Voices of Earlier English: William Harrison on Why Foreigners Can't Learn English

The English language in the 16th century was a bit like Icelandic or Danish in the early 21st, in that very few people outside the British Isles had much practical reason to learn the language, and of those foreigners who bothered trying, fewer still ever really learned it well. Why, after all, would you need English when anybody in England of real importance would know French and/or Latin? As John Florio put it "What think you of this English tongue?.....It is a language that will do you good in England but, pass Dover, it is worth nothing." John Donne, in The Will (written sometime in the 1590s) says "I...give...to them which passe among/ all forrainers, mine English tongue." i.e. nobody on the continent will speak any English to you, so why don't you take my English with you for the road. 

William Harrison (b. 1534) in this passage from his Description of England (1577) describes how adept Anglophones are at learning other languages, whereas foreigners seldom manage to learn to speak good English. To Harrison, the reason why is obvious: English is just harder than other languages, whereas if you speak English that naturally makes it easier to learn other languages. Hard to disagree, no? English could never replace Latin and French as a lingua franca. The very idea is absolutely silly. 

I think of this passage in Harrison whenever I hear people spewing asininities about how English is just a really easy language to pick up (with "not a lot of grammar") and is therefore a natural choice as the world's lingua franca.



This also is proper to us Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, & neither too rough nor too smooth in utterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Greeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that savoreth of English trulie. 
It is a pastime to read how Natalis Comes in like maner, speaking of our  affaires, dooth clip the names of our English lords. But this of all the rest dooth breed most admiration with me, that if any stranger doo hit upon some likelie pronuntiation of our toong, yet in age he swarveth so much from the same, that he is woorse therein than ever he was, and thereto peradventure halteth not a litle also in his owne, as I have seene by experience in Reginald Wolfe, and other, whereof I have justlie marvelled.

In my reading I have opted for an extremely conservative cultivated pronunciation of the kind that might be more befitting of Serious Matters. I introduce distinctions that only a minority of speakers at the time would produce. Write /wreɪt/ and right /riçt~reɪt/ are not yet homophones (Harrison's would have been the last generation to pronounce the W in write, judging by its disappearance from phonetic descriptions after John Hart.) A significant raising of historical /a: ɛ:/ in all contexts (except pre-rhotically) would still have been still a minority pronunciation, and probably current more among speakers a good deal younger than Harrison. Words like of, is, was, thus, us, this, has, with, as well as morphemes like -ous are still subject to voicing assimilation: [ɔf, ɪs, was, ðʊs, ʊs, ðɪs, has, wɪθ] before voiceless consonants and in pausal position, and [ɔv, ɪz, waz, ðʊz, ʊz, ðɪz, haz, wɪð] before vowels and voiced consonants. (In later English, most of these lost their assimilatory alterations, and one or another of the two forms was fossilized. The voiceless variant survives in modern thus, us, this, and the voiced variant in is, was, has.) 

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