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Introduction to the History of English


Thomas Kohnen

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.
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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...

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