5/05/2011

The History of the English Language as a Cultural Subject

It was observed by that remarkable twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntington that an interest in the past was one of the distinguishing characteristics of humans as compared with the other animals. The medium by which speakers of a language communicate their thoughts and feelings to others, the tool with which they conduct their business or the government of millions of people, the vehicle by which has been transmitted the science, the philosophy, the poetry of the culture is surely worthy of study. It is not to be expected that everyone should be a philologist or should master the technicalities of linguistic science. But it is reasonable to assume that a liberally educated person should know something of the structure of his or her language, its position in the world and its relation to other tongues, the wealth of its vocabulary together with the sources from which that vocabulary has been and is being enriched, and the complex relationships among the many different varieties of speech that are gathered under the single name of the English language. The diversity of cultures that find expression in it is a reminder that the history of English is a story of cultures in contact during the past 1,500 years. It understates matters to say that political, economic, and social forces influence a language. These forces shape the language in every aspect, most obviously in the number and spread of its speakers, and in what is called “the sociology of language,” but also in the meanings of words, in the accents of the spoken language, and even in the structures of the grammar. The history of a language is intimately bound up with the history of the peoples who speak it. The purpose of this book, then, is to treat the history of English not only as being of interest to the specialized student but also as a cultural subject within the view of all educated people, while including enough references to technical matters to make clear the scientific principles involved in linguistic evolution.

by Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable

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