History of English: The media and English

There are various ways of studying language: a linear route which covers historical development through time, known as diachronic, and a synchronic route which aims to study the complexities involved in how languages actually work (Shetter, 2002, Page 1). This synchronic route can be studied in two ways: written language and language that is relayed in the form of speech, known as phonology, the latter being one area affected during language change.

Orthography also alters over time and there is also a pronounced effect on lexis, semantics, and orthography. Evolving language has its roots in various factors, notwithstanding both internal and external history (Leith, 1996). Linguistics, grammar and vocabulary are directly attributable to the effects of internal history whilst it could be possible to ascribe the socio-linguistic aspects of language to the external exigencies of history.

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It is important to note that English was not a unified language initially, but the result of the Germanic influence from various Teutonic dialects. The original language spoken on the British Islands was Brittonic and there are differing opinions as to whether Brittonic became incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon language or not (Collingwood and Myers, 1936, Page 318) with research continuing to be divided as to the reason for this. The language spoken by the indigenous Britons at the time the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in Britain was a form of Celtic, known as Brittonic.

This essay traces the development of English along a diachronic route whilst investigating the effects of the media synchronically. It begins with a discussion on Old English then investigates lexical diffusion and the Great Vowel Change, both the results of developments in society as towns begin to develop. The essay then focuses on contemporary English and the effect the media has had on its development, clearly showing in the process that, rather than having a detrimental effect on English, it has ultimately provided the tool for its survival and ultimately for its development as a lingua franca.


Development of Old English

…the breakdown of inflections owes as much to processes of contact between speakers of different languages as it does to pressures of a purely internal kind (Leith, 1996, Page 120).

As the inflectional change became integrated into contemporary usage, switch referenced utterances evolved into articles, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns, with no set order to a sentence, i.e. any word could occupy any position without altering the context of the utterance prior to the general acceptance of grammatical devices (Coates, 2004).

It has been suggested that from about AD 597 Christian missionaries arrived in Britain and contributed their Latin to the evolving English language, providing around 450 words into common usage (Crystal, 2003), whilst some parts of Britain were subject to Danelaw until around the early part of the 11th Century with many Danish words passing into northern English dialects especially, and providing an influence for many diectics, such as they, them, and their, together with the verb ‘to be’ correlating with ‘are’.

Additional influences were associated with the arrival of the French in 1066 and became absorbed into the English language over the next few hundred years and continued to evolve through trade with other nations from the 16th Century onwards, incorporating innumerable new words from countries such as Africa, India, Australia and the Americas through the development of the Commonwealth.

Lexical Diffusion

Some linguists argue that the Old English inflectional system was inefficient and was, therefore, as the linguist Roger Lass has argued, ‘ripe for re-modelling’. Speakers themselves start to regularise the paradigmsdeleting endings (Leith, David, 1996, Page 118).

From the end of the 12th Century Guilds came to be formed as trade flourished with the result that the styles of both lexis and orthography changed to meet the need, together with punctuation which developed in accordance with particular requirements for business documents and, as a result, Old English began to give way to a new form of language, the Middle English which was characterised, amongst other things by differences in intonation and stress on the language’s phonology leading to the Great Vowel Shift which occurred over a period of time from around 1400 to 1700, pronunciation becoming almost comparable with the vowels of today.

The changes in pronunciation coincide with the growth in towns and cities and the gradual change in focus from the countryside, with an influx of different dialects from places such as Norfolk and the North towards London, with a corresponding unification of pronunciation, described as lexical diffusion (Chambers and Trudghill, 1991, Chapter 7).

Significantly, the introduction of the printing press coincided with this influx, a situation described as destined to revolutionise the availability of information in civilised society. The political and educational consequences of this new technology will be profound (Harris and Taylor, 1996, pp. 1 – 69). This perception, perhaps was related to the need to provide a standardised dialect in order to print books and Caxton chose the dialect prevalent in London near the location of his printing press, coinciding with the cultural and sociological moves towards a more secular society.

Most of the hobgoblins of contemporary prescriptive grammar (don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads (Pinker, 1994, p. 374).

