English and its Historie

Why is English so much simpler in grammar and richer in vocabulary than so many other languages? (Why does the OED need twenty volumes?)

I’ve been reading Robert Tombs’ vast and excellent The English and Their History.

We reach the year 1399 – in which Henry Bolingbroke sneaks back into England while Richard II is in Ireland and declares himself Henry IV – on the 130th of almost 900 dense pages. This is the period in which Old English starts to vanish and a very different language, Middle English, begins to emerge:

“The influx off a ruling class of non-native speakers after 1066 had led to simplification of the language, which lost much of its grammatical complexity – three genders, four cases, ten conjugations. The alphabet too become simpler, and more Latin-based. There was no common spelling and there were differences in dialect and accent, though grammar was largely uniform. Alone of the Germanic tongues, it had received a massive influx of words from Latin and French, which doubled its vocabulary. Between 1250 and 1450, of 27,000 new words identified, 22% were derived from French, and most others from Latin. English often acquired several words for the same concept. They were sometimes used in tandem to make meaning sure, or just for rhetorical purposes, as in “aiding and abetting,” “just and proper,” “peace and quiet.” In due course they could acquire nuances of meaning, as with “kingly,” “royal” and “regal,” or “loving,” “amorous” and “charitable,” from English, French and Latin respectively. Linguistic flexibility was greatly enhanced by bolting together grammatical elements from each language. Prefixes and suffixes made word creation easy: for example, the Old English “ful” added to French nouns (beautiful, graceful); or French suffixes with Old English verbs (knowable, findable).”

Maybe though, I like to think, all this is dependent on writers, many of them forgotten, who perform the invaluable public service of making up new words just for the fun of it? Around the time in question, Chaucer used a couple of thousand words that had never before seen print.

My contribution: a manuscript in progress in which one of the main characters says perhapsibly. In the same book I’ll also be using the word ichtheology – a system of beliefs among people who worship The One Big Fish.