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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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3. English ca. 450 to ca. 1100 (Old English)

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3.1. Political and socio-cultural background

Old English is without doubt the longest period among the traditional periods in the history of the English language. The usual approximate dates given to Old English are ca 450 and ca 1100, resulting in an era which lasted for more than 600 years. It is instructive and important to form an adequate picture of the sheer length of this time-span. Imagine the end of Anglo-Saxon England had happened during the past few years: We would then have to go back at least as far as 1400 AD to reach the beginnings of Old English. This imagined shift is instructive because it brings home the vast time proportions involved and shows the great difficulties associated with any general or definitive statements about the developments of language and communication in a period of that length. It is only natural to assume that during six hundred years Anglo-Saxon England must have seen significant changes in terms of politics, society, religion, cultural life, and communicative behaviour. But it is often extremely difficult to determine when these changes happened and what they involved.

The traditional start of the Old English period is 449. This is the date given by Bede, one of the most prominent scholars of Anglo-Saxon England, in his Latin Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (“The ecclesiastical history of the English people”, completed in 731). Bede says that in 449 the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who had left...

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