“Thankfully, the English language has not changed very much since the 15th century.”

These words were written by Daniel Root, self-confessedly ‘a proud proponent of prescriptive grammar rules’ in the Technician, published by North Carolina State University. Here is the full quote:

The idea that language evolves to suit its users is a nice thought, but in practice this would be a nightmare. If language changed to suit the changing social paradigms, then nothing written in the previous paradigm would be decipherable in the present paradigm. All that information would be lost. Thankfully, the English language has not changed very much since the 15th century. (Emphasis added.)

I wonder, did Root attend History of the English Language 101 at NCSU? I suspect not, because anyone who looks at a passage of 15th century Middle English will see that it is very different from Modern English. Here’s an excerpt from Caxton’s 1485 publication of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (courtesy of the Corpus of Middle English Verse and Prose):

Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond / and so regned that there was a myȝty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme / And the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil / and so by meanes kynge Uther send for this duk / chargyng hym to brynge his wyf with hym / for she was called a fair lady / and a passynge wyse / and her name was called Igrayne / So whan the duke and his wyf were comyn vnto the kynge by the meanes of grete lordes they were accorded bothe / the kynge lyked and loued this lady wel / and he made them grete chere out of mesure / and desyred to haue lyen by her / But she was a passyng good woman / and wold not assente vnto the kynge / And thenne she told the duke her husband and said I suppose that we were sente for that I shold be dishonoured Wherfor husband I counceille yow that we departe from hens sodenly that we maye ryde all nyghte vnto oure owne castell / and in lyke wyse as she saide so they departed / that neyther the kynge nor none of his counceill were ware of their departyng Also soone as kyng Uther knewe of theire departyng soo sodenly / he was wonderly wrothe / Thenne he called to hym his pryuy counceille / and told them of the sodeyne departyng of the duke and his wyf / (Le Morte Darthur, by Syr Thomas Malory; the original edition of William Caxton.)

Although as modern readers we can understand a great deal of late Middle English, clearly  the English language has changed in very obvious ways since the end of the 15th century.

Apart from the changes in vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling (kynge for king; myȝty for mighty; hens for hence; departyng for departing, etc.), the grammar of English in the extract is also different, as the following examples show:

  • Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon… > It happened in the days of Uther Pendragon…
  • there was a myȝty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme > there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that waged war on him for a long time
  • So whan the duke and his wyf were comyn vnto the kynge… > So when the duke and his wife came to the king…
  • …desyred to haue lyen by her > …desired to lie (i.e. sleep) with her

Later periods in the history of the English language, namely Early Modern English (1500 – c.1776), which includes Shakespeare’s work, and Late Modern English (c. 1776 – now) are progressively more accessible to us, but even in each of these periods there are grammatical differences with Present-Day English. For example, it was not until the 19th century that the passive progressive construction (e.g. He was being teased by his friends) came to be used very widely  as a grammatically new construction.

But what about the English we speak today? Surely that isn’t changing very much? Not true! Language is always changing, even at the present time, but these changes are slow, and often not so easy to spot.

A very interesting account of a number of recent changes in the grammar of written English can be found in a book by Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair and Nicholas Smith entitled Change in contemporary English (Cambridge University Press, 2009).  One of their findings was that the use of modal verbs in writing has declined over recent decades.

In our work at the Survey of English Usage we looked at changes in spoken English using the Diachronic Corpus of Present-Day English. Like Leech et al. we also found changes in the use of modal verbs. In the table below, from a paper by Aarts, Wallis and Bowie (‘Profiling the verb phrase over time’, downloadable here), we compare Leech et al.’s findings for written US and UK English with our findings for spoken UK English.


The data show quite dramatic changes in the use of modal verbs. Especially notable is the drop in the use of maymust and shall. It’s intriguing that this drop is much much more pronounced in spoken English than in written English.

Why do these changes occur?

If we look at may first, one possible explanation for its decline is that it is used less often to ask for permission. It’s not that long ago that school children were corrected if they asked Can I have a drink of water? and were told to use may instead. Nowadays nobody, except the most diehard prescriptivist, worries about this.

As as for shall, despite purists claiming that this verb differs in meaning from will, it’s fair to say that most younger generation English speakers today, especially in the US, do not use shall very much, if at all, except when asking a question (as in Shall we go?). The distinction between shall and will is supposedly that the former expresses ‘intention’, whereas the latter expresses ‘volition’. However, this distinction is increasingly lost on modern ears, and instead speakers opt for will, whose usage has gone up, as the table shows.

What about the demise of must? This probably has to do with most of us being less inclined to impose our authority on others, even when we are in a position to do so. If you’re a teacher, instead of saying You must send me that essay by noon tomorrow you might say instead I need you to send me that essay by noon tomorrow or You have to send me that essay by noon tomorrow. This last example differs from the one with must with regard to the source of the obligation: with must it’s the speaker, but with have to it’s someone other than the speaker.

So we see that English has changed over the centuries, but even in our own lifetimes changes occur.


5 thoughts on ““Thankfully, the English language has not changed very much since the 15th century.”

  1. Hi Bas,
    How very reassuring to read academic confirmation of what I told my students about may, must, will and shall from 1980 on. Particularly, the decline in the use of must. I only had my own intuition and observation of British English to base it on. I always prefaced my remarks to students with “What you learnt at school seems out of date in my dialect.” From what I’ve read since I’ve retired, many modern linguists seem to doubt that some uses of these modals were ever widespread except in prescriptivist manuals.


  2. Pingback: He takes isssue with it: “Thankfully, the English language has not changed very much since the 15th century.” | GRAMMARIANISM https://grammarianism.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/thankfully-the-english-language-has-not-changed-very-much-since-the-15th-centu

  3. It is rather remarkable, though, how readily understandable that passage is, especially when you compare it to something from the tenth century. Even late Old English writing is nearly unintelligible unless you have quite a bit of training.


  4. I’ve never been quite convinced by the definition of “must” as internal and “have to” as external obligation. “Must” is frequently used in very impersonal directives such as official signs and the Highway Code. The difference in those cases seems to be one of register and possibly force, which could explain why “have to” may be overtaking “must”.


  5. Pingback: Languages change all the time – Spread the Word

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