The Development of English Grammar

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An English Project Talk

Christopher Mulvey

The story of the development of English grammar involves not only the history of the English language but also the history of England itself. The starting point of the English language is the language we call West Germanic, and the starting point of England is the arrival of West Germanic peoples in Britannia in the fifth century. These West Germanics were Angles, Saxons and Jutes, all speaking relatively close versions of West Germanic. West Germanic is itself a version of the ancient Germanic language which had arrived with the Germanic peoples in north-west Europe about 1000 BC. Germanic evolved into three separate languages: North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic. The East Germanic languages have disappeared. The North Germanic languages exist today as Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic. The West Germanic languages exist today as English, German, Dutch and their variants.

English’s West Germanic grammar has been radically changed in the course of its sixteen hundred years in the British Isles. Modern English grammar is very different from Modern German grammar. First, English grammar was changed by Norse-speaking invaders in the ninth and tenth centuries. Second, it was changed by Norman-French speaking invaders in the eleventh century. Third, it was changed by scholars and antiquarians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fourth, English grammar is being changed in the twenty-first century by globalisation, the internet, and new notions of authority.

From the West Germanic of the fifth century to the global English of the twenty-first century, we can then distinguish five stages in the development of English grammar, and we will want to look at all of them, but, first, we should say something about the development of that grammar in the thousands of years before West Germanics arrived at the continental coast of the North Sea. Almost all the languages of Europe (and many in India) have evolved from a language known as Proto-Indo European. Proto-Indo European was spoken by a tribe that lived somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea four to six thousand years ago. Proto-Indo European was never written down, and its structure has been conjectured by working backwards from its hundred and more descendant languages that exist today in India and Europe. The work of reconstructing Proto-Indo-European was began by Sir William Jones in Bengal in the 1780s. It was he who first recognized the links between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.

Sir William, who knew thirteen languages fluently and twenty-eight very well, believed Latin, Greek and Sanskrit to be among the finest of languages but, of the three, he gave the palm to Sanskrit: ‘more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’(1). The grammars of these ancient languages were fully formed. There is no sense in which they were primitive. Grammar has developed in the last three thousand years, but it has not improved and it has not degenerated. It has merely changed. Constant, slow change without improvement and without degeneration is a characteristic of grammar in all languages. The grammars of English, Sanskrit and Proto-Indo European are all equally good, equally valid, equally able to do what grammar does. So what is it that grammar does?

An answer is provided by Daniel Everett, a linguist who has studied the languages of the Amazonian Indians. He begins by pointing out that not only do human use words, they also use sentences. By contrast, animals have words, but they do not have sentences. The sentence allows for complex thinking to be expressed, and the sentence is a reflection of the human brain’s self-reflexive capacity. That capacity allows for what linguists call ‘duality of patterning’. Humans, says Everett, ‘organize their sounds into patterns and then organize these sound patterns into grammatical patterns of words and sentences. This layered organization of human speech is what enables us to communicate so much more than any other species, given our larger, but still finite, brains’(2).

“Whether we use gestures or sounds,” says Everett, “we need more than just words to have a grammar. Since grammar is essential to human communication, speakers of all human languages organize words into larger units - phrases, sentences, stories, conversations, and so forth. This form of compositionality is called grammar by some and syntax by others. No other creature has anything remotely like duality of patterning or compositionality. Yet all humans have this’ (3).

The cries of animals work by establishing a one-to-one relationship between a sound and a thing or a sound and an act. One cry can mean ‘Predator’; another can mean ‘Climb’. Certain monkeys have a wide range of cries, and we can call those cries words. But it appears that only humans have the ability to move beyond the one-to-one relationship of word to thing or act. Humans can create relationships between one word and another.

We do that in two ways: by changing the shapes of our words and by changing the order of our words. Grammarians call shape changing morphology. We can take a word ‘dog’ and change its shape by adding an ‘s’ to produce the word ‘dogs’. Grammarians call order changing syntax. We can say ‘The dog bit the man’ or ‘The man bit the dog’. Morphology and syntax together make up what we call grammar, and we can see, at once, that small changes in grammar can result in large changes in meaning.

Grammar is then a demonstration of the complexity of the human mind; it is something that evolved as we evolved; it is a product of nature not of culture. That is why English grammar is no better and no worse than Sanskrit grammar. So what are the basic features of English grammar? I am going to answer that question historically, and I will take as my starting date the state of English grammar in the year 700 when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had been in this island over two hundred years, and would very shortly be using the word ‘English’ to describe the language they were talking and the word ‘England’ to describe the place they found themselves in.

