Thanks Alyssa for a nice first pass at the development of the English language, a subject which I studied extensively when at Oxford University. Unless linguistic research has uncovered some radically new information over the last 30 years, the reason English lacks (for the most part) case endings and is thus an “analytic” rather than “synthetic” Indo-European language is because of the fact that the Viking raiders gradually settled in the north-eastern parts of Britain. As Old Norse was quite similar to several of the Anglo-Saxon dialects of the period (all having derived from the language spoken by the Geats), communication between newcomers and old-timers was facilitated by dropping stems.

By the time of the Norman invasion in 1066, English had already mostly become an analytic language; the real contribution of French not in grammar but elsewhere: in the enrichment of vocabulary. As the Saxons tended the farms while the triumphant Normans enjoyed the bounty, the language reflected this division. Hence we have stool (from the Saxon “stol”) and chair (from the French word that ultimately gave us chaise. The servants sat on stools while their French masters enjoyed the relative comfort of chairs. There are literally dozens of similar pair-word examples resulting from this period in British history.

I’m very pleased to say that Sheard’s seminal work The Words We Use was reissued a couple of years back in an affordable paperback edition; no longer do interested people have to do what I did nearly three decades ago: request an antiquarian to track down a copy of the book, at considerable expense. Thus this lovely primer on the origins of the English Language and its subsequent development is available to everyone now.

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