The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

3
CONTACTS AND
CONFLICTS: LATIN, NORSE,
AND FRENCH

THE MULTILINGUAL MIDDLE AGES

Matthew Townend

AS a number of chapters throughout this volume stress, a history of the English language is something very different from a history of language in England. Of no period is this more true, however, than the Middle Ages. To write linguistic history by looking only at English would give an entirely false impression of linguistic activity in England; it would be like writing social history by looking at only one class, or only one gender. But in addition to misrepresenting the linguistic history of England, such a one-eyed view would also misrepresent the history of English itself. One cannot look at English in isolation; for much of its history the English language in England has been in a state of co-existence, or competition, or even conflict with one or more other languages, and it is these tensions and connections which have shaped the language quite as much as any factors internal to English itself. Obviously, there is not the space here for a full-scale multilingual history of England in the medieval period; nonetheless in this chapter I wish to look briefly at the other languages current in England in the Middle Ages, and how they impacted on English.

Three snapshots will serve to introduce the complex multilingualism—and, therefore, multiculturalism—of medieval England. First, in his Ecclesiastical

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