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Language change and historical linguistics


1.1 Language history and its study As everything else in the world, languages, too, change over time. The most easily noticeable aspect of change is in vocabulary: new words are born almost day by day, or old ones acquire new meanings. Think of words such as facebook, for instance, which came into existence a couple of years ago, or net, which is an ancient word with a new meaning (= ‘internet’). You may also find, though examples are more rare, that words which were used earlier have become old-fashioned or even obsolete, such as the pronoun thou, which was used in the sense of ‘you’, but originally only to address one person (like Hungarian te). However, the pronounciation and the grammar of languages also change, but much more slowly, so such changes are more difficult to spot, at least for the non-linguist. An example is provided in (1) below: (1) Everyone has a car of his own. Everyone has a car of their own. The first sentence shows the older use, the masculine pronoun his being used to refer back to everyone. Nowadays, however, their is the usual choice – obviously, because of gender correctness, his is avoided, although older speakers might still use his. As for pronunciation, changes are even more difficult to spot, though not impossible. In standard British English pronunciation, called Received Pronunciation (RP), words such as sore, boar, story were pronounced with a diphthong  in the early 20th century. Nowadays, this sounds old-fashioned, the diphthong having been replaced by a long monophthong, i.e. . The branch of linguistics which studies language change is called historical linguistics. It has basically two aspects. First, it deals with language change in general: how and possibly why languages change. It describes the mechanisms of language change and attempts to discover the common types of change in all human languages. This aspect can be called theoretical. On the other hand, historical linguistics also studies the history of individual languages: this aspect can be called applied. Of course, the two aspects are not independent of each other: you can hardly make generalizations about language change unless you study the history of individual languages; on the other hand, to explain the developments found in a given language, you will need to use theoretical linguistic methods. It is beyond the scope of the present textbook to give you a detailed outline of theoretical historical linguistic issues, although some theoretical notions will have to be used. If you are interested more deeply in the subject, you will find some suggested reading at the end of this chapter. 1.2 Internal and external history The history of a language can be described from two different points of view: internal and external. Roughly, internal history is the description of changes in the given language: how the pronunciation, the grammar and the vocabulary have changed over time. External history is concerned with the non-linguistic circumstances under which the language has developed: this includes social, cultural or political events that affected the people who speak the language. The examples given in the previous section illustrate internal history: the loss of a 7 pronoun, or a change from a diphthong to a monophthong are purely linguistic facts. On the other hand, it is part of the external history of the English language, for instance, that it was carried overseas after the discovery of America. The colonization of North America by England was by no means a linguistic event! This does not mean, of course, that external factors – though not linguistic ones by themselves – have no relevance for the internal history of the language. After colonization had begun, the English language gradually started to develop in differing ways in England and in America. By the end of the 18th century, the differences became significant enough to enable us to talk about “British” as opposed to “American” English. A note of warning is needed here, however. Non-linguist tend to think that British English is the same as “Shakespeare’s English”, which became “corrupted” in North America. This is far from the truth: language is constantly changing, and Britain is no exception, so present-day British English is as different from early 17th century English as present-day American is. (Indeed, in terms of pronunciation, for example, American English is in most ways closer to Shakespeare’s pronunciation!) We will have ample occasion to see the details later on. 1.3 The periodization of the history of languages It is customary in all historical sciences – social, political, biological, etc. – to divide the history of the studied object into periods. This is called periodization. In political history, for example, we talk about Antiquity (Hungarian ókor) which is usually taken to end in 476 AD, the time when the West Roman Empire collapsed; this period, then, is followed by the Middle Ages, and so on. Of course, as shown by this particular example, periodization is mostly somewhat arbitrary, and the end of one period (and the beginning of the next one) is usually connected to a symbolic date. Things rarely change overnight (except maybe in the case of revolutions), and the social and cultural differences that distinguish Antiquity from the Middle Ages arose quite slowly, taking centuries. The point is that you have to draw the line somewhere, and in this case, 476 AD seems to be a convenient symbolic point. Similarly, the history of languages is divided into periods, and the periodization generally follows important external historical dates or events. The history of the English language is generally divided into the following periods: 1. Pre-Old English, dating from 449 AD, when, according to tradition, three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes arrived in Britain from their original homeland in southern Scandinavia. (We will discuss this issue later on in more detail.) However, it is only during the 8th century that our first English texts appear (see below), so from the period between 4491 and 700 we have no direct (written) evidence for the development of English: this is why we call this period Pre-Old English. 2. Old English, dating from around 700, because it is from the 8th century that we possess the first surviving English texts. It lasts till about 1100, but opinions vary: some scholars date the end of the Old English period to 1066, when the Norman Conquest took place, while some others date it to the mid-12th century. For the sake of simplicity, I regard 1100 as the end of the Old English period.

3. Middle English, from about 1100 to around 1500. Again, opinions vary as to the end of this period (some give the date 1476, when Caxton set up the first printing press in England). For simplicity’s sake, I use 1500. 4. Early Modern English, from about 1500 to about 1800. Again, some give the symbolic date of 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence, as the end date. I will use 1800. 5. Later Modern English, from 1800 up to the present. Finally, it is usual to refer to current English as Present-day English. I will only use this term when I wish to emphasize the difference between Later Modern English (say, of the 19th century) and the current situation. It is useful to point out that I have often chosen the “round numbers”, such as 1100 or 1500, for the sake of simplicity. Round numbers are easier to remember, and also recall that language does not change overnight, as it were. For example, the Norman Conquest of 1066 did have some influence on English, especially on vocabulary, but also on pronunciation; however, this does not mean that speakers of English woke up one day to find out that they spoke another language (i.e. Middle English). Instead, the linguistic effects of the Norman Conquest were gradual, taking place over several generations’ time, and that is another reason why 1100 has been chosen here as a convenient dividing line between Old and Middle English. Another point to note is that the history of English did not, strictly speaking, begin in the year 449. It is merely the case that it was at around that time that English started to develop as a language different from its closest relatives. All natural languages have a long history behind them, and English is no exception: indeed, as we will see, its history can be traced back to at least six thousand years – except that before the middle of the 5th century AD, it does not really make any sense to talk about “English” as an individual language, essentially different from its closest relatives (such as Dutch or German, for example). Such issues will be taken up in detail later on.

#English #englishlanguage #englishhistory #englishliterature

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