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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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5. English ca. 1500 to ca. 1700 (Early Modern English)


5.1. Political and socio-cultural background

In the last chapter we saw that the end of the Middle English period was marked by the re-emergence of English as the major means of communication in many important domains of language use. This re-establishment of English and the beginning of standardisation can serve as one criterion for delimiting the opening of the Early Modern English period. In this period, English is used in most areas of life, and in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the remaining fields (for example, scientific and academic prose, liturgical religious texts) adopt English as well.

Also, during the last half of the fifteenth century, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell, with the help of dialectal features, where a written text stems from (except for clearly Northern texts). So, at the outset of Early Modern English we encounter an incipient norm of a written (orthographic) standard which is used in the literate sections of society, a standard, however, which will not be codified until the very end of the period.

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