February 15th, 2008


linguistics is so fascinating // random

One nice thing about where I work is that we have a subscription to the OED online. I can go browsing through the entire OED whenever the whim strikes me. It's a pleasant way to spend a few minutes while waiting for a process to finish. As a result, I've subscribed to the OED word-a-day RSS (which gives the earliest recorded use of the word right there in the RSS, but is mostly useless unless you can get to the rest of that word's material online). And today's word has reminded me of something that I has always struck me as intriguing.

English is one messed up language. How it got that way, though, is fascinating. Reading through older quotes, what I suppose would be considered Middle English from anywhere from 1300 (or perhaps even earlier) through till about the mid 1500s, you see all sorts of messed up spellings and you get the impression that grammar rules were "mostly guidelines" back then. It was clearly a very creative language, with the same word having multiple spellings depending on who was writing it and how they felt at the time (one time I was reading a quote and thought to myself, "this must have been during his 'y' phase"). But then, within a comparatively short period of time, you have suddenly a pulling-in of the reins and you begin seeing quotes that could easily pass for modern English (indeed, often better English than what I use most the time (but then, I speak US English, not really true English -- the joys of dialects)).

Reminds me of an article I read where someone proposed that biological evolution used the same minor-adjustments/sudden-burst pattern that languages exhibit. And when I read that I didn't find anything particularly outrageous about the claims, but looking at all these quotes through time lined up next to each other really gives an appreciation for the process the language goes through.