In the Introduction we saw some of the ways in which we need to modify our conception of English as we observe its use in different kinds of communities throughout the world. The same type of adjustment must be made when we look at English across its fifteen centuries of history. In this chapter we shall outline the issues involved in the historical description of a language like English as it has been adapted to changing social functions in different periods, and as it has co-existed with other languages. The period covered is from the earliest records to the end of the Middle Ages. We shall trace the origins of English as the vernacular of certain Germanic tribes on the continent of Europe, at a time when much of that area was dominated by the institutions and language of the Roman Empire. We can use the Latin of that period, with its patterns of contact with other languages, as a model for discussing a major kind of bilingual situation, and also that particular form of standardisation known as diglossia. In describing the Anglo-Saxon settlement of what is now England, we shall see how English came into contact with the Celtic language of the Britons, and how it developed a literature under the influence of Latin. As the various kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons created institutions and extended literacy, they came to be threatened by the Vikings, who spoke a different though closely related language. There followed two other cases of language-contact, involving different varieties of the same language: Norman French after the Norman Conquest, followed by the Central French of the Paris area after 1204. Finally, we shall see how an early form of what we can call language-loyalty surfaced in the fourteenth century, linking the English language with a patriotism based on antipathy towards France.
At no point during the period under discussion was there a standard variety of English accepted as such wherever the language was spoken. Rather we see a growing trend towards dialectal variation, as different centres of power exert their influence over local speech. We are not