26

Why did (or more specifically what caused) English lose declensions whilst they were retained in German? I ask as I have recently been reading into the various Germanic languages and it struck me that Old English had an equally if not more (in that Old English still retained an instrumental case - albeit largely only for preposition) developed case system and yet it has completely vanished from modern English today.

In fact, both Middle English and Middle High German had a very similar case system (although both has undergone syncretism and simplification of their case endings) as is demonstrated by comparing the two tables of strong nouns:

Middle English:

┌───────┬────────┬────────┐
│       │singular│plural  │
├───────┼────────┼────────┤
│nom    │engel   │engles  │
├───────┼────────┼────────┤
│acc    │engel   │engles  │
├───────┼────────┼────────┤
│gen    │engles  │engle   │
├───────┼────────┼────────┤
│dat    │engle   │engle(n)│
└───────┴────────┴────────┘

Middle High German:

┌───┬────────┬──────┐
│   │singular│plural│
├───┼────────┼──────┤
│nom│tac     │tage  │
├───┼────────┼──────┤
│acc│tac     │tage  │
├───┼────────┼──────┤
│gen│tages   │tage  │
├───┼────────┼──────┤
│dat│tage    │tagen │
└───┴────────┴──────┘

However by the Early Modern English period the English language has all but abandoned cases (possibly only retaining a form of the genitive), whereas Early New High German retained them much as they do today (most significantly in articles and adjectives).

I understand that in linguistics why is a difficult question but are there any sources on this or hypotheses?

  • 1
    Just a question: maybe because Germans had a ruling elite that spoke the language, whereas in Britain English was not uniformely used? – Joop Eggen Mar 31 '14 at 14:54
  • 1
    @JoopEggen Do you mean in respect to the ruling elite using French to an extent as a result of the norman conquest? – user2521439 Mar 31 '14 at 14:59
  • 1
    yes and other ethnic groups. – Joop Eggen Mar 31 '14 at 16:01
  • 8
    The question is actually broader than this, because English has also lost more of its verbal morphology than German. It's not just about cases, but about inflectional morphemes generally. – TKR Mar 31 '14 at 20:45
  • 4
    If you compare to the pre-indo-european, you'll notice, the German has also lost many cases. – Danubian Sailor Dec 10 '14 at 8:28
26

"The loss and weakening of unstressed syllables at the ends of words..... had disastrous effects on the inflectional system, since many endings now became identical." — (Barber, 1993: 157)

There is no simple answer to the question, why exactly English has lost the majority of its inflections. Here's just one idea:

  1. The articulatory stress began to fell on the first syllable;
  2. The (various) inflection endings began to be uniformly reduced to schwa;
  3. The inflections have been subsequently unused, obsolete, and abandoned;
  4. The inflection markers have been replaced by more complex syntax features of the language;

TL;DR
At the end of the Old English period (end of the 11th century), the word endings (containing inflectional markers) became less articulated:

  • Inflection vowels such as -a, -e, -u, and -an appeared to be uniformly reduced (weakened) to -e, (pronounced [ə], or schwa).
  • Word-final -n after -e apparently lost in unstressed syllables. With the course of time, the remaining -e was abandoned as well.

For example, Middle English drinken (from OE drincan) became first of all drinke and then drink (ref. Baugh and Cable, 1993; Burrows and Turville-Petre, 1992).

The same source claims that the example word drink got to its final stage in the North by the 13th century, but spread to other regions by the 15th century.

It is said that the same effect has occurred to in most dialects of Old English.

David Crystal (ref. 1995:32) suggests a possible explanation why such reduction may have occurred. Through the evolution of the Germanic languages, in most words the articulatory stress fell on the first syllable. He suggested that such stress pattern may introduced some difficulties to the audibility of the inflectional endings, especially in day-by-day conversations, especially with phonetically close -en, -on, and -an.

