The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

5
FROM MIDDLE TO EARLY
MODERN ENGLISH

Jeremy J. Smith

MANY histories of languages differentiate between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ approaches to the subject. Internal history may be defined as the study of evolving systems of lexicon, grammar, and transmission (speech- and writingsystems); external history is to do with the ways in which a language is employed over time, for example the shift from script to print, or how particular languages are associated with particular social functions at particular moments in their history.

Such a distinction is in many ways useful and is, for example, adopted in the chapter which follows this one. However, it is important to realize that this strict separation of internal and external history is a matter of operational scholarly convenience rather than actual fact. Just as living creatures evolve through natural selection, whereby form interacts over time in complex ways with environmental function, so do languages evolve: thus the changing forms of a particular language through time are the result of their interaction with that language's functions. From this point of view, therefore, internal and external histories are intimately connected.

The relationship between form and function clearly underpins many of the comments on their native language which are made by English writers in the late medieval and early modern periods. Thus, for example, William Caxton (England's first printer), in the prologue to his translation of Eneydos (1490), makes the point very effectively; his discussion has a local point of reference, but it has wider implications in that he explicitly draws connections between linguistic forms and their social/stylistic functions:

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