Jens Otto Harry Jespersen.

Growth and structure of the English language online

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;rowth and structure
)f the english language


OTTO JESPERSEN, ph.d., lit.d.,


"lehrbuch der phonetik", "phonetische grundfragen",
"how to teach a foreign language",
"a modern english grammar", etc.






"^I^ -10-76


The scope and plan of this volume have been set
forth in the introductory paragraph. I have endeavoured
to write at once popularly and so as to be of some
profit to the expert philologist. In some cases I have
advanced new views without having space enough to
give all my reasons for deviating from commonly
accepted theories, but I hope to find an opportunity
in future works of a more learned character to argue
out the most debatable points.

I owe more than I can say to numerous predecessors
in the fields of my investigations, most of all to the
authors of the New English Dictionary. The dates given
for the first and last appearance of a word are nearly
always taken from that splendid monument of English
scholarship, and it is hardly necessary to warn the
reader not to take these dates too literally. When I say,
for instance, th^it fenester was in use from 1 290 to 1548,
I do not mean to say that the word was actually heard
for the first and for the last time in those two years,
but only that no earlier or later quotations have been
discovered by the painstaking authors of that dictionary.

I have departed from a common practice in retaining
the spelling of all authors quoted. I see no reason why
in so many English editions of Shakespeare the spelling is
modernized while in quotations from other Elizabethan
authors the old spelling is followed. Quotations from
Shakespeare are here regularly given in the spelling of
the First FoHo (1623). The only point where, for the
convenience of modern readers, I regulate the old usage,


IV Preface.

is with regard to capital letters and «, z', z*, /, printing,
for instance, us and love instead of vs and loue. — To
avoid misunderstandings, I must here expressly state
that by Old English (O. E.) I always understand the
language before 1150, still often termed Anglo-Saxon.
I want to thank Mr. A. E. Hayes of London, Dr.
Lane Cooper of Cornell University, and especially Pro-
fessor G. C. Moore Smith of Sheffield University, who
has in many ways given me the benefit of his great
knowledge of the English language and of English

In the second edition I have here and there modi-
fied an expression, added a fresh illustration, and
removed a remark or an example that was not per-
haps very felicitously chosen; but in the main the
work remains unchanged.

Gentofte (Copenhagen), September 191 1.



Chapter I ^*^®

Preliminary Sketch ^

Chapter II
The Beginnings ^^

Chapter III
Old English 33

Chapter IV
The Scandinavians 59

Chapter V
The French 84

Chapter VI
Latin and Greek iH

Chapter VII
Various Sources 152

Chapter VIII
Grammar ^7^

Chapter IX
Shakespeare and the Language of Poetry . . 210

Chapter X
Conclusion 234

Phonetic Symbols. Abbreviations . . . 249
Index 250

Chapter /.

Preliminary Sketch.

1. It will be my endeavour in this volume to character-
ize the chief peculiarities of the English language, and
to explain the growth and significance of those features
in its structure which have been of permanent import-
ance. The older stages of the language, interesting as
their study is, will be considered only in so far as they
throw light either directly or by way of contrast on the
main characteristics of present-day English, and an at-
tempt will be made to connect the teachings of linguistic
history with the chief events in the general history of the
English people so as to show their mutual bearings on
each other and the relation of language to national
character. The knowledge that the latter conception is a
very difficult one to deal with scientifically, as it may
easily tempt one into hasty generalizations, should make
us wary, but not deter us from grappHng with problems
which are really both interesting and important. — My
plan will be, first to give a rapid sketch of the language
of our own days, so as to show how it strikes a foreigner
— a foreigner who has devoted much time to the study
of English, but who feels that in spite of all his efforts
he is only able to look at it as a foreigner does, and not
exactly as a native would — and then in the following
chapters to enter more deeply into the history of the
language in order to describe its first shape, to trace the

Jespershn: English. 2nd ed. I

,2%; Ic J V; ' ' ' I.'- Pvelim'inary Sketch.

various foreign influences it has undergone, and to give
an account ot its own inner growth.

