A Short History of the Word “The”

Note: I recently added a part 2 to this entry here.

I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of languages. But how is it that even a language’s most fundamental words, such as the definite article “the,” came into being? How is it that a word like that could evolve, and why would it need to in the first place?

English is of course a descendent of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and comes down to us in its present form through Proto-Germanic, picking up Norse, French, and Latin among others along the way. It was the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon people under many dialects from about 500 to about 1100 when the Norman invasion began the transformation to Middle English.

Old English was, like PIE, a fully declined, gendered language. This made word order somewhat less important because word-endings stood in for many participles. In these types of languages, adjectives and articles (which are really a type of adjective) generally have case, gender and number agreement with the noun they are associated with. The direct ancestor of our definite article “the” is the demonstrative pronoun “se” which is declined as follows:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative se sío, séo þæt þá
Accusative þone, þæne þá þæt þá
Dative þǽm, þám þǽre þǽm, þám þǽm, þám
Genitive þæs þǽre þæs þára (þǽra)
Instrumental þý, þon þý, þon

Depending on case and number, it has such meanings as: the; that; that one; who; which; that which; this; he; she, them, those, etc.

Two things occurred to give us the current undeclined word “the.” First, by Late Old English, the forms “se and séo” became “þe” influenced by the other forms which all began with þ. Second, throughout the course of Middle English, the whole declension and gender system began to give way, so that all the other forms other than the nominative and genitive disappeared. Because of conflicting declination and gender structures of the different languages that were being introduced as Old English began to morph into Middle English, such as Old Norse then Latin and French after the Norman invasion, these structures collapsed into the system we have now. Whether the start of the use of þ in the nominative occurred because system was phasing out of use is unclear.

Þ (thorn) and ð (eth) were runic letters used for our th. The þ was used for the voiceless fricative sound of th as in thin; this sound is often represented as a Θ in dictionaries. The ð was used for the voiced fricative sound as in that, although they were often used in place of one another. So by Late Old English the word “se” had become “þe” which was pronounced as “Θe.”

When written by medieval scribes the thorn looked a lot like the letter y which led to much confusion even to the scribes themselves. The use of y in place of þ in printing has been attributed to William Caxton, the first printer in England, who brought typeset over from Europe which lacked the þ. It still survives today in intentionally quaint spellings like “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe.” Most text was still written by hand though, so the confusion continued. Latin had always used the digraph th and as Latin and French gained in influence it eventually replaced þ by the end of the Middle English period. Chaucer for example, almost always uses “the.”

Thus the Old English word “se” in all its declined forms, recorded in the most ancient writings, had become the familiar “the” by the 15th century, completely replacing the earlier forms as the Modern English era began. (I should also note that our word “that” also emerged from “se” evolving from the nominative and accusative neuter singular forms, taking on its own demonstrative meaning.)

Linguistic change is, of course, constant. English is currently undergoing a fairly major transformation right now: the dropping of the use of the –ly ending on adverbs. This is slowly becoming more accepted as standard English usage, so that the adjectivial form is being used in place of the adverb more and more often. Witness Apple Computer’s old motto, “Think Different” as opposed to the more grammatically correct, “Think Differently.”

Most of this material was gathered from the Oxford English Dictionary and The English Language: A Historical Introduction by Charles Barber both excellent books.

» Posted: Saturday, February 26, 2005 | Comments (13) | Permanent Link

Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

Mind Time : The Temporal Factor in Consciousness

by Benjamin Libet
Mind Time

The basic premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, is that everyone has an innate ability to make decisions in the “blink” of an eye—to “thin-slice” in his words—based on seemingly little evidence; but some individuals have trained themselves, whether deliberately or through the accumulation of specialized knowledge, to tune this ability to incredible levels of fidelity. He certainly marshals a lot of evidence and interesting anecdotes, but this book is not really putting forward anything particularly profound.

As examples of decision-making fidelity he tells of a researcher who can predict with 90% accuracy whether a couple will remain married after some number of years by simply watching a 15 minute dialog between them. Another interesting example is the phenomenon of taste triangulation: if you ask an individual to discern the difference between two closely matched items, such as 2 colas, most individuals will have no trouble telling them apart. But they have a hard time if 2 of one type and 1 of the other are compared. Professional tasters on the other hand, have no problem with this.

Some of the inferences are a bit strained though: he makes the interesting point that improvisational actors follow what is termed The “Rule of Agreement.” The rule dictates that one actor should never turn down the suggestion of another actor on stage otherwise it can kill the flow of the developing conversation. No matter what the point on actor makes, the other actor shouldn’t disagree with it, but accept the premise and move on. While this is an interesting notion, and one that I have never really considered before, he uses this to suggest why loosely-couple decision making can be successful; people should be allowed to operate without having to explain themselves. The problem here is that improv acting doesn’t necessarily seek to achieve a specific end-goal, while generally a decision making process does.

