The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

1
PRELIMINARIES:
BEFORE ENGLISH

Terry Hoad


LANGUAGES ON THE MOVE

THE English language is at more than one point in its history a language which is being carried from one part of the world to another. This is true at the beginning of its existence as a recognizably distinct language—the phase which this and later chapters refer to as Old English. Migration of people and the consequent relocation of the languages they speak will therefore be one of the major themes of this chapter, which will focus on the pre-history of English and the various developments which underpin the creation of English as a language in its own right within the British Isles. We can, however, better understand some things about that early period, and what was happening to the language at the time, if we first take a look at certain events in the more recent past which can be seen to offer a number of useful parallels for the much earlier transmission of language varieties through time and space.

Early in the seventeenth century, a period which will be discussed in more detail in Chapters 8 and 12, speakers of English started to migrate from the British Isles to North America. This process of migration, once begun, continued on a significant scale over the best part of three centuries. The forms of English that the migrants took with them varied considerably according to such factors as the part of Britain from which they came, their social class, their age, and the date at which they migrated. Once settled in North America they had contact not only with users of forms of English which were similar to their own, but also with those who spoke different varieties of the language. Furthermore, they encountered

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