2, It is, of course, impossible to characterize a lan-
guage in one formula; languages, like men, are too com-
posite to have their whole essence summed up in one
short expression. Nevertheless, there is one expression
that continually comes to my mind whenever I think
of the English language and compare it with others: it
seems to me positively and expressly masculine, it is
the language of a grown-up man and has very little
childish or feminine about it. A great many things go
together to produce and to confirm that impression,
things phonetical, grammatical, and lexical, words and
turns that are found, and words and turns that are not
found, in the language. In dealing with the English
language one is often reminded of the characteristic
English hand-writing; just as an English lady will nearly
always write in a manner that in any other country
would only be found in a man's hand, in the same manner
the language is more manly than any other language I

3. First I shall mention the sound system. The English
consonants are well defined; voiced and voiceless con-
sonants stand over against each other in neat symmetry,
and they are, as a rule, clearly and precisely pronounced.
You have none of those indistinct or half-slurred con-
sonants that abound in Danish, for instance (such as
those in ha^e, hage, liz;lig) where you hardly know
whether it is a consonant or a vowel-glide that meets
the ear. The only thing that might be compared to this
in English, is the r when not followed by a vowel, but
then this has really given up definitely all pretensions
to the rank of a consonant, and is (in the pronunciation
of the South of England) either frankly a vowel (as in
here) or else nothing at all (in hart, etc.). Each English

Sound System. ^

consonant belongs distinctly to its own type, a / is a /,
and a ^ is a ^, and there an end. There is much less
modification of a consonant by the surroundmg vowels
than in some other languages, thus none of that palatal-
ization of consonants which gives an insinuating grace
to such languages as Russian. The vowel sounds, too,
are comparatively independent of their surroundings, and
in this respect the language now has deviated widely
from the character of Old English and has become more
clear-cut and distinct in its phonetic structure, although,
to be sure, the diphthongization of most long vowels
(in ale, whole, eel, who, phonetically eil, houl, ijl, huw)
counteracts in some degree this impression of neatness
and evenness.

4. Besides these characteristics, the full nature of
which cannot, perhaps, be made intelligible to any but
those familiar with phonetic research, but which are still
felt more or less instinctively by everybody hearing the
language spoken, there are other traits whose importance
'can with greater ease be made evident to anybody
possessed of a normal ear.

5. To bring out cleaily one of these points I select at
random, by way of contrast, a passage from the language
of Hawaii: 'T kona hiki ana aku ilaila ua hookipa ia
mai la oia me ke aloha pumehana loa.'' Thus it goes
on, no single word ends in a consonant, and a group of
two or more consonants is never found. Can any one
be in doubt that even if such a language sound plea-
santly and be full of music and harmony, the total im-
pression is childlike and effeminate? You do not expect
much vigour or energy in a people speaking ouch a lan-
guage; it seems adapted only to inhabitants of sunny
regions where the soil requires scarcely any labour on
the part of man to yield him everthing he wants, and
where life therefore does not bear the stamp of a hard


A I. Preliminary Sketch,

struggle against nature and against fellow-creatures. In
a lesser degree we find the same phonetic structure in
such languages as Italian and Spanish; but how different
are our Germanic tongues. English has no lack of words
ending in two or more consonants, — I am speaking,
of course, of the pronunciation, not of the spelling —
age, hence, wealth, tent, tempt, tempts, months, helped,
feasts, etc. etc., and thus requires, as well as presupposes,
no little energy on the part of the speakers. That many
suchlike consonant groups do not tend to render the
language beautiful, one is bound readily to concede;
however, it cannot be pretended that their number in
English is great enough to make the language harsh or
rough. While the fifteenth century greatly increased the
number of consonant groups by making the e mute in
monthes, helped, etc., the following centuries, on the con-
trary, lightened such groups as -ght in night, thought
(where the "back-open'' consonant as German ch is still
spoken in Scotch) and the initial kn-, gn- in know,
gnaw, etc. Note also the disappearance of / in alms,'
folk, etc., and of r in hard, court, etc.; the final conso-
nant groups have also been simplified in comb and the
other words in -mb (whereas b has been retained in
timber) and in the exactly parallel group -ng, for in-
stance in strong, where now only one consonant is heard
after the vowel, a consonant partaking of the nature of n
and of g, but identical with neither of them; formerly it
was followed by a real g, which has been retained in

6. In the first ten stanzas of Tennyson's "Locksley
Hall", three hundred syllables, we have only thirty-three
words ending in two consonants, and two ending in
three, certainly no excessive number, especially if we
take into account the nature of the groups, which are
nearly all of the easiest kind (-dz: comrades, Pleiads;

