The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

6
RESTRUCTURING
RENAISSANCE ENGLISH

April McMahon

EARLY modern English (a convenient if slightly amorphous term which covers at least 1500–1700, the two centuries focused on in this chapter) is a period of paradox. It is during early modern English that many features of present-day English were developed and consolidated: caricaturing slightly, this period is a bridge between the dialectal diversity which, as Chapter 4 has indicated, is widely apparent in Middle English, and the striving for order and regularity which, as Chapter 9 will explore, is often seen to be characteristic of the eighteenth-century grammarians and codifiers. However, this same period involves very considerable structural and systemic change.

In this chapter, I shall concentrate on just these structural changes and specifically on phonology—the sound system of English, where we see some of the most significant developments of the period. Of course, as earlier chapters in this volume have illustrated, there are many different ways of doing linguistic history, and of finding out just what the important changes were. As in Chapter 5, we can look at the practice of individuals which, for this period, will mean examining written documents to see what ‘speakers’ were doing from generation to generation. We can, as the next chapter will show, bring together documents written by a larger number of individuals for the same period into corpora or, in other words, into substantial collections of electronically available and searchable materials. These can then be examined, for example, to assess whether there were linguistic differences within a period depending on whether the ‘speaker’ was male or female, was writing for a personal or a public audience, or was communicating about a particular topic. However, in this chapter I shall, for the most

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