Variation, Contact and Change
Introduction: J. Camilo Conde-Silvestre and Javier Calle-Martin
Middle English – of all periods of the history of this language – is often characterized as the epitome of linguistic contact, variation and change: aspects which can be noticed and researched at their best in materials from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. This is, obviously, a gross simplification. Indeed, one of the lessons of historical linguistics is that the phenomena of variation, change and –to a lesser extent – contact are inherent properties of languages, in whatever stage they are considered. Notwithstanding this assumption, the fact is that Middle English is often seen as the ‘transitional’ period par excellence –as the label ‘Middle’ suggests – characterized by long-standing situations of contact, with effects upon all linguistic systems, and accompanied by drastic and radical changes in grammar, from the ‘synthetic-like’ structure of Old English to more ‘analytic’ ones in the Middle and Modern periods. A corollary often touches on the existence of extensive diatopic variation, which has often resulted in references to a ‘chaotic’ dialectal situation. It is true that these postulates are not incorrect, but in the wider context of the history of English they can also be seen at work earlier and later: Old English itself can be qualified as ‘transitional’, contact is as extensive in Modern English as it was in Middle English, and radical changes have been at work at all times.
These truisms do not imply that studying these ‘universal’ facets of language –variation, contact and change – is unnecessary for Middle English. On...
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