An Historical Study of English: Function, Form, and Change

By Jeremy Smith | Go to book overview
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Over the last few years, there has been a huge increase in the scholarly effort devoted to the historical study of the English language, represented not only by numerous conferences devoted to the subject but by the appearance of major summations of knowledge, for example the new Cambridge History of the English Language (R. Hogg, gen. ed., 1992-). The subject would therefore at first sight appear to be in fine fettle; and since language would appear to be a distinctive and defining characteristic of humanity, and all natural languages change, the significance of the historical study of language within the broad range of the human sciences ought to be widely appreciated.

Yet it remains my impression that this development-at least in Britain and the United States-has not yet had much effect on the teaching of the subject. Student numbers opting to take 'history of English' courses at university level remain, with some notable institutional exceptions, comparatively small, and the subject retains a reputation for difficulty and dryness which has tended to deter students from taking it up.

It cannot be denied that there are certain potentially difficult or technical elements in English historical linguistics or philology, although the comparative difficulty can be overstated in the context of the wider discipline of 'English studies': in the world of postmodernism even literary research is no longer (if it ever was) something to be pursued in one's bath. It is true, moreover, that the aims and terminology of the discipline can sometimes be expressed in a language which is almost perversely obscure. But there is a more serious problem. I have found, in several years' experience of teaching the subject, that many students-perhaps more now than in past years-expect some handling of large theoretical questions in advanced historical study, and can be disappointed and impatient if the history of English becomes simply a chronicle, a list of facts and notations for ingesting and subsequent regurgitation at an appropriate examination. And that such situations existed suggested to me that their teachers, too, had some uncertainty about the aims and objectives of their subject.

It therefore seemed to me timely for a new historical study of the English language: not a chronicle, or even an historical narrative-many excellent


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