English Historical Sociolinguistics

English Historical Sociolinguistics

English Historical Sociolinguistics

English Historical Sociolinguistics

Synopsis

Sociolinguistics provides a powerful instrument by which we can interpret the contemporary and near-contemporary use of language in relation to the society in which speakers live. Almost since the beginning of the discipline, however, attempts have been made to extrapolate backwards and interpret past linguistic change sociolinguistically. Some of these findings have influenced the discussion of the history of the English language as portrayed in the many textbooks for undergraduate courses. A consistent application of sociolinguistic theory and findings has rarely been attempted, however, despite the specialist literature which demonstrates this connection at specific points in the language's development.This book will provide students with a means by which a previously existing knowledge of a linear, narrative, history of English can be deepened by a more profound understanding of the sociolinguistic forces which initiate or encourage language change. Uniquely, it discusses not only the central variationist tendencies present in language change and their analysis but also the macrosociolinguistic forces which act upon all speakers and their language. Chapters investigate the political, cultural and economic forces which affect a society's use of and views on language; language contact, language standardisation and linguistic attrition are also covered. Discussion will be illustrated throughout by apposite examples from the history of English. The volume will enable students to develop a deeper understanding of both sociolinguistics and historical linguistics; it will also be useful as a primer for postgraduate study in the subjects covered.

Excerpt

A search for origins is attractive to most of us: we need to know where we come from, in the hope that this will tell us who we are. If this is true for the individual, it is also true for the language we speak, particularly since, if we have lived long enough (and this need not be very long) we will be aware of change taking place, just as we see fashions shifting rapidly from those we considered fashionable in our youth. This is one of the reasons why students of a particular language – often their own, but also a language they learned as (young) adults – regularly study the history of that language. Some do so because of requirement; most have at least some interest in the subject which, if the topic is well enough taught, will lead to further interest in the subjects involved and, it is to be hoped, to the study of linguistic change itself, historical linguistics.

But how the history of the English language, for instance, is taught, and what is included from course to course, differs considerably. While English is blessed in having at least fourteen centuries of written history behind it, the first ten centuries at least of this history is associated with varieties of the language which are now largely opaque to present speakers. A student’s first introduction to Old English (spoken up to about 1100–1150) can be unsettling, since, unless you have German, even the grammatical precepts upon which the language is based grammatical gender and case, marking of definiteness on the adjective, and so on – are quite foreign to a speaker of Modern English (spoken from about 1400–1450 on). Relationship therefore has to be taken on trust, at least to begin with. But while an unsettling sensation may actually be a good thing when a subject is being studied, some students can find this off-putting. Certain features of the early history of the English language which are more readily comprehensible to contemporary students, such as the French influence on English lexis, may well be given priority over morphological and syntactic change, since this takes a considerable degree of prior work before understanding comes and, perhaps justifiably, it is often felt that teaching this ‘special knowledge’ . . .

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