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Periodisation in the history of the English language, Old English written records

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The historical development of a language is a continuous uninterrupted process without sudden breaks or rapid transformations. The commonly accepted, traditional Periodisation divides English history into three periods: Old English (OE), Middle English (ME) and New English (NE). the following Periodisation of English history is based on the conventional three periods; it subdivides the history of the English language into seven periods differing in linguistic situation and the nature of linguistic changes.

The first period, which may be termed Early Old English, lasts from the West Germanic invasion of Britain till the beginning of writing, that is from the 5th to the close of the 7th c. It is the stage of the tribal dialects of the West Germanic invaders, which were gradually losing contacts with the related continental tongues. The tribal dialects were used for oral communication, there being no written form of English.

The second historical period extends from the 8th c. till the end of the 11th. The English language of that time is referred to as Old English. The tribal dialects gradually changed into local or regional dialects. Towards the end of the period the differences between the dialects grew and their relative position altered. They were probably equal as a medium of oral communication, while in the sphere of writing one of the dialects, West Saxon, had gained supremacy over the other dialects. The language of this period is usually described synchronically and is treated as a more or less stable system.

The third period, known as Early Middle English, starts after 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, and covers the 12th, 13th and half of the 14th c. It was the stage of the greatest dialectal divergence caused by the feudal system and by foreign influences – Scandinavian and French. The dialectal division of present-day English owes its origin to this period of history. Under Norman rule the official language in England was French, or rather its variety called Anglo-French or Anglo-Norman; it was also the dominant language of literature.

The fourth period – from the later 14th c. till the end of the 15th – embraces the age of Chaucer, the greatest English medieval writer and forerunner of the English Renaissance. We may call it Late or Classical Middle English. It was the time of the restoration of English to the position of the state and literary language and the time of literary flourishing. The main dialect used in writing and literature was the mixed dialect of London. The literary authority of other dialects was gradually overshadowed by the prestige of the London written language.

The fifth period is called Early New English, lasted from the introduction of printing to the age of Shakespeare. The first printed book in English was published by William Caxton in 1475. It was a time of great historical consequence: under the growing capitalist system the country became economically and politically unified. Caxton’s English of the printed books was a sort of bridge between the London literary English of the ME period and the language of the Literary Renaissance. This period was also a time of sweeping changes at all levels, in the first place lexical and phonetic. The growth of the vocabulary was a natural reflection of the progress of culture in the new, bourgeois society.  

The sixth period extends from the mid-17th c. to the close of the 18th c. In the history of the language it is often called “the age of normalization and correctness”, in the history of literature – the “neoclassical” age. It is essential that during the 18th c. literary English differentiated into distinct styles, which is a property of a mature literary language. The 18th c. has been called the period of “fixing the pronunciation”. The great sound shifts were over and pronunciation was being stabilized. Word usage and grammatical construction were subjected to restriction and normalization.

The English language of the 19th and 20th c. represents the seventh period in the history of English. It is called Late New English or Modern English. The classical language of literature was strictly distinguished from the local dialects and the dialects of lower social rank. The dialects were used in oral communication and, as a rule, had no literary tradition. The 20th c. witnessed considerable intermixture of dialects. The local dialects were retreated and displaced by Standard English. The English vocabulary has grown on an unprecedented scale reflecting the rapid progress of technology, science and culture and other multiple changes in all spheres of man’s activity.

Old English written records

Our knowledge of the OE language comes mainly from manuscripts written in Latin characters. The first English words to be written down with the help of Latin characters were personal names and place names inserted in Latin texts; then came glosses and longer textual insertions. Among the earliest insertions in Latin texts are pieces of OE poetry. Bede’s HISTORIA ECCLESIASTICA GENTIS ANGLORUM (written in Latin in the 8th c.) contains and English fragment of five lines known as “Bede’s Death Song” and a religious poem of nine lines, “Cadmon’s Hymn”. It was translated into Kentish dialect. The greatest poem of that time was BEOWULF, an epic of the 7th or 8th c. It was originally composed in the Mercian or Northumbrian dialect, but has come down to us in a 10th c. West Saxon copy. It is valued both as a source of linguistic material and as a work of art; it is the oldest poem in Germanic literature. BEOWULF is built up of several songs arranged in three chapters. It is based on old legends about the tribal life of the ancient Teutons. The author is unknown. Religious poems paraphrase, more or less closely, the books of the Bible – GENESIS, EXODUS (written by Cadmon, probably in Northumbrian dialect). CHRIST, FATE OF THE APOSTLES tell the life-stories of apostles and saints or deal with various subjects associated with the Gospels. OE poetry is characterized by a specific system of versification and some peculiar stylistic devices. Practically all of it is written in the OG alliterative verse: the lines are not rhymed and the number of stressed syllables being fixed. The style of OE poetry is marked by the wide use of metaphorical phrases or compounds describing the qualities or functions of the thing. OE prose is a most valuable source of information for the history of the language. The earliest samples of continuous prose are the first pages of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES. It was written in West Saxon dialect. By the 10th c. the West Saxon dialect had firmly established itself as the written form of English.

The History of the English Language 


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