The Oxford History of the English Language

The Oxford History of the English Language

The Oxford History of the English Language

The Oxford History of the English Language


This book presents the history of English from its obscure Indo-European roots to its twenty-first century position as the world's first language. It shows how English evolved in the British Isles and how it spread to the United States and through the old British empire to every corner of the world. It examines the different versions and roles of the language in every part of the globe and shows how English rose to international pre-eminence.

With approachable but impeccable scholarship fourteen experts chart the history of written and spoken English in all its rich and protean variety. Their accounts are made vivid with examples drawn from an immense range of documentary evidence including letters, diaries, and private records. They explore and explain the mixture of gradual and rapid change in the words, meanings, grammar, or pronunciation of English at different times and in different places. They examine the three-century rise of standard English and received pronunciation and consider their current status and wellbeing.

This book will appeal to everyone with a keen interest in the English language and its development.


How can there be a true History, when we see no Man living is able to write truly the History of the last Week?

T. Shadwell, The Squire of Alsatia (1688)

SIR William Belford's words, spoken in Act II of Thomas Shadwell's late seventeenth-century play, The Squire of Alsatia, articulate the problems of history with conspicuous ease. As Belford comments to his brother, no history can be complete. Instead, all historical description is based on acts of interpretation, leading to accounts which may, or may not, conflict with those offered by other tellers and other tales. In this sense, gaps and absences necessarily beset the historian; not all can be known, and a change of perspective inevitably brings new, and different, considerations to the fore. A single true—and all-encompassing—history is an illusion.

These problems are equally pertinent for historians of language for whom the subject is the many-voiced past. Gaps and absences here may be particularly tantalizing; for the remote past of language—the pre-history of English (discussed in the opening chapter of this volume)—not a single record remains and history must be reconstructed, deduced from the patterns of languages which share the same ancestry. Even later, the historical record may be fragmentary; if the primary form of language is speech, only with the advent of sound recording (and the invention of the phonograph in 1877) do we begin to . . .

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