Folium: A Brief History of Plural Word…s via TEDed


Folium: A Brief History of Plural Word…s via TEDed

Folium: A Brief History of Plural Word…s via TEDed

Has a language learner ever asked you why English is so hard to learn? Have you ever pondered the irregularities of English yourself? Many native English speakers question the difficulty of learning the language, but when one takes a look at some commonly used words and the differences we see, such as in the poem below, the irregularities are glaringly obvious.

"Why English is Hard to Learn"

“Why English is Hard to Learn”

The English of today’s modern world is much different from the original English spoken centuries ago. Around 500 BC, English and German were basically the same language. But due to outside influences, invaders, exploration, and technological advances, the Proto-English that it began as is virtually unintelligible to the Late Modern English speakers of today.

As previously stated, Proto-English was very similar to German. Nouns, even inanimate objects had gender: masculine, feminine, and neuter. For instance, gafol was the feminine noun, fork, laefel was the masculine noun, spoon, and bord was the neuter noun, table. There were differences in singular and plural nouns, also. Often, the plural nouns would have an entirely different root than the singular; therefore, it was necessary to know both. For native language learners, much like those of today, the irregularities seemed negligible; however, to those introduced to the language later in life, they too were glaringly obvious.

Thanks to the Germanic invaders and Scandinavian Vikings in the 8-11th centuries AD, English became much more simplified. Originally the rules of plurality varied greatly: multiple goat became gak, lamb became lambru, house was house, eye was eyen, and others simply added the plural –s as in day becoming days. The many differences confused the invaders. The invaders oversimplified the Old English by simply adding –s to a singular noun to make it plural (with a handful of exceptions, still). Eventually, the number of such invaders grew, many married natives of England, and thus the “new” English and the plural –s began.

English itself has seen much change over the last few thousand years. We have the Proto-English of the Germanic tribes, Old English of the mid-5th-mid 11th centuries, Middle English of the 11th-15th centuries, Early Modern English of the late 15h-late 17th centuries, and finally the Late Modern English of the late 17th century to the present time. It was not until the “Dictionary of English Language” was first published by Samuel Johnson in 1755 that a standardization of English spelling and word usage came about. Others such as Lowth, Murray, and Priestly then attempted to standardize grammar usage. Thousands of years had passed from the birth of the English language to its first standardization.

Today, it is estimated that over one billion people in the world speak English. There are two major varieties-British English and American English, with over 400 million native English speakers. And just as the Scandinavian invaders influenced it, German, Dutch, Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as many other modern languages have influenced Modern English. Similarly, the evolution of technology and the creation of an internationally accessible world through the Internet and other advances as further influenced the evolution of the language. The English language is not an inanimate object, but a living, continually evolving entity that will continue to change for thousands of years to come.

Aileen Pawloski Levy
LEAF Contributor