Developing English Language and Different Dialects of the World

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The development of dialects the world over began with small steps, gradually evolving into strong ones. In between the small and big ones, there were medium-sized dialects which became bigger with time. Why are such dialects and other fluently spoken languages considered fine?

Picture showing the names of different languages spelled out by letter tiles.
There are many words in English that have been borrowed from other languages and most languages are a bundle of dialects. (Image: Mellimage/Shutterstock)

Different Flairs of English Language

In today’s standard English, a sentence such as, ‘he’s not going to tell you anything,’ in old English would be something like, he nylle the nāht ascegan. This would be, ‘he not will to you nothing to say’. It was a very different language. In the Honeymooners’ Brooklyn, it would be, ‘Norton! He ain’t gonna tell you nuthin.’ In Cornwall, it would be, aw bain’t gwine for tell ee nawthen—’he’s not going to tell you anything’. Some Scots say it as, he wina tell thee onything. All these are English but not heard much in America. Even the Brooklyn dialect is eroding, those were the ways that English was spoken and still is, and standard English is just one of the parts.

Old English

Those dialects do not trace back to standard English, spoken now by everyone. The way people talk now was, along with all of those things, is something that developed from an ancestor, which was Old English, which can be studied in the books. There may also be some clubs where people walk around speaking it.

Learn more about how language change takes place in many directions.

Ongoing Development of Present-Day English

Present-day English has developed alongside. It is important to realize that the standard came from Old English just like others, and most languages are bundles of dialects. For example, English borrowed the word ‘warrant’ from French. But looking at French, the word taught today begins with g, making it garant. It is because the word ‘warrant’ is not borrowed from standard French, which became standard French, from Norman French. Norman French is a different dialect from standard French, where standard French has a g, like in garant, Norman French has a w as in ‘warrant’.

Italian Dialects

Italian dialects are so different from each other that it is impossible to imagine that there is any one language. For example, in The Godfather, there was Italian spoken in the scenes that take place in Sicily, with no one having an idea of what those people were saying. Because Sicilian is a different language, and that does not only happen in the exotic south, where the Sopranos’ ancestors come from but also up in the north.

Italian-Americans who are descended from southern Italians spontaneously pronounce certain Italian things because they heard it pronounced that way from their relatives who were descended from people who actually were in Sicily. If on a package it says, ricotta cheese, a non-Italian would read it as ricotta because it is standard Italian, one of many dialects and a real Italian-American calls it rigah. Riggot, is the way they say it in Sicily, based on the sound changes that have been seen. Words like, manicotti come out as manigot from some people. Besides the standard, there are other dialects, which are moving along, developed from the same original ancestor, at different paces.

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

Different Dialects in Germany

Image of a blackboard with some German words written on it.
In Germany, there are very different dialects spoken in different areas, especially in the south of the country. (Image: chrupka/Shutterstock)

In Germany, getting down to the south, one deals with a different tongue. There is an extent to which a Bavarian knows that they are speaking a separate language.

They might not put it that way, but it is quite different. For example, ‘you have something’ in High German is, Du hast etwas. In Schwäbisch, down in the south, it is, De hesch oppis. So Du hast etwas; De hesch oppis, there seems a relationship, but they are very different.

Learn more about the proto-language of the Indo-Europeans.

Dialects the World Over

Dialects are everywhere and it is not just the interesting things that happens to English because of the nature of England and America; it is the way languages are. There is something that can be seen in languages all over the world which means that the standard dialect is really lucky.

Learn more about reconstructing words from the world’s first language.

Standard Dialects

When a language is a written one—and this is not most of the world’s languages—but if it is a written language, one of its dialects, because if it is a language then it is a bundle of dialects, one of them gets chosen as the standard dialect. That dialect is used in writing and in public contexts. That dialect developed along with the other ones, but it happened to be chosen. It has been said that “a standard is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Generally, the one that is chosen is chosen because it has ‘something’ in some kind of way.

Map that explains the dialects of Castilian in Spain.
One of the dialects spoken by the armies was Castilian Spanish which became a benchmark. (Image: Stephen Shaw at the English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

Castilian Spanish was and is one that was chosen because it happened to be the variety of Spanish spoken by the armies who went south and helped to get rid of the Moors. Their way of speaking became the model.

The Italian standard is the Tuscan variety, the area that produced Dante and Bocaccio, which became the ‘real’ Italian. But if things had been otherwise, Sicilian, with the rigot and manigot would have been ‘real’ and the Tuscan variety would have been considered the odd one that never gets written down. It is a matter of geopolitics.

Common Questions about the Developing English Language

Q: Does anyone speak Old English?

Old English is not spoken these days but can be studied in books, and a few clubs have people speaking in Old English dialect.

Q: Which English accent is closest to Old English?

The American accent is the closest to Old English .

Q: What is an example of Old English?

A sentence like, ‘he’s not going to tell you anything,’ in Old English would be, he nylle the nāht ascegan. This would be, ‘he not will to you nothing to say’.

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