The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
A HISTORY OF
ENGLISH

Lynda Mugglestone

How can there be a true History, when we see no Man living is able to write truly the History of the last Week?

T. Shadwell, The Squire of Alsatia (1688)

SIR William Belford's words, spoken in Act II of Thomas Shadwell's late seventeenth-century play, The Squire of Alsatia, articulate the problems of history with conspicuous ease. As Belford comments to his brother, no history can be complete. Instead, all historical description is based on acts of interpretation, leading to accounts which may, or may not, conflict with those offered by other tellers and other tales. In this sense, gaps and absences necessarily beset the historian; not all can be known, and a change of perspective inevitably brings new, and different, considerations to the fore. A single true—and all-encompassing—history is an illusion.

These problems are equally pertinent for historians of language for whom the subject is the many-voiced past. Gaps and absences here may be particularly tantalizing; for the remote past of language—the pre-history of English (discussed in the opening chapter of this volume)—not a single record remains and history must be reconstructed, deduced from the patterns of languages which share the same ancestry. Even later, the historical record may be fragmentary; if the primary form of language is speech, only with the advent of sound recording (and the invention of the phonograph in 1877) do we begin to

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