Changes in Grammar and Pronunciation of English Words

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Natural languages change in terms of grammar, pronunciation, as well as the meaning of words and phrases. Some changes are so profound and deep that understanding the written work of centuries ago needs a special knowledge of the language. In the English language, these variations can be seen even in more recent works of literature.

Old weathered books, inkstand with quill and scroll isolated on white background
Even Jane Austen’s English feels different from today’s English.
(Image: Anna Kucherova/Shutterstock)

Different English of Jane Austen

In literary works as recent as Jane Austen’s, we can see these variations in the English language. Although we can process them, they seem old-usage or sometimes even funny. In Middlemarch, we come across some cases where the characters sound archaic. Even, some cases are so grammatically far from our standard rules that we think they might be a typo. For example, in one case, we read, “You are come at last.”  Well, according to the rules of English grammar, it has to be you have come at last. We might think either it is a typo or the character is pompous. But actually, this is a rule of grammar that is seen in many European languages like German and French.

One of the first two published illustrations of Pride and Prejudice, from the Richard Bentley edition.[156] Caption reads: "She then told him [Mr Bennett] what Mr Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia. He heard her with astonishment."
The language used in Jane Austen’s books show English grammar has changed since the 19th century. (Image: Pickering & Greatbatch/Public domain)

 In English, among other languages, some verbs were not used with have. Instead, they were used with is or are. Then, just like he is arrived‌ in French, he is come was perfectly grammatical and acceptable in English. So, this kind of sentence did not show you were pretentious or uneducated. It was perfectly normal English, spoken by ordinary people.

Another example in Jane Austen is the use of past participle in a passive sentence. People say much was ate instead of much was eaten. Or it would quite shock you, would not it? Isn’t it supposed to be would it not?  Well, these structures were quite normal in those days. They were not against the grammar rules because that was how people used to speak.

Learn more about the return of English as a standard.

Grammar Changes in English

There is a grammar book written in the early 19th century by a man named William Cobbett called Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters. He wrote this book to teach his son about proper language. For example, the past of bend is bended, as in I bended the book. To native speakers of English, it sounds funny. But to him, it was even better than I bent the book, based on the language that was spoken at that time. Other examples include lodaden, Shotten, and Spitten instead of loaded, shot, and spit. Another change in grammar that we can observe is the use of passive voice among educated people. In the 19th century, a sentence like a house is being built in Mott Street would have been considered vernacular. Instead, the cultivated preferred to say a house is building in Mott Street.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Changes in Pronunciation Over Time

American English pronunciation has also seen many variations in the course of history. The prevalent opinion is that before Jackson became the president, American English sounded partly like British English. But according to some books teaching English pronunciation, the English spoken at that time sounded like neither American nor British English.

A dictionary of pronunciation published in 1774, clarifies that dismay and dismissed should be pronounced diz-may and diz-miss, respectively. Other cases include cement pronounced SEE-ment, balcony pronounced bal-COH-ny. Unless these were ideas just cooked up by the writer, we should assume that these pronunciations were actually heard, at least in some dialects or variations of English.

What did People Sound Like in the Old Times?

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript with its opening Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon... "Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings..."
English pronunciation has changed, too, over time. (Image: See page for author/Public domain)

Before recording sound became possible by Edison’s invention in 1877, all records of language we have access to are in the written form. So we have no idea what people actually sounded like when they spoke English. Even the descriptions which are given about the way people like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson talked cannot help us. They say that they sounded reedy, so what? We cannot know how they sounded exactly.

So, much of the research conducted on the history of language is like detective work. Although we can get clear insights on how the language has changed, we cannot hear them speak. This is one of the limitations that cannot be reconciled since, before a certain time, there are no records of the spoken language. These changes did not happen centuries ago, and we can see them as recently as the 19th century.

Learn more about dialect representations in Middle English.

Common Questions about Changes in the Grammar and Pronunciation of English Words

Q: What is a grammatical change?

Grammatical change is the process of change in grammatical features of a language over time. For example, in the English language, in Jane Austen’s books, we read, “You are come at last.” This has changed to “you have come at last” in modern English.

Q: How has English grammar changed over time?

If we compare texts as recent as the 19th century, we see a lot of changes in grammar. For example, in a grammar book by William Cobbett, loaden, spitten, and shotten are given instead of loaded, spit, and shot.

Q: Is the English language in decline?

Language change is a natural phenomenon and happens in every language. Speakers of the language can process these changes and communicate easily. These changes reflect the changes in the lifestyles of societies.

Q: Is 19th century English different from Modern English?

According to the written texts of the 19th century, like the works of Jane Austen, there are variations in the English language. Although English speakers can comprehend the language, some words and grammatical structures might sound archaic or funny to them.

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