One should also consider one of the potential implications of Chomskyan linguistics, suggesting that all human languages are equally complex. This means, in particular, that a language with a simpler morphology would more likely to have a more complicated and non-straightforward syntax. This implies that OE has gradually developed a more complex syntactic structure to replace the obsolete inflectional endings.

The principle of constant complexity is widely disputed, however.


Other theories well may worth your further research, including:

Leith (1996) draws attention to the argument that the OE inflectional system was inefficient. For example, In the case of mann (man) and hand (hand) there is little distinction between the cases:

            Sing    Plural  |  Sing   Plural
Nominative  mann    menn    |  hand   handa
Accusative  mann    menn    |  hand   handa
Genitive    mannes  manna   |  handa  handa
Dative      menn    mannum  |  handa  handum

...hence, the entire inflectional system may become abandoned due to its incomplete usefulness.

Others observe that OE could significantly reduce its inflections because it became a trade language after the Anglo-Saxons defeated a Norse invasion in 878, leading to its simplification — as suggested in "Adventure of English" by Melvin Bragg, 2004;

As the other answers suggest, pidgin and creole languages often appear to be simpler than "local" languages. David Crystal (see above) considered this factor important;

| improve this answer | |
  • How well is the hypothesis of the equal complexity researched? From what I know, many languages used by small, isolated groups are extremally complex. On the other way, people living in multicultural environment tend to use simpler syntax, maybe because their minds must handle multiple languages instead of mastering the single one? – Danubian Sailor Dec 10 '14 at 8:30
12

English has not lost its cases completely yet. The distinction between nominative, oblique case (result of the merger of accusative and dative) and genitive has survived in the personal pronouns, e.g. he / him / his. The general genitive has turned into the clitic 's.

Dutch, which branched off German relatively recently, has reached a similar stage recently. Not too long (less than a hundred years) ago, Dutch still had cases. But nowadays it looks like in contrast to English even the genitive is going to be lost completely.

There are clear indicators of case loss in German as well.

  • In some constructions traditionally requiring a genitive the dative is now more common, at least in colloquial speech (e.g. after wegen). Even for indicating a possessive relation the genitive sometimes just doesn't sound right any more and is avoided.
  • In most German dialects dative and accusative have been fused into a single oblique case. A notable exception is that in some Alemannic dialects nominative and accusative have been fused instead. The city dialect of Berlin is famous for the 'confusion' of dative and accusative pronouns. Which isn't actually confusion. It's just that in that dialect the dative and accusative pronouns exist in parallel and have exactly the same meaning. Consequently dialect speakers select between them based on criteria that have nothing to do with the case system.

I agree with Carsten that language change appears to happen slower in Standard German in general, when you compare it to English and Dutch. Standard German is the result of a conscious effort of scholars to forge a common language for a huge dialect continuum at a time when the masses became literate because the salvation of every peasant appeared to depend on the correct choice between Rome, Luther, Calvin etc. As these scholars were guided by Latin, they picked variants from various dialects to strengthen distinctions that were already on their way out.

In the German-speaking area the approach to the standard language is more similar to that in France than to that in England or the Netherlands. It is not so much seen as something that emerges from how the language is used. It is more like a foreign language that dialect speakers have to learn at school. (Many German dialects are not really mutually intelligible with Standard German.) Consequently it is somewhat detached from the dialects and has its own separate dynamic. It is influenced by the corpus of existing literature as much as by modern colloquial speech, so naturally it moves rather slowly.

| improve this answer | |
9

Your question is answered on, and I quote below: Lieber, Rochelle. Introducing Morphology (1 ed 2010, but a 2 ed 2015 exists), p. 103.


