Home Page
Resources and Tutorials
Interactive Web Site
External Links
Kleinman Home Page

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How old is the English language?

Dating is not easy, but written records and archaeological evidence indicate that the island of Britain was settled by speakers of the ancestor of the English language -- the Anglo-Saxons -- around the year 450 AD. If we use this as a starting point, the English language is just over 1,500 years old.

2. What is 'Old English'?

Make sure you distinguish between Old English and old English. The latter has no technical meaning and can be used to refer to anything from the earliest forms of the language to eighties 'Val Talk'. But the capitalised version refers to the language at a particular period in time, about 450-1100 AD. Many people think of Shakespeare's language as 'Old English', but Shakespeare lived between 1564 and 1616 -- almost five hundred years after the end of the Old English period!

3. What is the difference between 'Old English' and 'Anglo-Saxon' ?

'Anglo-Saxon' refers to the people, their history, and their culture. 'Old English' refers to their language. Old English used to be called 'Anglo-Saxon' as well, but around the middle of the twentieth century scholars began to use the term 'Old English' to stress the continuity between the Anglo-Saxons' language and ours. Indeed, although the written form of old English looks to a beginner like a foreign language, further study reveals that Old English and Modern English really are very closely related.

4. Where did the Anglo-Saxons come from?

The Anglo-Saxons tell that they were descended from peoples who lived across the North Sea from Britain in what is now Denmark, Northern Germany, and Holland. Modern historians know them as ethnically Germanic, but they were not German; Germany as a political (and cultural) institution notion developed much later.

5. So how much has English changed in 1,500 years?

In the 19th century, the philologist Henry Sweet referred to three periods in the history of English which were characterised by some notable grammatical tendencies. Old English is similar to many European languages in marking grammatical functions with 'endings' on words (like the -s in words which tells us that the word is plural). In the second period, Middle English, the number of these endings became significantly reduced and devices such as word order increased in grammatical function. Middle English lasted from approximately 1100-1500. When studying Middle English in detail, we can divide the period into Early Middle English and Late Middle English. Together, Old English and Middle English comprise the medieval period.

The third period is known as Modern English, lasting from about 1500 to the present. During this period the endings became reduced to a very few. As you can see, the medieval period was twice as long as the modern period. And you may be surprised to find that Shakespeare wrote Modern English! Well, if that goes against your intuitions, you'll be happy to know that the modern period is divided into Early Modern English (about 1500-1800) and Present-Day English (1800 to the present). Around 1800, the language (in its written form, at least) achieved approximately its present form.

6. How exactly has English changed?

Now we're getting into the nitty gritty of the subject. You already know part of the answer: English lost many of its grammatical endings over the course of time and word order became increasingly more important. But changes also occurred in handwriting, spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, and idiom as well. Cultural attitudes about the use of English have also changed considerably, often in ways that reflect wider social attitudes.

7. Why did English change?

The standard non-scholarly answer is that people were lazy and careless with their use of language. Certainly some people have been (and still are) guilty of lazy and careless usage. But are we then to conclude that we have inherited 1,500 years of laziness and carelessness, and that, if we were only more conscientious, we could all speak beautiful Old English? The fact is that even competent use of the language has changed over time. The more discerning of you might come up with a different reason for the changes English has undergone: to simplify its many complexities. Well, if that's what you thought of, you're on to something. But you shouldn't think that we now speak a simpler language than the Anglo-Saxons did. Tweaking one aspect of the language to make it simpler often creates new complexities. This is what drives language to change constantly.

8. Did English change because of historical events?

This is another common reason given for many of the developments English has undergone. The relationship between the internal history of the language and the external history of its speakers is a complex one. Different aspects of the language are affected to different extents by external history. The answer, then, is both yes and no. It depends on which individual changes you are looking at.

9. What did Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English sound like?

A National Endowment for the Humanities grant allowed me to build a time machine, and the resulting extensive library of recordings will bear fruit in my Anglo-Saxon Drinking Songs CD, to be released next year. Sadly, I was unable to bring my camera equipment into the theatre when I tried to get the first production of Hamlet on film. OK, my little joke. We don't really have any way of knowing how English was pronounced before the invention of sound recordings. But we do have some remarkably good evidence, either from contemporary observations or from a technique called linguistic reconstruction. So we can guess at the pronunciation without being too far off. Samples of modern scholars' recordings of Old English and Middle English can be found online at Chaucer Studio. Sadly, most people read Early Modern literature with today's pronunciation, so there are no similar collections of recordings of pronunciation between the year 1500 and the invention of modern recording equipment.

10. What do I need to know for this course, and what will I learn?

The course is designed to introduce you to the two most important things you need to know about the history of the English language: the history of those who spoke (and speak) English and the grammatical structures of English at various stages of history. Essentially, you will study both history and linguistics. Be prepared to take on both. You'll come away with a lot more, as well: knowledge about literature and poetry, art and archaeology, and sociology. You'll also develop analytical skills and an understanding of the way systems work. Most importantly, you'll pick up thousands of items of trivia which are sure to come in handy as pick-up lines....

Copyright (C)1999 by Scott Kleinman
Distribution or reproduction of any kind is prohibited.
Home Page | Syllabus | Assignments | Resources & Tutorials | Interactive Web Site | External Links | Kleinman Home Page
Last Update: 3 September, 2006