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Introduction to the History of English

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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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2. Tracing the origins of English

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For many students one of the more exciting questions about the history of the English language is: When did English “start”, that is, when did it begin to exist? The traditional view is that English “started” when certain Germanic tribes, who had lived in Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia, arrived in England in about 450 AD and settled there (for a more detailed account of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons see Chapter 3.1.). Once these tribes were situated in England and basically cut off from their homelands on the Continent, we say that the language of these tribes is English.

Such an answer to the question about the origins of English may be somewhat unsatisfactory to many students. On the one hand, one might ask why those Germanic tribes did not “speak English” while they were still on the Continent. On the other hand, we know that before the arrival of the Germanic tribes there were other languages spoken on the British Isles (for example, Celtic languages and, in connection with the Roman Empire, Latin). Why would these languages, which were clearly spoken in England at an earlier date, not be called English?

To deal with these legitimate objections, we need to draw a more detailed and comprehensive picture of the languages in Europe, their various affiliations and their relationships to what we now know as the English language. The language, or rather, dialects, of the Anglo-Saxon tribes who settled in England in the...

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