Endings. 5

-mz: gleams, comes; -nz: robin's, man's, turns; -ns:
distance, science; -ks: overlooks; -ts: gets, thoughts;
-kts: tracts, cataracts; -zd: reposed, closed; -st: rest,
West, breast, crest; -Jt: burnish'd; -nd: sound, around,
moorland, behind, land; -nt: want, casement, went,
present; -Id: old, world; It: result; -If: himself; -pt:
dipt). Thus, we may perhaps characterize English,
phonetically speaking, as possessing male energy, but
not brutal force. The accentual system points in the
same direction, as will be seen below (26 — 28).

7. The Italians have a pointed proverb: "Le parole
son femmine e i fatti son maschi." If briefness, concise-
ness and terseness are characteristic of the style of men,
while women as a rule are not such economizers of
speech, English is more masculine than most languages.
We see this in a great many ways. In grammar it has
got rid of a great many superfluities found in earlier
English as well as in most cognate languages, reducing
endings, etc., to the shortest forms possible and often
doing away with endings altogether. Where German
has, for instance, alle diejenigen wilden Here, die dort
leben, so that the plural idea is expressed in each word
separately (apart, of course, from the adverb), English
has all the wild animals that live there, where all, the
article, the adjective, and the relative pronoun are alike
incapable of receiving any mark of the plural number;
the sense is expressed with the greatest clearness imagi-
nable, and all the unstressed endings -e and -en,
which make most German sentences so drawling, are

8. Rimes based on correspondence in the last syl-
lable only of each line (as bet, set; laid, shade) are
termed male rimes, as opposed to feminine rimes, where
each line has two corresponding syllables, one strong
and one weak (as better, setter; lady, shady). It is true

6 I. Preliminary' Sketch.

that these names, which originated in France, were not
at first meant to express any parallelism with the charac-
teristics of the two sexes, but arose merely from the
grammatical fact that the weak -e was the ending of
the feminine gender (grande, etc.). But the designa-
tions are not entirely devoid of symbolic significance;
there is really more of abrupt force in a word that ends
with a strongly stressed syllable, than in a word where
the maximum of force is followed by a weak ending.
'Thanks' is harsher and less polite than the two-sylla-
bled 'thank you'. English has undoubtedly gained in
force, what it has possibly lost in elegance, by reducing
so many words of two syllables to monosyllables. If it
had not been for the great number of long foreign, espe-
cially Latin, words, English would have approached the
state of such monosyllabic languages as Chinese, Now
one of the best Chinese scholars, G. v. d. Gabelentz,
somewhere remarks that an idea of the condensed power
of the monosyllabism found in old Chinese may be gath-
ered from Luther's advice to a preacher 'Geh rasch 'nauf,
tu's maul auf, hor bald auf.' He might with equal justice
have reminded us of many English sentences. 'First
come first served' is much more vigorous than the French
'premier venu, premier moulu' or 'le premier venu en-
gr^ne', the German 'wer zuerst kommt mahlt zuerst'
and especially than the Danish 'den der kommer forst
til melle, far farst malet'. Compare also 'no cure, no pay',
'haste makes waste, and waste makes want', 'live and
learn,* 'Love no man: trust no man: speak ill of no
man to his face; nor well of any man behind his
back' (Ben Jonson), 'to meet, to know, to love, and
then to part' (Coleridge) , 'Then none were for the
party; Then all were for the state; Then the great
man help'd the poor. And the poor man loved the
great' (Macaulay).


Monosyllabism. 7

9. It will be noticed, however, — and the quotations
just given serve to exemplify this, too — that itMs not
every collocation of words of one syllable that produces
an effect of strength, for a great many of the short words
most frequently employed are not stressed at all and
therefore impress the ear in nearly the same way as pre-
fixes and suffixes do. There is nothing particularly vigor-
ous in the following passage from a modern novel: 'It
was as if one had met part of one's self one had lost for
a long time', and in fact most people hearing it read
aloud would fail to notice that it consisted of nothing
but one-syllable words. Such sentences are not at all
rare in colloquial prose, and even in poetry they are found
oftener than in most languages, for instance: —

And there a while it bode ; and if a man
Could touch or see it, he was heal'd at once,
By faith, of all his ills.

