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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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4. English ca. 1100 to ca. 1500 (Middle English)


4.1. Political and socio-cultural background

Quite often the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is seen as the beginning of the Middle English period and the start of a separate era, opening up new social, cultural and linguistic dimensions in Britain. This may be true to a certain extent with regard to political and administrative developments, but 1066 is certainly not the boundary line dividing Old English from Middle English. English people just did not wake up one morning in 1066 to find out that they were speaking no longer Old English but some kind of Middle English. Language change is a gradual and extremely complicated process and cannot be captured in precise dates. We know that after 1066 Old English (or some further development of it) was still spoken in large parts of the country, especially in the South West, which had not been exposed to Viking influence. We know about the maintenance of Old English text traditions, and the copying of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts right until the twelfth century. Thus, it is appropriate to say that the Middle English period did not start in 1066 but rather around the first decades of the twelfth century.

While the Battle of Hastings was certainly not the beginning of Middle English, it clearly marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule and the Anglo-Saxon monarchy. It is interesting to see that the Anglo-Saxon kingdom did not collapse due to bad government or inefficient administration but because of dynastic instability....

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