Questions about the history and trends of the English language

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21
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5answers
32k views

Is “from whence” correct? Or should it be “whence”?

I just saw a parody on the Lord of the Rings, where one of the characters says: it must be cast back in the fire from whence it came! This struck me as odd, since I expected them to say "whence ...
13
votes
6answers
2k views

Adjectives with Latin etymology when noun has non-Latin etymology

As a non-native English speaker, I always wondered why, for example, you say moon, but then you say lunar (same goes for side and lateral, hand and manual and so forth): in some cases, the noun is not ...
9
votes
10answers
1k views

Has technology slowed or stopped the development of the core English language?

What follows is a hypothesis of mine. I'm wondering if there's historical merit for my hypothesis. It seems the English language has a much bigger change between the documents produced in the early ...
9
votes
1answer
4k views

How did an apostrophe plus the letter “s” come to indicate possession? [duplicate]

Possible Duplicate: Origins of possessive pronouns How did English come to use "apostrophe s" to indicate possession, when it seems to me that few (if any!) other languages do (or do ...
64
votes
6answers
4k views

How come 'ou' was reduced to 'o' in the US?

Americans write color and favorite, when others say colour and favourite. How/why did this happen?
14
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5answers
3k views

Was the word “nigger” an expletive in Mark Twain's day?

Was the word "nigger" a deliberately derogatory and offensive word in Mark Twain's time, or was it just a normal word to describe an ethnicity in those days? Background: I'm curious as to whether ...
329
votes
6answers
92k views

Did English ever have a formal version of “you”?

From the top of my head, Danish "De" (practically never used), German "Sie", Chinese "您", French "vous", Spanish "usted" are a formal way of addressing someone, especially if one isn't familiar with ...
12
votes
5answers
14k views

What is the origin of the phrase “'til the cows come home”?

What is the origin of the term 'til the cows come home? While discussing this with friends tonight, the group had two possible explanations: Cows return to their barn for milking at a given time ...
19
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7answers
43k views

Why is a woman's purse called a “pocketbook”?

It's not a book, and it doesn't fit in anyone's pocket. Why does my brother-in-law insist on calling his wife's purse a pocketbook? I'm interested in the etymology, and in the chronological and ...
14
votes
5answers
7k views

Is it true that the 100 most common English words are all Germanic in origin?

There is an oft-quoted statement that the 100 most common (frequently used) words in the English language are entirely Germanic/Anglo-Saxon in origin. (Also sometimes said is that ~80% of the 1000 ...
12
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3answers
17k views

Were contractions less common in olden days?

We just viewed the new movie True Grit. The language of the characters was more formal sounding than we are used to, largely because of the absence of contractions. Is this historically accurate? Do ...
11
votes
7answers
13k views

When did the word “so” begin to be used to start a sentence?

In the last few years, I've noticed a growing usage of the word "so" to begin a sentence, especially in the context of higher education. For example: Interviewer: "What is the nature of your ...
10
votes
4answers
5k views

Why do common swear words have four letters?

As a non-native speaker I always wondered why most (common) swear words have four letters. I know this is shifting and more words are araising and traditional swear words lose their "harshness", but ...
8
votes
2answers
13k views

What is the origin of the phrase, “Put two and two together?”

I used the phrase, "She put two and two together..." the other day and, shortly after saying, wondered about its origin. My understanding is that it means to "connect the dots" or to figure the answer ...
5
votes
1answer
2k views

What is the future of English as a lingua franca? [closed]

English may now be the world's lingua franca, but according to a review of Nicholas Ostler's latest book in The Economist the future is uncertain: English is expanding as a lingua-franca but not ...
8
votes
4answers
4k views

Why does “ow” have two different sounds

Why is it that the "ow" in now makes the /aʊ/ sound while "ow" in snow makes the /oʊ/ sound? Has this always been, was it spelled differently and then changed, or was it spelled this way but the sound ...
13
votes
3answers
2k views

When and why did the letter “u” begin being called [ju]?

We pronounce the name of the twenty-first letter of the alphabet homophonically with the word you. Was this what the letter was always called (ever since the analogous letter in Latin), or did it at ...
5
votes
2answers
4k views

Have grammar rules changed through the history of the English language?

When I want to know what form a word has say in 12th century (end Old English, begin Middle English), 14th century (end Middle English), or any other time in England history, I only need to track the ...
30
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5answers
2k views

What are the historical processes of preposition coining in English?

RegDwight's excellent answer showing the historical usage of despite got me thinking about the processes by which new prepositions are coined. Prepositions are generally considered a closed class, and ...
19
votes
8answers
40k views

Why did English become a universal language and when?

As we all know, English is the universal communication medium. Now we know how powerful it is to convey our thoughts. When did it become a common language? Why did they opt for this language?
8
votes
2answers
488 views

Yellow versus orange

I have observed several people over the years refer to something that is orange in color as "yellow". Is that some linguistic difference or a difference in perception?
12
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5answers
31k views

Where does “ta!” come from?

Where does the expression "ta" come from? Wikipedia has only this to say: "ta!", slang, Exclam. Thank you! {Informal}, an expression of gratitude but no additional information or links about ...
21
votes
7answers
8k views

“How come” vs “Why?”