  Why did English lose all this inflection? There are probably two reasons. The first one has to do with the stress system of English: in Old English, unlike modern English, stress was typically on the first syllable of the word. Ends of words were less prominent, and therefore tended to be pronounced less distinctly than beginnings of words, so inflectional suffixes tended not to be emphasized. Over time this led to a weakening of the inflectional system. But this alone probably wouldn’t have resulted in the nearly complete loss of inflectional marking that is the situation in present day English; after all, German – a language closely related to English – also shows stress on the initial syllables of words, and nevertheless has not lost most of its inflection over the centuries.
  Some scholars attribute the loss of inflection to language contact in the northern parts of Britain. For some centuries during the Old English period, northern parts of Britain were occupied by the Danes, who were speakers of Old Norse. Old Norse is closely related to Old English, with a similar system of four cases, masculine, feminine, and neuter genders, and so on. The actual inflectional endings, however, were different, although the two languages shared a fair number of lexical stems. For example, the stem bōt meant ‘remedy’ in both languages, and the nominative singular in both languages was the same. But the nominative plural in Old English was bōta and in Old Norse bótaR.2 The form bóta happened to be the genitive plural in Old Norse. Some scholars hypothesize that speakers of Old English and Old Norse could communicate with each other to some extent, but the inflectional endings caused confusion, and therefore came to be de-emphasized or dropped. One piece of evidence for this hypothesis is that inflection appears to have been lost much earlier in the northern parts of Britain where Old Norse speakers cohabited with Old English speakers, than in the southern parts of Britain, which were not exposed to Old Norse. Inflectional loss spread from north to south, until all parts of Britain were eventually equally poor in inflection (O’Neil 1980; Fennell 2001: 128–9)

| improve this answer | |
8

Well, maybe because Standard German is an artificial construct based on the Middle High German language of the Bible and many Germans learn it as sort of a second language (after their native dialect). So it's deemed to be pretty conservative. English speakers, on the other hand, seem to adopt language changes into their literary language faster than speakers of other languages. If you look at German dialects, some of them have lost cases almost like English, for example Low German almost doesn't have cases, except for the oblique case for masculine singular.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    I think you would need to show how widespread the loss of cases is across German dialects, including the High German dialects which are more closely related to Standard German than the Low German dialects. – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 10:50
  • 2
    I speak German, and in all colloquial registers, the genitive case is replaced by the dative (hence "der Dativ ist DEM Genitiv sein Tod", "dative is the death of genitive", with dative DEM; vs. "Der Dativ is der Tod DES Genitivs" with genitive DES). But in other dialects like in Berlin, the accusative is conflated with the dative so they use, for instance, "mich" and "mir" interchangeably. But this is still an incomplete development. Maybe after a while Berlinish will start to look more like Plattdüütsch with just a Nominative-Oblique case distinction. – Kaninchen Jul 22 '15 at 21:26
  • 1
    On a related note, conservative styles like in Hesse's Siddhartha preserve a dative -e ending (at least in monosyllabic masculine and neuter nouns, not sure about the details), which is totally optional and in fact I never see it except in old texts like Siddhartha; and in less formal speech the first person singular -e ending is usually dropped and -en becomes -n after a vowel, so you would hear "ich hab ihn net gesehn" instead of "ich habe ihn nicht gesehen". So this could mean that German is loosing schwa as an inflectional ending, but keeping it in word roots. (sorry this got so long) – Kaninchen Jul 22 '15 at 21:28
5

I always thought that English lost its cases as a result of Viking settlement. Although the root words were quite often the same, the inflections were different. However, it was found that if the Danes and the English used prepositions instead of inflections, the two tongues became mutually intelligible. There are a number of papers available on this subject, free on the internet. Also, I remember reading that if one examined charters, it is possible to see a steady progression of this process from Northumbria southwards and that it took more than a hundred years to complete. I have never done this research myself.

| improve this answer | |
3

English is not alone in that. The languages of mainland Scandinavia also lost the case system. And so did the western Romance languages, which did not lose the full vowels in the endings. Also German shared stress on the first sylllable, so it is an unlikely root cause. Among the Romance languages the easternmost representative, Romanian, kept the case system. That suggests that the answer is that loss of case is just an areal feature of Western Europe and Germany is located in Eastern Europe for that purpose.