Following the Reformation and England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church Latin fell out of favour and learning came to be conducted in a standardised form of English with prescriptive grammar developing to reflect the prestige of the great Classical scholars. Language learning became dependent upon the teaching of grammar in a deductive manner, heavily reliant on the use of grammatical rules realised through translation, with prescriptive grammars based on the rules of Latin (Pinker, 1994, p. 374) which did not always fit too well with the more amorphous usage of English, an example being the concept of the ‘split infinitive’ from the Latin which was carried over into English until the last few years. Pinker suggests that the very fact that they [prescriptive rules]..have to be drilled shows that they are alien to the natural workings of the language system (Pinker, 1994, p. 372).

Although a considered a sign of erudition, a perfect translation from Latin or Greek into the English vernacular established itself as the definitive method of language teaching until the 20th Century, it has been suggested that instruction into the rules of grammar have resulted in learners being unable to transfer this knowledge to talk about themselves in a real-life setting (McDonough and Shaw, 1993, p. 21). As a result a disparity emerged between the Sciences and the Arts with Latin retained for nomenclature within the Sciences and a greater emphasis on the vernacular in the Arts, elucidated by Leith and Graddol who suggested that Literary English seeking synonyms in order to provide alternative forms of expression (eloquence), science required a precise and standardised language (Leith and Graddol, 1996,p. 176).

Simon Jenkins, previously editor to ‘The Times’ (London) is not a follower of what he considers useless paraphernalia. He refers to the precision of the Classical languages which ‘require little punctuation’, giving, as his example, the American Constitution as beautifully structured and controlled (Davis, The Times, 2004), despite the fact that the American Constitution was modelled on the language of the Legal Jurists of 18th Century Britain, and the Greeks epitomised the comma: even the Greeks needed to breathe when reading:

Lastly, to deal with a very unimportant point, I observe that the Leipsic Teubner edition of 894 makes Books ii. and iii. end with a comma

(The Odyssey by Homer, http://www.classicauthors.net/Homer/odyssey/)

Contemporary English

The growth of the middle classes and public school education became the driver for the growth in Received Pronunciation , whilst colonisation and foreign travel imposed the English language onto new cultures, with many of those colonised languages becoming integrated into the English language, often resulting in British English and American English becoming intermingled by the media, and computer vocabulary and text-messaging increasing everyday vocabulary with words such as WISIWYG and mouse, internet and monitor, and changes in spelling such as TXT U L8TER. Strong feelings are invoked when discussing the use, or values, of teaching anything other than contemporary literature, written in the vernacular (Gilbert, 2001) and the teaching of English grammar is even more emotive (Hirsch, 2001). The Mobile Data Association claims that text messaging (‘The gr8 txt msg boom’, Daily Mail, 2005: 25) is expected to reach 30 billion, 20% higher than in 2004.

The growth of standardised estuary English has been the result of many years’ radio and television transmissions across the nation, together with other technological equipment such as films, telephones, video and audio recordings and the development of the internet. Whilst media might, at one time, have been perceived to have been ruining the English language, public opinion seems to be coming full circle, although the effect of the ‘soap culture’ might be attributing to intonation change and deviations in accent although Byrne in McDonough and Shaw (1993: 184) believes that communication involves more than just the ‘tenets of speech’.

In the past explicit grammar teaching was the norm, and the accepted way of teaching English within schools. This started to decline during the 1960s with a corresponding increase in media transmissions through the growth of popular music and increased television, although the media, in itself, need not take ultimate responsibility for the decrease in standards of English. Until the introduction of the National Curriculum, many children went through the whole of their school lives with little, if any, grammar instruction and left school with little understanding about the language they spoke. Conversely, this coincided with a greater acceptability of regional dialects and less emphasis on the need to speak ‘standard English’, which can only be an advantage in today’s multi-lingual, heterogeneous, cultural environment.

Concern about deterioration in teaching standards resulted in the introduction of the National Curriculum into schools. This attempted to address those concerns over falling criteria, with the effect that schoolchildren do get to grips with commas, colons and all the rest (Davis, The Times, 2004). The National Curriculum has also addressed the fact that England’s multicultural mix of pupils was simply not being served by the old syllabi (Gilbert, 2001). Many studies over the years have resulted in positive feedback to explicit grammar teaching, with research also revealing that suitable grammar instruction achieves a positive outcome on learning as a general process.