(Tennyson, The Holy Grail:)

But then, the weakness resulting from many small con-
necting words is to some extent compensated in Eng-
lish by the absence of the definite article in a good many
cases where other languages think it indispensable, e. g.
•Merry Old England', 'Heaven and Earth'"; 'life is short';
'dinner is ready'; 'school is over'; 'I saw him at church',
and this peculiarity delivers the language from a number
of those short 'empty words', which when accumulated
cannot fail to make the style somewhat weak and

10. Business-like shortness is also seen in such con-
venient abbreviations of sentences as abound in English,
for instance, 'While fighting in Germany he was taken
prisoner' (= while he was fighting). 'He would not
answer when spoken to.' 'To be left till called for.' 'Once
at home, he forgot his fears.' 'We had no idea what to
do.' 'Did they run.> Yes, I made them' (= made them

8 I. Preliminary Sketch.

run). 'Shall you play tennis to-day.? Yes, we are going
to. I should like to, but I can't.' 'Dinner over, he left
the house.' Such expressions remind one of the abbrevia-
tions used in telegrams; they are syntactical correspond-
encies to the morphological shortenings that are also
of such frequent occurrence in English: cab for cabriolet,
bus for omnibus, photo for photograph, phone for telephone,
and innumerable others.

11. This cannot be separated from a certain sobriety
in expression. As an Englishman does not like to use
more words or more syllables than are strictly necessary,
so he does not like to say more than he can stand to.
He dislikes strong or hyperbolical expressions of appro-
val or admiration; 'that isn't half bad' or 'she is rather
good-looking' are often the highest praises you can draw
out of him, and they not seldom express the same warmth
of feeling that makes a Frenchman ejaculate his 'char-
mant' or 'ravissante' or 'adorable'. German kolossal or
pyramidal can often be correctly rendered by English
great or biggish, and where a Frenchman uses his adverbs
extremement or infiniment, an Englishman says only very
or rather or pretty. 'Quelle horreur I' is 'That's rather a
nuisance'. 'Je suis ravi de vous voir* is 'Glad to see you',
etc. An Englishman does not like to commit himself by
being too enthusiastic or too distressed, and his language
accordingly grows sober, too sober perhaps, and even
barren when the object is to express emotions. There
is in this trait a curious mixture of something praise-
worthy, the desire to be strictly true without exaggerat-
ing anything or promising more than you can perform,
and on the other hand of something blameworthy, the
idea that it is affected, or childish and effeminate, to give
vent to one's feelings, and the fear of appearing ridic-
ulous by showing strong emotions. But this trait is
certainly found more frequently in men than in women.

Sobriety. g

so I may be allowed to add this feature of the English
language to the signs of masculinity I have collected.

12. Those who use many strong words to express their
likes or dislikes will generally also make an extensive
use of another linguistic appliance, namely violent changes
in intonation. Their voices will now suddenly rise to a
very high pitch and then as suddenly fall to low tones.
An excessive use of this emotional tonic accent is charac-
teristic of many savage nations; in Europe it is found
much more in Italy than in the North. In each nation
it seems as if it were more employed by women than by
men. Now, it has often been observed that the English
speak in a more monotonous way than most other nations,
so that an extremely slight lising or lowering of the tone
indicates what in other languages would require a much
greater interval. 'Les Anglais parlent extr^mement bas',
says H. Taine [Notes sur V Angleterre, p. 66). 'Une soci^t^
italienne, dans laquelle je me suis fourvoy^ par hasard,
m'a positivement etourdi; je m'6tais habitue k ce ton
mod^re des voix anglaises.' Even English ladies are in
this respect more restramed than many men belonging
to other nations:

'She had the low voice of your English dames,
Unused , it seems , to need rise half a note
To catch attention'

(Mrs. Browning, Aurora Leigh p. 91).*

13. If we turn to other provinces of the language we
shall find our impression strengthened and deepened.

It is worth observing, for instance, how few diminu-
tives the language has and how sparingly it uses them.
English in this respect forms a strong contrast to Italian
with its -ino (ragazzino, fratellino, originally a double

I Cf. my Lehrbuch der Phonetik, p. 226; Fonetik (Dan. ed.)
p. 588.

lO I. Preliminary Sketch.

