Published histories of English are usually illustrated with textual extracts drawn from different periods. It seems that there are two broad categories of text. Those of the first kind exemplify the linguistic features of central interest to the historian of language. The second kind embody particular attitudes to English. Linguistic historians have often interpreted the latter for the light they throw on the linguistic features exemplified in texts of the first kind.
In many cases, histories of English have made the same selection of textual extracts. In fact, there exists a canon of texts which allegedly 'shows' how modern English has developed from Anglo-Saxon (or Old English, as it is now more usually called). The impression is given that the history of English emerges, as it were, from close inspection of the texts. But does this put the cart before the horse? When the systematic study of the history of English began in the last century, there was a strong tendency to view that history as the story of standardisation. Accordingly, the appropriate texts were selected and interpreted so as to illustrate that story, as we shall see in discussing the Oxford English Dictionary below.
Both textual categories involve problems of interpretation. In the first, there is a tendency to concentrate on linguistic features, which, in varied ways, support the story mentioned above. In practice, texts have often been arranged in chronological order to show increasing intelligibility the more 'modern' they are, almost as if English developed in a purely linear fashion from one unified state to another. In the second textual category, statements embodying particular attitudes have often been taken at face value, almost as though they were the authoritative products of a purely disinterested observation. Editing texts for an anthology tends, moreover, to obscure their many different kinds of social functions, audiences and communicative effects. In the discussion that follows I have tried to highlight these issues of interpretation.