Their English was a Germanic language. Therefore, it was an inflected language with nouns of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. These nouns had four case endings - nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. As well as coming in three genders, Old English nouns came in seven declensions. Old English adjectives came in two declensions, five cases and three genders. Old English verbs came in two conjugations: strong and weak. Strong verbs indicate tense by a change in the quality of a vowel, while weak verbs indicate tense by the addition of an ending. (Modern English retains that division: sing, sang, sung v. love, loved, loved.) Old English’s two verb conjugations came in regular and irregular forms as did its seven noun declensions and two adjectival declensions. That is a brief summary of Old English morphology or word shape.

Now, to look at Old English syntax or word order. Since subject and object could be distinguished by case endings, Old English was not dependent on word order to give its sentences meaning; nonetheless, it tended to the form Subject-Verb-Object. Number was important as it is in Modern English and in all European languages.

Old English verbs, nouns, adjectives and pronouns, all the time indicate whether they are singular or plural. Asian languages, such as Chinese or Japanese, only indicate number if it is necessary to do so. That fact goes to show that grammatical features of a language are often apparent only by contrast with other languages. Old English was a language very much like present-day Frisian, an island dialect spoken in the most isolated corner of Holland. Frisian is English’s nearest living relative, and it is one of Europe’s least changed languages. English, Frisian’s nearest living relative, on the other hand, is one of Europe’s most changed languages. So English is at once like and unlike Frisian. Why has English changed so much? The answers to that give us the story of the development of English grammar. While Frisian has been a very sheltered language in the last sixteen-hundred years, English has a very exposed language. From the year 400 to the year 800, Old English changed very little, but in the year 835, a great force for change arrived in the form of Viking invaders. While they were simply landing, looting and going home, they made no difference to English, but when they arrived to stay, settle, intermarry and have Anglo-Norse children, they made a considerable difference.

The Vikings spoke a North Germanic language called Norse. Ready intermixing was facilitated by the fact that the Norse and English languages may have been mutually intelligible. They were certainly close enough to influence each other in the most subtle ways. Old Norse even affected that most important of all words - the verb ‘to be’. Today, most of us say ‘they are’ not ‘they be’. The older form of what the dictionary calls this ‘irregular and defective verb’ was gradually displaced by the Norse verb form. (OED) The modern English third-person present tense takes forms such as ‘he walks’. The older form was ‘he walketh’. That change is probably a result of Norse influence. It may even be that the English way of forming a question by reversing the subject-verb order so that ‘I am’ becomes ‘Am I?’ is related to the same pattern in Norse. (Wikipedia) It is certainly true that English replaced its third person plural pronouns ‘hi, hem, hir’, with the Norse ‘they, them, their’. (OED)

There is considerable uncertainty about the exact nature of Norse influence on English because we have no ongoing written record by which to track them. Changes were beginning as early as the year 900 perhaps, but they do not become apparent for five and a half centuries. The reason for that was a single invasion that was even more significant than the very many Danish invasions. The great invasion was that of the Norman French in 1066.

In 1066, French-speaking invaders arrived in sufficient numbers with sufficient military power and they stayed for a sufficiently long time to bring about major changes in the grammar of English. Within three hundred years, Norman French had become blended with Old English, and the effects were startling. Grammatical gender was replaced by logical gender; most noun endings were lost; word order became paramount. English had ceased to be a normal Germanic language. The overall change was so great that ‘English first came into existence in roughly the form in which we know it today around 1350, when the influence of 300 years of Norman French occupation had been assimilated into a basis of Germanic dialects.’ English is now the least Germanic of Germanic languages.

By 1400, English had fully supplanted French as the dominant language of England, and, by 1500, Westminster English had established itself as the dominant dialect, what linguists call the prestige dialect. At the same time as Westminster English was on the rise, another of England’s languages was on the decline. That language was Latin. All the learned spoke it as well as wrote it. It was the universal language of the Church and of Europe. But by 1600, it was apparent that Latin was not the only language of learning and science in England. It was also about this time that the first English-language grammars and dictionaries begin to appear. Until this time, the word ‘grammar’ had meant Latin grammar; now, it became evident that there was something that could be called English grammar.

The first English grammars were modelled on Latin grammars. These made English appear to fall short in a number of ways. It is not possible to end a sentence with a preposition in Latin; double negatives are not used in Latin; double comparatives are impossible in Latin; infinitives cannot be split in Latin. A sense that English was inferior became inbuilt. Even though English gradually superseded Latin, it continued to be thought second best, and not only to Latin. As David Crystal puts it in The Stories of English, writers believed that English was ‘not as “good” as French and Latin and that it needed to be improved - a mind set which became a dominant theme of the sixteenth century.’ As a result of this bias towards foreign grammar, written English was set against the grain of spoken English, and at any moment a writer’s guard might drop. It was an unhappy fact that not a single one of the best writers could be relied upon to write correctly. Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Pope, Johnson were all found to have broken some of the rules at some time in some of the works.

