English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics


This is a collection of contributed essays on the social history of the English language. It will be the second volume in the Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics series, edited by Edward Finegan. Linguists are increasingly aware that external social contact can be as significant as internal grammatical structure in instigating and determining the direction of changes within a language's syntax, phonology, and lexicon. Despite this fact, however, existing textbooks on the history of English give scant attention to this sociolinguistic perspective. The present work is designed to serve as a much needed supplement to such texts. The essays in the volume, written by recognized authorities in their fields, address each of the traditional periods of English. Topics covered include: the social status and uses of English, the relations between English and co-existent languages, the relations between varieties of spoken and written language, language as a political and socio-economic instrument, and attitudes towards varieties of English. The book should attract supplementary use in courses in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics as well as in the history of the English language.


Some fifty years ago, when Latin was a required subject of study in many American high schools, students often expressed their attitude toward this academic exercise with the little ditty:

Latin is a language
As dead as it can be
First it killed the Romans
And now it's killing me.

Without benefit of any technical expertise or linguistic sophistication, the students who sang this song--most with considerable conviction--knew clearly what was meant by a "dead" language. It was a language that existed only in its texts. No one spoke Latin, or wrote it to exchange greetings, to ask for directions, to complain about the weather or the increase in taxes, to interview sports heroes, to report the news of the day, to seek voter support in the next election, to declare that a state of war existed between the United States and Germany-- in short, to do the myriad things, whether trivial or grave, that a "living" language is ordinarily, and extraordinarily, used for. Latin was (and is) no longer a language of everyday communication among people, young and old, as they carry out their daily affairs. Even the Catholic priest, who then used Latin as the language to celebrate the Mass, did not use it to confer with his parishioners, thereby confirming that the language had only a ritual, not a social, function. And without this social function, this use of the language to accomplish the deeds that make up much of the everyday life of a community, there was little real motivation to learn Latin.

In contrast, students of those days (and perhaps today's students) often complained that, if they were to be required to study a foreign language, why could it not be Spanish? Spanish, after all, was the first language of a majority of the people living in the Western Hemisphere: in Mexico, in Central America, in Puerto Rico, in most of the countries of South America. Spanish, too, was the first language of an increasing number of people settling in the United States. Spanish, therefore, was a language to be reckoned with, a language that might be . . .

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