Political correctness in recent years is beginning to evoke credulity with the extent to which it has affected the English language: Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie have both had titles of their books altered due to perceived offence in their original books which were written many years before Political Correctness had even been dreamed up, whilst Lynn Truss (2003), who wrote ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ is described as a ‘stickler rather than a pedant’ in her pursuit of the mysteries of the semicolon, the dash and the e-mailer’s all-purpose favourite, the ellipsis (Davis, The Times, 2004).

The novel by Ms Truss evoked further emotion in Ron Liddle who also wrote for ‘The Times’ (Davis, The Times, 2004). He comments on the class distinction associated with the pursuit of correct English, describing it as middle-class and smug, particularly relevant when considered in relation to the intentions of the National Curriculum’s inclusion strategy. Hirsch, writing in the ‘New Statesman’ comments on various studies but considers that, overall, the schools with the ‘most advantaged pupil intakes not those with the best teachers’ appear to have achieved the most (Hirsch, 2001), which he considers a further example of class distinction. This can be balanced by looking at the etymology of the word ‘punctuation’ which shares a common root with the word ‘punctilious’ meaning ‘attentive to formality or etiquette’ (Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, 1984).

Controversy continues into whether punctuation [is] the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape (Truss, 2003), or whether there has been a ‘slide towards mediocrity’ in the standard of English taught in the National Curriculum. Despite the rudiments of grammar not being taught to a generation of children (Davis, The Times, 2004), the English language has now been classed as one of the world’s major languages, and is spoken by approximately 1.6 billion people world-wide. At least 380 million categorising English as their mother tongue (Crystal, 2003: Ch. 1; Tyson-Ward, 2001: 8). English is the official state language in a number of countries.

English is now universally regarded as a lingua franca where punctuation should be considered a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling (Truss, 2003). English has become the acknowledged language of science, trade and business and the official language of air traffic world-wide, causing the French government to introduce legislation to prevent the erosion of the French language (Fishman, 1998, Professor Emeritus). An estimate of 50 million Internet users now converse in English and nine-tenths of the world’s electronically stored information is in English (Griffith, 2003: 9) with English being described as the ’21st century sequel of colonialism’ or ‘linguistic imperialism’ (Fishman, 1998).


We cannot yet specify satisfactorily just what we mean by a ‘perfect’ language

(Aitchison, 1991, pp. 214)

The problem that occurred with Latin was the very nature of its precision: its prescriptive disposition and closed vocabulary precluded any possibility of change. Fortunately, as Davis observes, the English language is an ever-evolving beast (The Times, 2004), with the result that the global supply of and the demand for English instruction are exploding (Fishman, 1998). Davis reports, however, that grammarians are at each other’s throats. The emphasis nowadays has to be on educational diversity and challenging racism. One of the most salient points in the National Curriculum’s favour is in providing an environment that focuses on establishing appreciation of ‘aspects of cultural difference, context and change, while challenging and extending perceptions’ in respect of ‘themselves and other people’.

The media does not refer simply to journalists writing newspaper accounts that deride ‘pure English’, but relates to all modes of transmission from internet, radio, television, video, audio, and any other source that has the ability to transmit information. We live in an information-rich world and today, the media is responsible for much that is taught in schools. English studies can resort to all of these media to inspire learning besides the rich tapestry of stories, poetry and non-fiction and exploring the cultural diversity of drama and research into works by contemporary writers of different traditions and cultures.

With the focus on English in a global context, teachers are free to include grammar and literature whilst also reaffirming the value of English studies. The emphasis today is so much on the spread and usage of the English language that immense value has been placed upon the teaching of it world-wide and, of necessity, this can only be achieved through strategic use of all forms of media.

Diversity of media is now utilised as a fundamental teaching aid, not only in the rudiments of English within the National Curriculum, but as an essential requirement to within the global marketplace. This is reflected within education, and is also replicated within the context of a world-wide employment market (Seltzer, 1999) covering scientific, technical and business spheres, together with employment within the IT sectors, higher education and even encompassing air traffic control, law and the movement of commodities between trading nations. Through the dissemination of information the value of English has truly become a reflection of the global economy, with usage deeply and possibly, irretrievably, entrenched within the greatest markets and powers of the world, utilising the diversity of media sources around the world to maximum effect.

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