Nonetheless, with the publication in 1755 of Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, it may be said that the rules for a Standard English Grammar had been established. His ‘Preface’ to the Dictionary is one of the best statements of those rules; the Dictionary itself, of course, fixed the spelling of the educated man’s vocabulary. By the end of the century, what is probably the most influential of all English grammars was published. It was the work of an American called Lindley Murray. It appeared in its first

edition in 1795 with the title The English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners. With an Appendix, Containing Rules and Observations, for Assisting the More Advanced Students to Write with Perspicuity and Accuracy. It is worth noting that it not simply a description of English grammar, but it is in addition a handbook for the writing of good English. It has never been out of print; it was in use, along with the cane, in every public school in nineteenth-century England; it is a book so famous that Charles Dickens had only to mention it to make his readers laugh.

By 1800, the rules of English grammar had been established with such authority that for many they are still taken as a matter of fact and not a matter of convention. In the nineteenth century those rules became canonical: they were maintained not only by the schools but also by the universities, the publishing houses and the newspapers. But if you go back to the seventeenth century, you will see that the very rules of English grammar that people find difficult to follow are the rules based on the linguistically false premise that Latin grammar is superior to Germanic grammar. In fact you might well suspect that if you have to have a self-conscious rule to tell you that one form is right and another form is wrong, then you are being asked to go against the natural bent of the language. Natural English inclines to double negatives, double comparatives, split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions.

However, the English were not alone in correcting their language. The Accademia della Crusca had been founded in Florence in 1583 with a mission to maintain the purity of the Italian language. The Academie francaise had been founded in Paris in 1634 with a mission to establish a literary language based on the French of the Ile de France. The Real Academia Española had been founded in Madrid in 1715 with a mission to secure the Castilian language. Jonathan Swift’s call in 1712 for the foundation of an English Academy with the task of ‘Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue’ might have been taken for a sign that the English were merely catching up, but neither the English nor, in their turn, the Americans took that route for correcting their language. Nonetheless, English was corrected quite as effectively as Italian, French and Spanish. It might also be said that it was corrected quite as ineffectively. Italian, French, Spanish and English continued to evolve, continued to take on new vocabularies, and continued to feel the tension between the energised varieties of spoken forms and the conservative version of a written form. English, at least, has continuing defects – an excessive vocabulary, an unreformed spelling, and a hapless punctuation – but it nonetheless has become the fast, efficient and universal medium that the reader reads today.

In 2010, the Great English Grammar Settlement of 1755 is threatened, and the stability of that grammar is under threat from three forces: new social attitudes, the internet, and globalisation. The new social attitudes are not so new in fact, and they can be dated to the 1960s and the permissive society. In the seventies, the teaching of grammar dropped out of the state school curriculum in England and Wales, and children were expected to find their own way to Standard English. It is worth noting that many of them did, but the right and wrong of grammar had been called into question.

Today, Great English Grammar Settlement is further threatened by the internet. English is the dominant language of the internet, and, from a linguistic point of view, one the most striking things is that much of the most available web material is in an English unmediated by professional editing. Blogs, chats, emails, texts and tweets pour out in a language that is an interesting intermediate between forms of spoken and written English. This informal English is of a kind once only to be found in personal letters and secret diaries, but now it is broadcast to the world.

It is too early to treat this latest stage in the development of English with any certainty, but guesses. The major change that net writing is likely to have on English is a merging of the grammars of spoken English and written English. In the eighteenth century, it was decided to censure double negatives, double comparatives, misplaced modifiers, terminal prepositions, and split infinitives. Today, those rules are on the slide with the exception of the one against double negative; that is holding up well. Soon English will have forgotten altogether the differences between owing to and due to, less and fewer, who and whom, different from and different to, shall and will, that and which.

Meanwhile the fact that the language most used on the internet is English reflects its status as a global language. Indeed, it is now the global language. It is still ahead of Mandarin in a number of ways and likely to remain so. There are some two billion users of English with, of course, every level of ability. Linguistically, and, we might say, grammatically, the important statistic is that only one quarter of those users are natives peakers. 500,000,000 is a large number of speakers of any language, but native speakers of English are out-numbered three to one by non-native speakers. In terms of world history, this is a new linguistic phenomenon, and it may have substantial effects on the language. There are two ways that linguists are identifying this impact: a second-language effect and a lingua-franca effect.