| improve this answer | |
  • Perhaps the proximity of Slavic languages with robust case systems like Polish could be relevant to German retaining more of case than other Germanic languages. I would perhaps say "central" just because it seems really counterintuitive to me to categorize Germany as "Eastern Europe" but that's just a boring terminology niggle. – brass tacks Jun 8 '17 at 22:46
  • There is a clear cline in Europe. You may notice that that French has kept the dative in personal pronouns. Spanish has not. And in Eastern Europe cases are almost universal (except for Bulgarian). Not only the Slavic languages have them. Romanian has kept them. Greek has retained the cases. Hungarian and Albanian have a very robust case system. – Oliver Neukum Jun 9 '17 at 7:00
1

This is an expected consequence of creolization. English became a creole language due to Normann conquest, and it is expected process for creoles to lose cases.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    @user2521439 Keep in mind that the northeast part of England was also creolized with dialects of Old Norse settlers for two centuries before the Norman Conquest, with results which were largely unrecorded in the standardized written dialect of OE. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 31 '14 at 17:36
  • 8
    It's going a little far to say English became a creole language. Language contact, migration, conquest, intermarriage, and multilingual populations have been the human norm for millennia. It's hard to pick out the creoles without a program. Certainly the languages spoken in England were affected by each invasion; and certainly in the 11th and 12th centuries the sociopolitical and economic status of English speakers changed radically, and with that change there was an acceleration of language change -- for one thing, almost all English speakers were and stayed illiterate. That matters. – jlawler Mar 31 '14 at 17:44
  • 7
    I agree with @jlawler that "creole" isn't really an appropriate term here; for one thing, many people use "creole" to mean "pidgin that has acquired native speakers", which obviously isn't the case here. – TKR Mar 31 '14 at 20:44
  • 3
    @jlawler I retract creolized. This suggests koineization as a better term for the interaction of OE and ON. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 31 '14 at 22:47
  • 5
    Mainland Scandinavian languages also lost cases. Were they also creolized? – dainichi Apr 1 '14 at 6:55
1

You have look at this from a broader historical context. Up until a few thousand years ago tribes and cities were somewhat small and tended to be relatively isolated from each other. Also life was more static than now in that new technologies and cultural changes came about slowly. Languages were gradually evolving to be more and more sophisticated, some of them (like Proto-Indo-European) developing complex inflection systems and other linguistic innovations revolving around a relatively stable set of vocabulary. Then as civilization developed and empires grew suddenly cultures were coming in contact with each other much more frequently. Tribes were suddenly forced to integrate new technologies and cultural changes, including learning new languages and, often, losing old ones. That put pressure on languages in two ways: 1) Because there was so much borrowing of words from other languages, it became increasingly difficult for the tribes to invent a set of inflections for each new borrowed word; and 2) With so many people learning new languages, there was a tendency for each new generation to want to simplify the grammar to make it easier for the various ethnic groups learning the language to communicate. So as a result the trend for the last few thousand years has been for languages to simplify and lose inflections. It turns out it is much easier to learn to convey meaning by word order than it is to learn complex systems of inflection. And it is much easier to incorporate new vocabulary from other languages if you do not have to worry about inflection. Hence you see that most modern Indo-European languages have much more simple inflection systems than, say, Ancient Greek, Latin, or Sanskrit. English in particular, because of the complex history of Britain with so many invasions and mixings of cultures, has simplified to the point of having almost no inflections.

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    How does this explain the difference between present-day English and present-day German? The last sentence seems to get at it, but are you saying that German is spoken in an area that had less mixing of cultures? What is the argument for this? – brass tacks Sep 14 '17 at 16:01
  • I would argue that Britain had more of a history of repetitive domination by different cultures, and more of a history of insecurity about its own culture, that contributed to its changing more than some other languages. The Germans established an important empire and accompanying cultural identity early in the Middle Ages that probably tended to cause them to be a little more immune to external influences than Britain (not that German was not influenced, of course). But, of course, there is never a 100% simple rule about why one group of people change more than another. – Miguel Corazao Jul 10 '18 at 17:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.