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Subject and Aims of the History of English

Germanic Languages. Some Theoretical Aspects of Language History. Linguistic Features


Evolution of Languages and Scope of Language History



1. Subject and aims of the history of English.

2. Sources of language history.

3. Evolution of language and scope of language history.

4. Statics and dynamics in language history.

5. Concept of linguistic change.

6. Rate of linguistic change.

7. Mechanism of change. Role of synchronic variation.

8. Causes of language evolution.



1. Аракин И.Д. Очерки по истории английского языка. – М., 1955.

2. Бруннер К. История английского языка. Перев. с нем. – М.: Иностранная литература, т. I, II, 1956.

3. Верба Л.Г. Історія англійської мови. Посібник для студентів та викладачів вищих навчальних закладів. – Вінниця: НОВА КНИГА, 2006. – 296 с.

4. Введение в германскую филологию. Арсеньева М.Г., Балашова С.П., Берков В.П., Соловьева Л.Н. – М., 1980.

5. Иванова И.П., Чахоян Л.П. История английского языка. – М., 1976

6. Ильиш Б.А. История английского языка. – Л., 1973.

7. Расторгуева Т.А. История английского языка. – М., 2005.

8. Смирницкий А.И. История английского языка. Курс лекций. – М., 1965.


Subject and Aims of the History of English

This outline history covers the main events in the historical development of the English language: the history of its phonetic structure and spelling, the evolution of its grammatical system, the growth of its vocabulary, and also the changing historical conditions of English-speaking communities relevant to language history.

A language can be considered from different angles. In studying Modern English (Mod E) we regard the language as fixed in time and describe each linguistic level – phonetics, grammar or lexis – synchronically, taking no account of the origin of present-day features or their tendencies to change. The synchronic approach can be contrasted to the diachronic. When considered diachronically, every linguistic fact is interpreted as a stageor step in the never-ending evolution of language, in practice, however, the contrast between diachronic and synchronic study is not so marked as in theory: we commonly resort to history to explain current phenomena in Mod E. Likewise in describing the evolution of language we can present it as a series of synchronic cross-sections, e.g. the English language of the age of Shakespeare (16th-17th c.) or the age of Chaucer (14th c.).

Through learning the history of the English language the student achieves a variety of aims, both theoretical and practical.

The history of the language is of considerable interest to all students of English, since the English language of today reflects many centuries of development. As F. Engels wrote: "Substance and form of one's own language, however, become intelligible only when its origin and gradual evolution are traced, and this cannot be done without taking into account, first, its own extinct forms, and secondly, cognate languages, both living and dead" (Anti-Duhring. M., 1959, p. 441).

This is no less true of a foreign language. Therefore one of the aims of this course is to provide the student with a knowledge of linguistic history sufficient to account for the principal features of present-day English. A few illustrations given below show how modern linguistic features can be explained by resorting to history.

Any student of English is well aware of the difficulties of reading and spelling English. The written form of the English word is conventional rather than phonetic. The values of Latin letters as used in English differ greatly from their respective values in other languages, e.g. French, German or Latin, Cf.:

bit – [bit] full correspondence between Latin letters and English sounds;

three letters – three sounds

bite – [bait] no correspondence between the vowels and their graphic repre sentation: the final e is not pronounced,

four letters – three sounds but conventionally serves to show that the preceding letter i has its English alphabetic value which is [ai], not [i] as in other languages

knight – [nait] the letters k and gh do not stand for any sounds but gh evidently shows that i stands for [ai].

six letters – three sounds

The history of English sounds and spelling accounts for these and similar peculiarities. Without going into details it will suffice to say that at the time when Latin characters were first used in Britain (7th c.) writing was phonetic: the letters stood, roughly, for the same sounds as in Latin, Later, especially after the introduction of printing in the 15th c., the written form of the word became fixed, while the sounds continued to change. This resulted in a growing discrepancy between letter and sound and in the modern peculiar use of Latin letters in English. Many modern spellings show how the words were pronounced some four or five hundred years ago, e.g. in the 14th c. knight sounded as [knix't], root as [ro:t], tale as ['ta:lə].

Another illustration may be drawn from the vocabulary. Since English belongs to the Germanic group of languages, it would be natural to expect that it has many words or roots in common with cognate Germanic languages: German, Swedish, Danish and others. Instead, we find many more words in Mod E having exact parallels in the Romance languages: French, Latin, and Spanish. Cf.:

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