diminutive), -ina (donnina), -etto (giovinetto), -etta
(oretta), -ello, -ella (asinello, storiella) and other endings,
German with its -chen und -lein, especially South German
with its eternal -le, Dutch with its -;>, Russian, Magyar,
and Basque with their various endings. The continual
recurrence of these endings without any apparent ne-
cessity cannot but produce the impression that the
speakers are innocent, childish, genial beings with no
great business capacities or seriousness in life. But in
English there are very few of these fondling-endings;
•let is in the first place a comparatively modern ending,
very few of the words in which it is used go back more
than a hundred years; and then its extensive use in
modern times is chiefly due to the naturalists who want
it to express in a short and precise manner certain small
organs [budlet Darwin ; hladelet Todd ; conelet Dana ; bulb-
let Gray; leaflet, fruitlet, jeatherlet, etc.) — an employ-
ment of the diminutive which is as far removed as pos-
sible from the terms of endearment found in other lan-
guages. The endings -kin and -ling (princekin, prince-
ling) are not very frequently used and generally express
contempt or derision. Then, of course, there is -y, -ie
(Billy, Dicky, auntie, birdie, etc.) which corresponds
exactly to the fondling-suffixes of other languages; but
its application in English is restricted to the nursery and
it is hardly ever used by grown-up people except in speak-
ing to children. Besides, this ending is more Scotch
than English, and the Scotch with all their deadly ear-
nestness, especially in religious matters, are, perhaps, in
some respects more childlike than the English.

14. The business-like, virile qualities of the English
language also manifest themselves in such things as word-
order. Words in English do not play at hide-and-seek,
as they often do in Latin, for instance, or in German,
where ideas that by right belong together are widely

Word - order. 1 1

sundered in obedience to caprice or, more often, to a
rigorous grammatical rule. In English an auxiliary verb
does not stand far from its main verb, and a negative
will be found in the immediate neighbourhood of the
word it negatives, generally the verb (auxiliary). An
adjective nearly always stands before its noun; the only
really important exception is when there are qualifications
added to it which draw it after the noun so that the
whole complex serves the purpose of a relative clause:
*a man every way prosperous and talented' (Tennyson),
*an interruption too brief and isolated to attract more
notice' (Stevenson). And the same regularity is found
in modern English word-order in other respects as well.
A few years ago I made my pupils calculate statistically
various points in regard to word-order in different lan-
guages. I give here only the percentage in some modern
authors of sentences in which the subject preceded the
verb and the latter in its turn preceded its object (as
in 'I saw him' as against 'Him I saw, but not her' or
'Whom did you see.?'): —

Shelley, prose 89, poetry 85.

Byron, prose 93, poetry 81.

Macaulay, prose 82.

Carlyle, prose 87. • .

Tennyson, poetry 88.

Dickens, prose 91,

Swinburne, poetry 83.

Pinero, prose 97.

For the sake of comparison I mention that one Danish
prose-writer (J. P. Jacobsen) had 82, a Danish poet
(Drachmann) 61, Goethe (poetry) 30, a modern German
prose-writer (Tovote) 31, Anatole France 66, Gabriele
d'Annunzio 49 per cent of the same word-order. That
English has not always had the same regularity, is shown
by the figure for Beowulf being 16, and for King Alfred's

12 I. Preliminary Sketch.

prose 40. Even if I concede that our statistics did not
embrace a sufficient number of extracts to give fully
reliable results, still it is indisputable that English shows
more regularity and less caprice in this respect than most
or probably all cognate languages, without however,
attaining the rigidity found in Chinese, where the per-
centage in question would be lOO (or very near it). Eng-
lish has not deprived itself of the expedient of inverting
the ordinary order of the members of a sentence when
emphasis requires it, but it makes a more sparing use
of it than German and the Scandinavian languages, and
in most cases it will be found that these languages
emphasize without any real necessity, especially in a
great many every-day phrases: 'daer har jeg ikke vaeret',
'dort bin ich nicht gewesen', 'I haven't been there';
'det kan jeg ikke', *das kann ich nicht', 'I can't do that'.
How superfluous the emphasis is, is best shown by the
usual phrase, 'det veed jeg ikke', 'das weiss ich nicht',

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Online LibraryJens Otto Harry JespersenGrowth and structure of the English language → online text (page 1 of 20)