Alternative Histories of English

By Richard Watts; Peter Trudgill | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the year 2525 1

Peter TrudgillandRichard Watts

Imagine for the moment that we are historical linguists of the 'English'(?) language in the year 2525 looking back at the year 2000. It is likely that what we would see would be a richness in terms of dialects - some currently more visible, such as the forms of Standard English, throughout the world, most others more regional and submerged - on a par with the richness that Old and Middle English present to us now, and possibly more so. Unfortunately, however, histories of English as they are typically written most often ignore this richness. Such histories have hitherto tended to tell very much the same story. In spite of obvious differences between them, most textbooks in the field have for the most part presented a system of self-perpetuating orthodox beliefs and approaches which is passed down from one generation of readers to the next. It is difficult, for example, for the modern reader to avoid the impression that the focus of any history of English is necessarily the history of the present-day standard variety. It is true that the histories of Old and Middle English are inevitably histories which involve a recognition of at least regional diversity. But after the Middle English period the focus has traditionally been on the history of the standard dialect. (This then raises the question of which standard variety is being referred to and how a 'standard' variety should be defined.) Generally, histories of English have concentrated, as far as the modern period is concerned, on Standard English in England, with an occasional nod in the direction of the USA and with no acknowledgement of the simple fact that during roughly the last 200 years English has also been spoken, and written in a standard form, by sizeable communities of native speakers in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to name only the three most populous areas. Worse, there has been perhaps even less recognition that English has been written and spoken in Scotland for as long as it has been in England.

If the whole point of a history of English were, as it sometimes appears, to glorify the achievement of (standard) English in the present, then what will speakers in the year 2525 have to say about our current textbooks? We would like to suggest that orthodox histories of English have presented a kind of tunnel vision version of how and why the language achieved its present form with no consideration of the rich diversity and variety of the language or any

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