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It’s easy to take our language for granted and not think about where it came from or what it looked like only a short time ago. However, the English language has had a twisted and bizarre past, and historians have tried to cover up some of the most startling facts. Here are five facts about the English language that they don’t want you to know, which will literally blow your mind.
5. Shakespeare created the future tense.
This is hard to imagine but before William Shakespeare, there was no future tense. Time in that period of history was divided in two: past and present. This was the case not only for English but every other language up until that point.
The main reason for this was that in ages past, life was very hard. Hopes for the future were slim or non-existent and people did not dwell on it. A popular proverb in Old Germanic translates as, “Let it be so: we shall all die today anyway.” Today, in this case, meant either the present or the future.
We still have a vestige of this in today’s grammar, in the expression “to be going to” as in “I am going to eat a bucket of gerbil heads.” Even though we know this means the future, it is still technically the present.
Shakespeare, however, was the first person in history to have both hope and a way to express it: i.e. through his writings. He created the future tense and then, when trying to think of a word to use for it, decided to use his own name. At first, people were confused at this new word will, but Shakespeare cleverly always used it with a future time phrase and soon people accepted the new word and the idea of the future. Eventually, many other languages noticed this and formed their own future tenses.
4. Spaces Between Words Were Created During WWI.
This one may surprise you, but take a look at any book written before 1914 and chances are, there will be no spaces between the words (later editions of these books have since put in the spaces for the benefit of the modern reader). The reason for this was that paper was extremely expensive and so publishers would push all the words together to save space. Authors were allowed to have one blank line between chapters, although they were charged 1 cent per line by the publisher (this is where the term “publisher’s penny” comes from, when referring to line breaks.)
Actually, spaces between words used to be a hot issue, with many authors in the 19th century fighting for their use. Other authors, however, were against them. Jane Austen once famously said, “I want my words huddled together so as not to catch cold, when read upon a cold winter’s night.” To give you an idea of what this looked like, here are the first few sentences of Pride and Prejudice, as they would have looked when first published:
Jules Verne, another supporter of no spaces, declared that reading novels with no spaces “caused the reader to strive mightily and through great toil, to attain the true meaning of the text.”
Kind of like this, but with words (copyright Universal Pictures)
World War One, however, changed all that. Suddenly, troops at the front were having to read dispatches quickly and accurately. They began to put spaces between words to make them easier to read in the trenches. After the war, authors who had been soldiers adopted this practice and within a few years, it had become standard, to the point that now it seems inconceivable to have text with no spaces in it.
3. The Semicolon was Created in a Bar Bet
In 1871, two writers, Lewis Carroll
and Benjamin Disraeli
, were drinking together in a tavern in Oxford. Carroll argued that there were no more innovations to be made in literature and that the art form was more or less dead. Disraeli declared that he could create an entirely new punctuation mark and have it accepted within 5 years. They wagered a Nebuchadnezzar
of fine Bordeaux wine on the attempt. Disraeli drew a period and a comma on a napkin and although he meant to draw them side by side, his hand was shaking and he accidentally drew the period above the comma. He liked the effect and this is how it has remained.
Its usage was somewhat in debate at first. Disraeli first declared that it was designated for “full stops that have not yet a full-committal” or as Punctuation Daily editor Mark Groobinsky put it, “when you think you want to stop, but you’re not sure.” It would take fifty years or more before the modern usage of the semicolon came into standard practice.
Over the next few years, Disraeli included this new mark in all his writings and even gave talks on it. Initially, he called it the ‘perio-comma’ but it was later renamed ‘semicolon’ since it “partially resembles that particular body part.”
The semicolon was slow in catching on and Disraeli eventually lost his bet. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the semicolon was an accepted punctuation mark.
2. The US Almost Adopted its Own Alphabet
Although the US has never had an official language, back in 1795, it almost had its own alphabet. Right after the Revolutionary War, there was a great deal of anti-British sentiment in the United States. It was generally agreed that changing the language would be too hard, but some senators proposed changing the alphabet to make it purely American.
It was known as the Stockton-Bloodworth Plan, named after the two senators who proposed it. The idea was to replace the standard letters with American symbols that started with those letters. Thus, “T” was replaced by a sketch of a turkey and “G” was replaced by an upright gun. Today, there are only a few examples of this type of writing in existence, all of which are stored in the Library of Congress archives.
The current American alphabet [*]
Critics of the plan pointed out that many of the symbols were not uniquely American (the letter “H” was a horse); some were very hard to draw (the letter “F” was an American flag, complete with all fifteen stars and fifteen stripes); and others simply did not make sense (the letter “X” was represented by a picture of a man kicking a puppy.) Ultimately, the proposal was defeated in Congress with a vote of 18-14.
1. For a Period of 300 Years, All English Words Were Palindromes
Henry II was crowned king of England in 1133 AD. He always had trouble reading and in 1135, his court doctor declared that he “had a right-moving globe of Apollo”, as opposed to most people, whose globe of Apollo apparently moved left. This meant, according to the doctor, that the king could best read words from right to left. To facilitate both types of reading, the king declared that all words be made into palindromes, so that they could be read from either direction. The court scholars worked for two years to perfect this system (some of these words, such as “level” and “refer” still persist in English today).
The king trumpeted the achievement as a great step forward for both right- and left-moving globes of Apollo, despite the fact that he was the only person to have ever been found in the former category (historians now believe this was actually a form of dyslexia.)
Here is a sample of this type of text from the Old English version of Orosius’ The Amazons, converted to palindromes:
Spaces added later for modern readability
This type of writing became established and persisted long after Henry II’s reign. It was finally abolished in 1443 by Henry VI when a major ink shortage caused the king to look for ways of shortening the language. Still, whenever you talk to an “Anna” or do anything “civic”, think of Henry II and his right-moving globe of Apollo.
The preceding article has been rated “S” for satire.