in-the-mists-of-time conception in Indo-European to its true birth as Old English. They then trace its evolution from Old to Middle to Early Modern (Renaissance period) to Modern, blasting a number of myth-conceptions and revealing startling truths along the way…
For instance: to whom does English owe more–the French/Spanish/Italian/Latin contingent (Romance languages) or the Germanic contingent (including, obviously, German)? Though classed as a Germanic language, English is often perceived as a pseudo-Romance language, thanks to its heavily Latinate/Frenchified vocabulary. In other words, we English speakers don’t build new words the way kids build with Legos: instead of stacking five words together to create a new one, we tend to say, “Never mind!” and either borrow from Latin or (as is often the case these days) dicker with the word’s usage/part of speech.
Hence “Facebook” morphs from proper noun into verb, “impact” morphs from verb into noun, and words like “Clorox” can be noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. You can use “Clorox,” you can “Clorox” the spaghetti sauce off your countertop, you can gaze in proud accomplishment at your newly “Cloroxed” kitchen counter, or you can…Well, you know what, I can’t think of an adverbial usage right now, but I’m sure there is one, and that if it doesn’t exist just yet then someone will surely invent it.
Anyway…English doesn’t act like German so much in the way we build words, though there are clear syntactical ties between the two languages. However, , German still has all its inflections (word endings) whereas English lost its. We used to be just as complicated as German, boasting many word endings (“en,” for example, as in Chaucer’s famous “He is wise who himselven know”) and multiple pronoun-forms to cover our cases.
Brief detour: ever wondered where we got words like “thee,” “thou,” and “thy?” These are our archaic, case-sensitive answers to what is these days covered by two words: you and yours. In a sentence such as, “I shall tell thee once only,” “thee” indicates objective case: that is, “thee” is the object of the sentence, who is under the command of “I,” the sentence’s subject. On the other hand, in “Thou lost thy mitten,” “thou” is now the form of you that indicates “you” are the subject of the sentence,” while “thy” indicates that the mitten is yours and nobody else’s.
…Yeah, took a little while for me, too. In any event, we’ve lost most of our inflections, but the reason this happened isn’t so much the 1066 Invasion as it is the several-centuries earlier incursion of Danes and Norse (aka: Vikings) into England.
How did the Vikings change our tongue? They did it by bringing with them new words (egg, freckle, sister, window)–and also words that rarely get swapped much between languages, such as pronouns and conjunctions. We have them to thank for our plural pronouns “they,” their,” and “them,” and also for the subordinating conjunction “though.”
Up until the Conquest, Viking settlement meant that England was effectively a bilingual country. In the north and east (and in Scotland), where the Vikings primarily lived and governed (known as the “Danelaw”), Old Norse and Old English mixed together. But these languages’ words were so similar, except for their endings, that eventually the people ditched these endings altogether, thus removing the last barrier to understanding.
Afterwards, when the French showed up, new sophisticated vocabulary entered the English lexicon. But the French had very little, if anything to do at all with the development of our syntax. If we have drifted syntactically from German, it’s because of inspiration from another Germanic language rather than a Romance one. Still, English owes much of its development to both Romance and Germanic sources, and without them, it certainly wouldn’t be what it is today.