Let’s look first at the second-language effect. We talk about English as a First Language, English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language. English as a Second Language is an English learned by people who come in contact with an English-speaking community and learn to speak English themselves in the process. English as a Foreign Language is an English learned by people who come into contact with English through the classroom. Second-language English is felt to be more intuitive and more robust since it has been acquired in a natural context. Very important here is the age at which the language is acquired: the younger the learner, the more complete the learning. Today, we have a remarkable development in the number of people learning English as a Second Language since in so many countries English is being introduced in primary schools, and, in many non-English speaking countries, secondary education is being conducted in English. The distinction between English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language may be an artificial one in a situation where young English-language speech communities are being created. Huge numbers of fluent, multilingual speakers of English will use the language with ease, confidence and competence. That could have a high impact on general English since a language belongs to its users, and its users make the language.

In addition to this massive and unpredictable development of English as a Second Language, we have the phenomenon called English-as-a-Lingua-Franca or ELF. ELF is the English used by speakers who do not consider English their first language to communicate with other speakers who do not consider English their first language. ELF is the English used when native-speakers are not present, and it comes in a variety of forms. It is, for example, the English of the European Union. Barbara Seidlhofer of the University of Vienna emphasizes that ELF is now recognized as a form of English on an equal footing with native English versions. The development of ELF will, she argues, have distinct effects on the usage of English. When ELF speakers are together, communication involves the ability to read the other speakers’ different cultural elements, idioms, and local references. In international meetings, she says, non-native speakers often have an advantage over native speakers since linguistic accommodation is a conscious skill of the ELF speaker.

So the Great English Grammar Settlement of the eighteenth century is under threat from new social attitudes, the internet, and globalisation. The questions are How much threat? and Should we be worried? Well, the threat is considerable, but I, for one, am not worried. First of all, if we look across the world of published books and major newspapers, the settlement is holding up very well. Second, we must not expect any aspect of the English language to be static. Even without outside influences, languages slowly change. Change itself is not evidence of decline. Third, the Great English Grammar Settlement was a compromise; we could even say that much of it was a botch.

Should we be worried by the coming changes to English grammar? Well, no. A fundamental reason for saying that arises from the fact that language is biological not cultural. That ensures that language never degenerates into gibberish, the great fear of the language conservatives. Fear of degeneration of the language has been as constant as its failure to happen. It was a very great fear in the eighteenth century when it was believed the English language and English civilisation with it were going to smash. Conservative grammarians, the Queen’s English Society, Lynne Truss, the Apostrophe Society, and others tend to get hysterical about matters of grammar. Why do they get hysterical?

First of all is a matter of deep, even evolutionary, psychology. Some biologists believe that the primary function of language is not to exchange information but to allow very large numbers of primates to live in groups. Language is seen as the biological equivalent of the grooming engaged in by the other great apes that have fur but do not have language. Apes live in smaller groups than humans, and the argument is that humans, in large, furless groups, talk all the time to create and cement group cohesion.

A remarkable thing about our languages is how sensitive we are to accents. In the old days, accents varied village by village. In times before villages and when humans lived in caves, accent discrimination may well have had a survival value. Women and children would keep quiet until they heard the voices of the returning males. It is certainly true that we are very sensitive to accents, and we love our own and we can easily find ourselves hating other peoples’. Standard Grammatical English operates like an accent. Its consistent and proper use requires long training, the internalizing of arbitrary rules, and constant attention. As a result, it serves as a class indicator and status marker.

There is a difference between the linguist’s and the populist’s view here. The linguist’s view is put by R. B. Le Page ‘A discussion on the nature of language argues the following:

(1) the concept of a closed and finite rule system is inadequate for the description of natural languages; (2) as a consequence, the writing of variable rules to modify such rule systems so as to accommodate the properties of natural language is inappropriate; (3) the concept of such rule systems belongs instead to a world of stereotypes about language, which are usually politically or ideologically motivated and which must be constantly re-examined, or to written language, which is different in nature and not an alternative representation of spoken language.’

Page asks us to recognize two major distinctions: between natural languages and artificial languages, and between spoken language and written language. His first distinction reminds that human language is a natural not a cultural phenomenon; it is more true to say that language makes us rather than that we make language. How human language works at its deepest levels is little better understood than how human consciousness works. Page’s second distinction reminds us that whatever rules we might like to establish for the written language, they should not apply to the spoken language.

If we want to talk about correct English, proper English, good English, then we must remember that to do so we must be ‘politically or ideologically motivated’. Correct English is an ideological matter. If we wish to make an impression in the world, we will use it ourselves, and, if we want our children to get good jobs, we will teach them to use it too. Nonetheless, correct English is a limited and limiting concept in relation to the ageold story of English grammar, a grammar that we can see evolving steadily since it arrived in these islands. It has changed its form on average every three hundred years, and it appears to be going through one of its evolutions even as we use it today.

Winchester,   January 2010



1. A. W. Ward, and others, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York:, 2000).

2. Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. (London: Profile Books, 2008) 198.

3. Everett, 199.

4. Internet World Stats (

5. R. B. Le Page, ‘What is Language.’ ERIC: Educational Informational Resources