Perhaps the most fundamental idea that he puts forward is that stressful situations can lead to autism-like levels of what he terms “mind-blindness” where the ability to thin-slice breaks down. The best trained or gifted individuals won’t let themselves reach this level of over-excitement; they reach a point of peak awareness but don’t fall of the cliff into autistic-like misreadings. He uses two examples of police confrontations, both highly stressful, one of which led to tragedy because of what he felt was the officers’ mind-blinded inability to read the intentions of a suspect. In the other situation, a more experienced officer remained calmer, was able to discern the suspect’s intent and allowed the situation to de-escalate.

This is a very enjoyable book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the workings of the mind, but in the end, he doesn’t say anything that most people wouldn’t already feel is innately true.

Mind Time on the on the other hand is really about what is physically happening in the brain in the half-second or so before Gladwell’s “blink.” In many ways I found Mind Time to be a much more interesting work, although Libet’s writing style pales in comparison to Gladwell’s.

Libet has found through experimentation that people perceive consciously that they initiate an action about 200 milliseconds before they actually do it. However his direct brain stimulus measurements show that the initiation event occurs about 550 milliseconds before. In other words, the decision to do something is made 350 milliseconds before there is any conscious awareness of it. This is actually a disturbing finding and undermines the notion of free will. He gives evidence that the brain uses a form of subjective timing to make it seem as if an action occurs at the same time it is perceived.

He also shows that stimulation below the level of perception can still trigger responses in individuals. This directly parallels evidence that Gladwell shows in his book. In one of Libet’s experiments, three levels of electrical stimulation are given to subjects: perceptible, border-line and imperceptible. Individuals are asked to select a button depending on what they feel. Even at the imperceptible level, subjects select the correct button more than chance would allow. Gladwell relates an experiment in which card players are rewarded based on certain relationships between the cards. Better card players pick up on the rules earlier than regular players even though they don’t recognize the rules consciously at first. In Libet’s case, physical stimulation is acting upon the unconscious; in Gladwell’s the unconscious is working out relationships, but both show there is a lot happening below the level of direct perception.

Libet has some rather odd theories, but he always offers experimental means of testing them. Perhaps his oddest is his notion of the Conscious Mental Field or CMF. He finds it amazing that split-brain patients perceive themselves as single individuals even though experiments show the different halves of the brain to be working independently. He wonders if perhaps the two sides are bound by some higher level field that allows the patient to feel “whole.” While this is a bizarre notion he is a true materialist; even if the CMF exists it would arise as emergent behavior of the underlying physical processes of the neurons. So he offers a possible experiment that could be conducted on the brains of epileptic patients who need to have a portion of the brain excised. It would test if the section, if left in place, though severed, when stimulated artificially could trigger a response in the surrounding tissue.

The prose in Mind Time can be a bit difficult to parse at times, but it provides interesting insight into what is happening before you Blink.

» Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | Permanent Link

The Clerkenwell Tales

The Clerkenwell Tales

by Peter Ackroyd
The Clerkenwell Tales

The story revolves around the apocalyptic prophesies of a mystical nun of Cleckenwell. A series of destructive events has the city on edge, leading many to see the nun as a visionary; others see her as simply mad.

It takes place in the deeply weird world of 1399 London. Tensions were already high because of Henry Bolingbroke’s invasion while Richard II was in Ireland and memories of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion still hung in the air. Although not directly mentioned in the book, this was a period of successive waves of plague that occurred after the Black Death that was itself the cause of much social and religious upheaval.

Successive layers of religious orders are at the heart of the mysteries including the Catholic Church itself, the Lollards, a group called Dominus and the most secret of all the “predestined men” who feel that they have transcended sin itself and may use any means including murder to justify their ends.

The filth, stench and compactness of the medieval world are brought forth though Ackroyd’s use of a rich template of archaic words, phrases and songs. He also paints an accurate picture of the layout of medieval London’s streets, walls and surrounding country side.

It’s a very enjoyable, tightly crafted book based loosely on the format of the Canterbury Tale’s - and even uses some of the same characters. The Author’s Tale, the final chapter of the book is a collection of extended end notes that provide a bit more detail of some of the subjects covered, including the fact that the basic outline of the story did in fact occur, and was only exposed through a letter discovered centuries later.

» Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2005 | Permanent Link

The Rarest of the Rare

The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

by Nancy Pick
The Rarest of the Rare

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is my favorite museum in the entire Boston area. It has the atmosphere of a throw-back to an earlier era of first-order science, when collecting and classification where the primary activities of adventurer-scientists. The display cases are stunning; seeing the thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects collected from all over the world gives an appreciation of the diversity of life that raw numbers read from a book can’t begin to instill - and the best part is: it’s free on Sunday mornings, so wondering through its displays is a great way to start the day.

The opening section of The Rarest of the Rare gives a general history of the museum itself as well as its place in the history of science. It evolved from a general repository of curiosities to an important resource for scientific research, classification and education.

Most of the book though is a survey of some of the most interesting specimens in the various collections. Each example is given its own short essay, so the book can be browsed in any order. The museum has examples of the Tasmanian Tiger, a near-complete skeleton of a Dodo bird and many other sadly extinct species. There still are a few curiosities such as one of the only complete specimens returned form the Lewis and Clarke expedition, the Lewis’s Woodpecker. The vivid photography of Mark Sloan brings out the detail of all the specimens described.

» Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2005 | Permanent Link