Readers’ response: How were the little words in English created? | Life and style


How were the little words – such as I, you, an, and – created?
Felicity Miles, St Albans

Post new questions below or send them to [email protected].

Readers respond

In the same way that big words were created. Only faster. dylan37

What you call “small” words are what bilingual dictionary makers sometimes, paradoxically, call “long words” because they produce the longest, most complex, and most difficult to write dictionary entries. These are what grammarians call “delexicalized” words, meaning that they are used as grammatical tools rather than having particular concrete meanings. An example is “the”, which can only be defined by talking about its function in the sentence. Interestingly (and this partly answers your question), because these grammatical words are the building blocks of our language (on which we “hang” the other, more significant words), they are most often of English origin. Saxon, rather than having more recent Latin or Anglo-Norman (ie “French”) roots. mjback

Such little words are not just little words, they are also all grammatical words (unlike other little words like “fly” or “net”, for example). Grammatical words are usually created by a process called grammaticalization, whereby a “normal” word, usually denoting a somewhat more concrete idea, begins to be used in new ways. The process typically involves a loss of the original concrete meaning, a reduction of the form (which becomes shorter, less likely to be emphasized, but also less variable) and increasingly constrained use (in some cases it is sufficient to ‘use this word and in others you can’t; it’s more subject to rules). A good example is the verb “to do”, which has become an auxiliary. When it’s a normal verb you can often replace it with “make” or “perform” and you can conjugate it in all kinds of ways and it can be stressed. When it comes to an auxiliary, the meaning of the action has almost disappeared, you cannot use forms like “having done” and in some sentences it is enough to use it for the sentence to be correct ( in a question or with a negation, for example). Presumably all of the words listed went through a similar process, but I have no idea what original “normal” word they came from. elskuligr

The indefinite articles “a” and “an” evolved from an old English numeral (pronounced “aahn”) to “one, only, unique” via grammaticalization. (Old English had no articles, just as this grammatical category – or part of speech – is absent from the majority of Slavic languages, which instead structure information based on a more flexible word order. ) The Old English precursor of the conjunction “and” in turn meant “on that, then”, and derived from the Proto-Germanic root * unda (and originally from Proto-Indo-European * in “in” ).

With other functional words such as the definite article “the”, prepositions such as “de”, “dans”, “à“, “pour”, “avec”, “sur”, the complement “que”, pronouns and “light” and the auxiliary verbs “be”, “do” and “have”, they constitute the Top 20 of the most frequent words in the English language – and a good part of each text. Longer, words of content are always lower in frequency lists – a characteristic shared by all natural languages.

Today’s first-person singular pronoun derived from Old English “ic” (and in turn from Proto-Germanic “ek” and Proto-Indo-European *for example). In northern England, the syllable had been shortened to a single vowel by the mid-12th century, although in some areas – particularly when the next word began with a vowel – the forms “ik” and “ich” remained until the 14th century, and in some southern dialects until the 18th century.

“You” comes from the accusative form of the plural pronoun in Old English “eow”. The widespread influence of French (and of the pronoun “vous”) in England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest began to gradually push back the nominative singular “tu”, with “vous” and “vous” (the latter in some northern dialects). England and Scotland) initially used to address superiors, then strangers and equals, and eventually becoming the generic form of address at the end of the 16th century. linguist

The abandonment of the second person singular / colloquial in English (apart from some ritual uses like “with this ring, I thee wed”) saddens me a lot. I notice this constantly since I use English, French and Dutch on a daily basis; French and Dutch both keep the equivalent. It’s such a practical concept! So convenient that American English has created a new explicitly plural second-person pronoun, y’all (contraction of you all). The old plural pronoun is now in the singular, and this kludge is needed to replace the plural. This is madness ! cereal cat

I think one of the most interesting aspects of this question is that these are not just signs that relate to things, or qualities, or processes in the world. Words such as “dog”, “rain”, “run” and “yellow” refer to such features of the world; in principle, you can probably teach your cat or dog signs that refer to it. But they will never learn words like “I”, “you”, “and” or “a” – the concepts are far too difficult. In particular, they require abstract thinking, which no non-human animal is likely capable of. Just think about what “a” means by contrasting it with “the”. “We saw the elephant” means “we saw the elephant that you know or that we were talking about before”. On the other hand, “We saw an elephant” means “we saw an elephant that you don’t know or that we haven’t mentioned before”. It is therefore a tool for keeping track of all the elements to which reference is made. It’s complex, very complex, so non-human animals probably can’t cope with it. So… where do these words come from? They come from the increased size and power of the brain that sets humans apart from (most? All?) Animals. incorruptible

Basic pronouns, articles, and connectors exist in virtually all natural languages. They certainly existed in Proto-Indo-European, the oldest known ancestor language of English, which was probably spoken around 6,000 years ago in the Pontic Steppe (north of the Black Sea).

Proto-Indo-European had long fractured into a myriad of languages ​​before anyone who spoke it learned to write, so all we know about it comes from comparing its descendant languages. It is theorized, for example, that modern English “I” comes from Proto-Indo-European * éǵhâ‚‚. The asterisk means that it is a reconstructed word, of which we have no direct proof, and experts dispute what the sound “hâ‚‚” was, because it disappeared very quickly in almost all. descendants of Proto-Indo-Europeans. But what we do know about this word is that it was the predecessor of the first person pronoun in a huge range of languages ​​across Europe and Asia – from English to Spanish, to Lithuanian, Farsi, Bengali.

The unsatisfactory answer, however, is that deeper than that we don’t know. Six thousand years ago, it is barely scratching the surface of the deep history of the use of human language. Before Proto-Indo-European there was something else, and before that something else, and before that something else, which goes back to the dawn of humanity. The question of how the simplest words were first created is more or less the same question as how the language itself developed, which we still have very little understanding of. alvinrow

In 1971 I was working in Bristol and we had a van driver who was about my age at the time, mid-twenties, who amazed me by using ‘you’ for you, ‘I can’t’ for not being able and “you”, which was also used as you. So would phrases from him be something like “You can’t do this” or “What are you doing today”? I loved hearing him speak in that old-fashioned English with his Bristol accent and responded with my Hampshire! How these little words and others like them have survived through him through those days, have always delighted and surprised me! shadsfan

I tell my OAP English students that the language evolved from a “uh”. When our distant ancestors had exhausted all the different pronunciations of “uh”, one of them added “ah” and they developed all of its possible meanings, which led to “oh”, “uh” … and later “uh -ho ”. Then I explain that the first scribes of English were Latin and French monks from Great Britain, who, perpetually joyful with mead, made spelling mistakes, that, centuries later, the houses of edition turned profitable not to correct (more dictionaries and grammars sold).

It is not all ironic. By observing letter sequences in one-syllable words, I deduced the rules of thumb which give “rede, reed, read, reede, reade, reid, reide and reyde” the same pronunciation and which, with a little history, also allow the sound “” norly “to be spelled correctly in 100 ways. Can someone write a sentence that contains the many meanings of the word” correct “? werdswerth


Comments are closed.