Introduction to the History of English

by Thomas Kohnen (Author)
©2014 Textbook VIII, 207 Pages


This book is written for students of English who are interested in the history of the language and would like to read an accessible but also comprehensive and reasonably detailed introduction. Apart from basic information about language change and the Indo-European background of English, it gives an outline of the major periods of the language (Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Late Modern English), with a brief examination of the perspectives of present-day English. Each period chapter provides information about the socio-historical background, the core areas of linguistic structure, discourse, speech acts and genres, and concludes with study questions and exercises.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Table of Contents
  • 1. Language change and language history
  • 2. Tracing the origins of English
  • 3. English ca. 450 to ca. 1100 (Old English)
  • 3.1. Political and socio-cultural background
  • 3.2. Language structure
  • 3.2.1. Spelling and pronunciation
  • 3.2.2. Morphology and word-formation
  • 3.2.3. Syntax
  • 3.2.4. Lexis and semantics
  • 3.2.5. Regional and social distribution
  • 3.3. Language use
  • 3.3.1. Discourse and speech acts
  • 3.3.2. Genres
  • 4. English ca. 1100 to ca. 1500 (Middle English)
  • 4.1. Political and socio-cultural background
  • 4.2. Language structure
  • 4.2.1. Spelling and pronunciation
  • 4.2.2. Morphology and word-formation
  • 4.2.3. Syntax
  • 4.2.4. Lexis and semantics
  • 4.2.5. Regional and social distribution
  • 4.3. Language use
  • 4.3.1. Discourse and speech acts
  • 4.3.2. Genres
  • 5. English ca. 1500 to ca. 1700 (Early Modern English)
  • 5.1. Political and socio-cultural background
  • 5.2. Language structure
  • 5.2.1. Spelling and pronunciation
  • 5.2.2. Morphology and word-formation
  • 5.2.3. Syntax
  • 5.2.4. Lexis and semantics
  • 5.2.5. Regional and social distribution
  • 5.3. Language use
  • 5.3.1. Discourse and speech acts
  • 5.3.2. Genres
  • 6. English after 1700 (Late Modern English)
  • 6.1. Political and socio-cultural background
  • 6.2. Language structure
  • 6.2.1. Spelling and pronunciation
  • 6.2.2. Morphology and word-formation
  • 6.2.3. Syntax
  • 6.2.4. Lexis and semantics
  • 6.2.5. Regional and social distribution
  • 6.3. Language use
  • 6.3.1. Discourse and speech acts
  • 6.3.2. Genres
  • 7. Perspectives on present-day English
  • List of References

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1. Language change and language history

Language is continually changing. Some people may not be aware of this fact, since language change is often slow and hardly perceptible. Probably, innovation will become most noticeable in the field of lexis, when new words are coined to designate new ideas, facts or activities. A few decades ago, nobody would have used the verbs google or download in the sense that is quite common for us in the year 2013. In the same way, hundreds or even thousands of new words have been added to the English language in the past fifty years. But language change also affects spelling, pronunciation, grammar and language use, and here it may be more difficult to actually “observe” change in the period of a lifetime. In fact, many people will be convinced that the English they use every day is basically immutable as regards its grammatical structure and pronunciation. However, this is far from correct. In the course of its history, English has undergone quite dramatic changes, but in order to see and “appreciate” them we must go back five hundred or even one thousand years and look at the texts which have come down to us.

Below are two short extracts which may illustrate some of these changes. The first text excerpt (example 1) stems from the second half of the tenth century, that is, from the Anglo-Saxon period. Anglo-Saxon or Old English is often called a form of English which is mainly incomprehensible to most native speakers of English without special instruction, but it is still English and not a foreign language. Thus, it can illustrate many of the sweeping changes which English has undergone in its history. The text is a preface to a translation of parts of the Bible. The author, Ælfric, was one of the most prolific writers of the Anglo-Saxon period, and he chose for his preface the form of a letter. The letter is addressed to his patron, Æthelwærd, who commissioned the translation. Æthelwærd was an ealdorman, that is, a nobleman exercising authority under the king.


Ælfric monk greets Æthelwærd alderman/ ruler humbly

Þu bæde me, leof, þæt ic sceolde ðe awendan of Lydene on Englisc þa boc

you asked “dear” that I should (for) you translate from Latin into English the book

Genesis: ða þuhte me hefigtime þe to tiþienne þæs, …

then (it) seemed to me arduous (to) you to grant that

← 1 | 2 →

“Ælfric, the monk, greets alderman Æthelwærd humbly.

