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History of the English Language  

Ans van Kemenade

The status of English in the early 21st century makes it hard to imagine that the language started out as an assortment of North Sea Germanic dialects spoken in parts of England only by immigrants from the continent. Itself soon under threat, first from the language(s) spoken by Viking invaders, then from French as spoken by the Norman conquerors, English continued to thrive as an essentially West-Germanic language that did, however, undergo some profound changes resulting from contact with Scandinavian and French. A further decisive period of change is the late Middle Ages, which started a tremendous societal scale-up that triggered pervasive multilingualism. These repeated layers of contact between different populations, first locally, then nationally, followed by standardization and 18th-century codification, metamorphosed English into a language closely related to, yet quite distinct from, its closest relatives Dutch and German in nearly all language domains, not least in word order, grammar, and pronunciation.

Article

The Contact History of English  

Marcelle Cole and Stephen Laker

Contact between Early English and British Celtic, Latin, Norse, and French came about through a myriad of historical, political, and sociocultural developments: invasion, foreign governance, and the spread of Christianity, but also via peaceful coexistence, intermarriage, cultural exchange, and trade. The so-called Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain brought speakers of an emerging insular West Germanic variety, which became known as Englisc, into contact with British Celtic and, to some extent, Latin speakers. The Northumbrian historian Bede painted a vivid picture of 8th-century multilingual Britain as an island comprising “five nations, the English, Britons, Scots, Picts and Latins, each in its own peculiar dialect, cultivating the sublime study of divine truth.” The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons led to renewed contact with Latin, the lingua franca of Christendom. The Church became an important conduit for Latin-derived lexis related to learning and ecclesiastical ritual and organization, although it was the cultural appeal of Latin in the early modern period that explains the massive lexical contribution of Latin to English. Later periods of foreign rule and migration following Viking settlement, mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Norman Conquest of 1066 brought English into contact with Norse and Old French, respectively. Lexical borrowing from these languages involved loans reflecting foreign rule but also basic everyday words. Extensive bilingualism and second-language learning most likely promoted the rapid loss of inflection that English underwent during the medieval period. Opinions usually vary, however, on whether contact brought about direct structural transfer or merely reinforced internal developments already in progress. Contact left its mark most noticeably on the lexicon of English; the influx of Latin and French loan vocabulary extensively reshaped the lexicon and, with it, the derivational morphology of English and explains the heavy Romance element in present-day English.

Article

External Influences in the History of English  

Markku Filppula and Juhani Klemola

Few European languages have in the course of their histories undergone as radical changes as English did in the medieval period. The earliest documented variety of the language, Old English (c. 450 to 1100 ce), was a synthetic language, typologically similar to modern German, with its three genders, relatively free word order, rich case system, and verbal morphology. By the beginning of the Middle English period (c. 1100 to 1500), changes that had begun a few centuries earlier in the Old English period had resulted in a remarkable typological shift from a synthetic language to an analytic language with fixed word order, very few inflections, and a heavy reliance on function words. System-internal pressures had a role to play in these changes, but arguably they were primarily due to intensive contacts with other languages, including Celtic languages, (British) Latin, Scandinavian languages, and a little later, French. As a result, English came to diverge from its Germanic sister languages, losing or reducing such Proto-Germanic features as grammatical gender; most inflections on nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs; verb-second syntax; and certain types of reflexive marking. Among the external influences, long contacts with speakers of especially Brittonic Celtic languages (i.e., Welsh, Cornish, and Cumbrian) can be considered to have been of particular importance. Following the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from around 450 ce onward, there began an intensive and large-scale process of language shift on the part of the indigenous Celtic and British Latin speaking population in Britain. A general wisdom in contact linguistics is that in such circumstances—when the contact is intensive and the shifting population large enough—the acquired language (in this case English) undergoes moderate to heavy restructuring of its grammatical system, leading generally to simplification of its morphosyntax. In the history of English, this process was also greatly reinforced by the Viking invasions, which started in the late 8th century ce, and brought a large Scandinavian-speaking population to Britain. The resulting contacts between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings also contributed to the decrease of complexity of the Old English morphosyntax. In addition, the Scandinavian settlements of the Danelaw area left their permanent mark in place-names and dialect vocabulary in especially the eastern and northern parts of the country. In contrast to syntactic influences, which are typical of conditions of language shift, contacts that are less intensive and involve extensive bilingualism generally lead to lexical borrowing. This was the situation following the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 ce. It led to an influx of French loanwords into English, most of which have persisted in use up to the present day. It has been estimated that almost one third of the present-day English vocabulary is of French origin. By comparison, there is far less evidence of French influence on “core” English syntax. The earliest loanwords were superimposed by the French-speaking new nobility and pertained to administration, law, military terminology, and religion. Cultural prestige was the prime motivation for the later medieval borrowings.