Alternative Histories of English

By Richard Watts; Peter Trudgill | Go to book overview

1

The legitimate language

Giving a history to English

Jim Milroy

Introduction: language histories as codifications

The word 'history' is often understood simplistically to mean an accurate account of what happened in the past; yet, the writing of history can depend on differing underlying assumptions and can lead to differing interpretations. There can therefore be alternative histories of the same thing, including alternative histories of language. This chapter is about what may be called the conventional history of the English language, as it appears in many accounts, e.g. Jespersen (1962) and Brook (1958). This is seen as a particular version of history, which is one of a number of potential versions, and it is assumed that this version has reasonably clear and recurrent characteristics. The most prominent of these are: (1) strong emphasis on the early history of English and its descent from Germanic and Indo-European, and (2) from 1500 onward, an almost exclusive focus on standard English. Thus, the functions of this history are primarily to provide a lineage for English and a history for the standard language (in effect, the recent history of English is defined as the history of this one variety). Plainly, if we chose to focus on varieties other than the standard and if we did not accept the validity of the Stammbaum model of language descent, the version of history that we would produce would be substantially different.

This conventional history, as it appears in written histories of English for the last century or more, can be viewed as a codification - a codification of the diachrony of the standard language rather than its synchrony. It has the same relationship to this diachrony as handbooks of correctness have to the synchronic standard language. It embodies the received wisdom on what the language was like in the past and how it came to have the form that it has now, and it is regarded as, broadly, definitive.

The clearest examples of codifications are histories of grammar and taxonomic accounts of successive sound changes. More discursive accounts, however, also have characteristics of codifications: they classify English as Germanic; they stipulate the dates of Old, Middle, and Modern English; they define the influence of French on English; they codify the Great Vowel Shift; and so on. As manuals of usage are believed to carry authority, so histories of language (including historical dictionaries) are also believed to carry

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