You asked me, dear, to translate (“that I should translate”) for you the book Genesis from Latin into English. Then it seemed to me an arduous task to grant you this …”

(Ælfric, Preface to Genesis; late 10th century; DOEC)1

I am sure this short extract will appear quite foreign to most uninitiated readers. But the glossing, together with the translation, will perhaps help to make the text a little bit more transparent.

Spelling is among the features of the above text which seem to contribute most to its unfamiliar look. We find unusual letters, for example, æ and Æ (called ash). They represent the Modern English vowel in words like cat and rat. Other letters no longer in use are þ (called thorn) and ð (called eth). They both represent Modern English /θ/ and /ð/, that is, the initial consonants in thin and that. Generally, the relationship between spelling and pronunciation in Old English was quite different from what we are used to in Modern English. For example, Ælfric was probably pronounced /'ælfritʃ/, bæde /'bæ:dǝ/ and þuhte /'θu:χtǝ/ (with χ representing the consonant in German ach).

Some of the words in the text can still be found in Modern English, but they are difficult to recognise because of their unfamiliar spelling (which, of course, also reflects a different pronunciation). For example, in sceolde we can recognise Modern English should, in boc Modern English book and in þuhte we can find thought. In addition, the text contains words which are no longer found in Modern English because they died out, for example, eadmodlice “humbly”, awendan “translate” and hefigtime “arduous”.

In the field of morphology we find many unfamiliar features as well. For example, the personal pronouns and definite articles comprise a wide range of different forms distinguishing between case, number and grammatical gender. The personal pronouns are ic (ic sceolde) for the first person nominative (the accusative me will create no difficulties) and in the second person singular þu for the nominative case (Þu bæde me “you asked me”) and þe for the dative case (ðe awendan “translate for you”). The article þa in þa boc is accusative singular feminine and þæs (in to tiþienne þæs “to grant that”) is genitive singular neuter.

Many more “exotic” features could be pointed out, for example, the so-called impersonal construction þuhte me (literally “thought me”, that is, “it seemed to ← 2 | 3 → me”) or the that-clause after “asked” (bæde), which today would be replaced by an infinitive clause. Thus, to sum up, for many people this text will seem fairly incomprehensible, almost like a foreign text, and it forms quite a striking example of how the structure of English has changed during the last millennium.

But the above extract also shows another aspect of language change, the change of language use. It reflects a different use of address terms and different conventions of letter-writing. The letter form employed by Ælfric seems rather formal and over-official, especially with the formulaic third-person construction (“Ælfric, the monk, greets alderman Æthelwærd humbly”). This form is uncommon today. It would sound fairly stilted and too detached in a contemporary setting, even if we consider that Ælfric is addressing a superior. On the other hand, Ælfric uses the forms þu and þe to address his patron, singular forms of the second-person pronoun that correspond to the (now mostly extinct) forms thou and thee in Modern English and which are usually seen as familiar, even intimate options in other languages (German Du, French toi, Italian tu etc.). In Old English, the plural forms of the second person pronoun (ye for the subject and eow for the object) were not yet used as formal and polite options for addressing a single person (compare German Sie or the archaic form Euch used to address one person), but exclusively to address two or more persons. In line with this more “informal” and almost intimate touch is the address term leof (“dear”). Although this form is sometimes rendered as Sir, this seems to be a far too formal translation. The central sense of leof is “dear, beloved, agreeable”, which clearly is also implied in its use as an address term. Thus, apart from the sweeping structural changes pointed out above, the unexpected combination of formal and informal features of language use found in this letter gives evidence of the pragmatic aspects of language change, in this case, changes in the way people address each other and altered genre conventions.

The second text excerpt that will serve as an example of language change (example 2, below) stems from a letter that was written roughly 500 years later, in 1502, by Agnes Plumpton to her husband Robert. The Plumptons were a well-to-do family that belonged to the Yorkshire gentry. A short look at the text immediately shows that 500 years have passed. It is much more accessible and modern than the previous text, although, to a certain extent, the language may strike you as “unfamiliar”, too. But an additional translation (beyond the glosses) for a speaker of English does not seem to be necessary.

(2) To the worshipful Sir Robart Plompton, kt. be thes delivered in hast.

 knight this haste

Sir, in my most hartiest wyse I recommennd me unto you, desiring to

 most sincere way

← 3 | 4 →


VIII, 207
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
Old English Middle English Early Modern English, Late Modern English Linguistik
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. VIII, 207 pp., 6 b/w fig., 26 tables

Biographical notes

Thomas Kohnen (Author)

Thomas Kohnen is Professor of English historical linguistics at the University of Cologne. His major fields of study include historical pragmatics and historical text linguistics, corpus linguistics, historical syntax, speech act theory as well as orality and literacy and the language of religion.


Title: Introduction to the History of English
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