How the Black Death saved phrasal verbs

To understand the English we use today, we need to understand how the language came about in our past.

It is a story of death and elitism but from these murky beginnings sprang the language we love today.

A thousand years ago, there were two main influences, the Normans from France and the Saxons who were a Germanic people. The meeting of these languages and cultures were to form the English language we speak today.

From the battle of the Hastings (1066) England was ruled by French speaking kings and the land was comprised of the aristocracy and those who they ruled, the poor serfs. French was the language of the aristocracy and by extension, the language of the law and commerce. Therefore, if you were ambitious and wanted to get ahead in these fields, French was the language you needed.

Today, the same is true. However, it is not French you need but rather the side of the English language which has evolved from French. This is what we call Formal English. It often looks similar to other Latin-based romance languages.

The Norman influence was set to dominate the language but the Saxon side (informal language, like phrasal verbs) was saved by the Black Death in the 1340’s as this killed a lot of people in built up areas (the cities were largely French speaking they were seats of Government and other institutions). Peasants living off the land and Saxon speakers were not killed in such quantities as they were living in isolated areas.

There is a very interesting idea here, that we have the Black Death to thank for the uniqueness of the English language today.

Today, English speakers naturally ‘switch’ their language depending on where they are or more accurately, in what situation they are in, formal or informal. What the native speaker does is use language in a particular context, depending where they are, who they are communicating with and what they are doing. That means that the speaker, in any given situation, does not sound too formal or informal but rather just right. This is what we focus on in Englishour.

Context will dictate how we speak:

For example on the telephone:

FormalInformal
Hello?Yea?
Could I speak to John please?Is John there?
This is heThat’s me
Thank you very much. Goodbye.Cheers. Take it easy!

We can apply this to many different situations. Like in the office:

To whom should I send this?Who should I send this to?
Are you attending the party?You’re coming to the bash I hope?
A preposition at the end of a sentence signals informality

‘Bash is an informal version of party. It would be unsuitable in a formal context.

I love this musicI’m really into this music
Phrasal verbs are often the informal equivalent.
The economic situation in the aeronautical industry is improvingThe air industry is looking up

 

So, we see that spoken English uses short forms more. And idioms and prepositions.

TranslationIdiomatic version
He told me the gossipHe dished up the dirt
You’re guessing and you have no ideaYou’re clutching at straws
I stopped smokingI gave up smoking
Let’s continueLet’s press on
He gave me €2 and it was not enough for me and I wasn’t happy.He fobbed me off with €2
I am beginning to like this productI’m getting into this product
They loved itThey lapped it up
He ate everythingHe polished it off
I am visiting him for a short time laterI’m popping in later
They all entered at the same timeThey all piled in
It will not happen due to unforeseen circumstancesIt’s fallen through
I have an excellent relationship with himWe get on
I am leavingI’m off
He is pretending to be sickHe’s putting it on
They made a careless mistakeThey slipped up

 

Of course, both sides are equally important for learners to focus on. The formal language promotes accuracy and allows understanding in reading and listening in formal situations. The informal side is wonderful because it is so rich in connotation and it can express so much using so few words! We need a strong foundation in formal language of course but by bridging the gap between ‘translation’ and ‘spoken English’ we can start switching between the two.

So switching means that the learner can CHOOSE whether to say

I’m leaving, which may be appropriate in one circumstance or,

I’m off.

The key is to explore options of the same message. Learn how to say the same thing in different ways and base your choice on your surroundings.

John Ryan 2018

John Ryan

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