What are the differences between the terms "How come ... we eat breakfast?" and "Why ... do we eat breakfast?" The words phrase based in how seems really awkward to me, and I don't understand this ...
11
votes
2answers
2k views

{wend, went, went} changed into {go, went, gone}

I have heard that the verb go used to be wend in olden days. I am curious if there is any historical or other explanation why the past form of wend, i.e. went, is still in use while the simple present ...
2
votes
5answers
3k views

Cross Origins of Comrade and Camaraderie

If "Comrade" and "camaraderie" are from Spanish and French, why did the Russians and particularly Soviets (and later the Chinese and South Africans), come to adopt Comrade for usage? Also, does ...
8
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2answers
2k views

Where does “Let's roll!” come from?

Where does the idiom "Let's roll!" come from?
10
votes
2answers
15k views

what is the origin of the phrase “a penny for your thoughts”?

Googling for the origin of "A penny for your thoughts," I have only found the origin of a likely-related phrase "my two cents" and simple dictionary entries for "a penny for your thoughts." What is ...
4
votes
5answers
1k views

History/connection/origin of using names as verbs/nouns?

There are a good few words in English that come from names: To jimmy a lock is to break it. To jack someone is to rob them. To peter out is to become tired. A john is a bathroom, or one who buys the ...
42
votes
6answers
51k views

What is “won't” a contraction of?

"Don't", "wouldn't", "couldn't" and "isn't" are all contractions of "do not", "would not", "could not" and "is not"... So what's "won't" a contraction of? It appears to be "will not", but if so, why ...
24
votes
2answers
3k views

Did Shakespeare really invent 1700 words?

I am having a discussion with colleagues about a recent news article relating to new words in the dictionary (cleggmannia? really?) and got onto the subject of evolution of language, and how many ...
7
votes
1answer
1k views

How did the “double consonant to shorten vowel” thing come about? (“furry” vs. “fury”)

In English, a doubled consonant most commonly means "shorten the previous vowel", where "shorten" means map phonemes like this: [aɪ] -> [i] [oʊ] -> [ɔ] etc For example, fury is pronounced [fjʊri] ...
31
votes
4answers
7k views

Why did only English undergo the Great Vowel Shift, making pronunciation stray so far from spelling?

Lots of people have wondered why English seems to be one of very few languages with such irregular spelling, far from its pronunciation. The answers include the Norman invasion, and the Great Vowel ...
13
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2answers
2k views

What's the origin of Pig Latin?

Having studied Latin at High School and not being a native English native speaker, I have trouble understanding what the point of Pig Latin is. The text transformation rules, indeed, bring to ...
20
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6answers
2k views

19th century English texts occasionally use Germanic-style number words, such as “four-and-twenty”. When did this fall out of use?

19th century English texts occasionally use Germanic-style number words, such as "four-and-twenty", but the same text would also have the modern "twenty-four" in places (see e.g. Conan-Doyle for ...
6
votes
1answer
310 views

Jackson = $$son: pun or topical reference

Alfred Bester's short story The Demolished Man (the original version serialized in Galaxy magazine in 1952, not the novel published in 1963) may have been the first instance of SMS-speak, featuring ...
6
votes
1answer
1k views

Interjection “et voilà”

I know et voilà is a French interjection and means there it is. It is very much used in the US. Why is the use of et voilà so popular in the US? Which historical fact has made it so popular?
25
votes
4answers
2k views

Is there a historical trend towards shorter sentences?

From my own reading of older books (eg. 18th, 19th century) in various styles (novels, philosophical treatises, scientific publications), it seems that sentences were longer back then. Is there good ...
46
votes
6answers
15k views

When did it become correct to add an “s” to a singular possessive already ending in “‑s”?

According to my grammar book, but at variance to the answer to this question, the correct singular possessive if a word ends in ‑s is: James’s car The grammar book allows exceptions for ...
5
votes
5answers
500 views

How dangerous is the acceptance of common usage on traditional English?

I mean how far should we flow on with the current called "common usage"? Is there a fear that the real English is going do disappear someday? By the way, as for me, I like common English myself. :)
24
votes
2answers
5k views

Why don't English nouns have grammatical gender?

English nouns — other than those with natural gender, e.g. people or animals — do not generally have grammatical gender, and so are referred to as 'it' rather than 'he' or 'she'. However, modern ...
13
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3answers
693 views

What is the first recorded appearance of the mistranslation “Red Square”?

Does anybody know when the mistranslation "Red Square" made its first recorded appearance? Have there been any noteworthy attempts at establishing the correct translation "Beautiful Square" at some ...
191
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9answers
10k views

What is the factual basis for “pirate speech”? (Did pirates really say things like “shiver me timbers”?)

The "pirate speech" we hear/see/read, for example, on the website Talk Like A Pirate Day consists of a rhotic dialect characterized by phrases like "shiver me timbers," "ooh arh me hearties," and so ...
29
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8answers
5k views

Why have the subjunctive and indicative converged in Modern English?

It is to me a curious fact that the subjunctive mood of verbs in English has so nearly disappeared in modern times. In fact, even the correct form and usage of the subjunctive in Modern English barely ...
23
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3answers
2k views

Why do written English vowels differ from other Latin-based orthographies?

Written English vowels differ from other Latin-based orthographies. Consider what the written vowels in the romance languages represent. Also, for example, consider this simple comparision between a ...
3
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2answers
1k views

Genetic Relatives

In the vein of historical linguistics, what languages (modern or dead) are considered genetically related to English? Also what differences mark a language as a genetic relative vs a language that had ...