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Language Change: from Old English to Modern English.

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Introduction

Language Change: from Old English to Modern English. That the English language has changed momentously over the last 1000 years would appear as a given to a speaker of Modern English who reads or hears an Old English text being read for the first time. In fact, if the reader were not told that it was English, he or she might not even be able to identify it as a form of English. How has this happened? What are the factors of language change which have led to Modern English being so vastly different to Old English? Which elements of the language have these changes affected? What in fact is language change and how does it occur? These are big questions, about which indeed many books have been written. Anything like a comprehensive survey of the change from Old English to Modern English is beyond the scope of an essay of this length. In this essay, then, I have selected a few issues which relate to language change, coming at the topic from the perspective of a beginning student in this particular area. Hence I specifically look briefly at what language change is, and some arguments which attempt to describe how it occurs. I then outline some of the characteristics and developments distinguishing Old English from Modern English, taking the example of the reductive change in English morphology, focussing exclusively on this area as it is one in which I am interested and have some previous familiarity. ...read more.

Middle

the grammatical distinctions are a subset... of those drawn in German" (Hawkins: 1985, 12). On the basis of this statement and the comparison with the Old English and the Modern German cases systems I would like to present an hypothesis about a specific item where language change today may give us a clue about language change in Old English. The case system refers to certain endings placed on determiners, adjectives and nouns most often in order to specify certain categories of the noun, eg, the function of the noun phrase within a sentence (its case), its gender and its number in Old English (cf. Lass: 1987: 146). In Old English, as in Modern German, nouns had three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), two numbers (singular and plural) and could 'fall' according to four cases (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative). The gender of nouns was not ascribed naturally, but grammatically, that is, a noun's grammatical gender did not necessarily have anything to do with its gender 'in the real world' - hence Old English wifmann (woman) has masculine gender whilst m�gden (girl) has neuter gender (see Quirk: 1994, 19, 20). Compare Old English m�gden with Modern German M�dchen (girl), which also has neuter gender. Modern English has no markings for gender any longer except in pronouns where it distinguishes, albeit on natural rather than grammatical gender lines (ie, the pronoun for woman is nowadays 'she', because the noun refers to a female person), between the three with she, he and it. ...read more.

Conclusion

is now restricted to the most literary, officious and religious of texts and never appears - indeed as do none of the oblique case inflexions - in colloquial speech any longer. This change, completed hundreds of years ago in English, and a hundred years ago in Dutch now appears to have been triggered in German as well. In this change there appear the requisite linguistic variant and systemic regulation in that there is a choice between two construction and the realisation of a choice between a genitive and its alternative prepositional construction tends to be regulated by social status and usage. Is this one of the reasons that case endings were lost in Old English also? I cannot answer this for certain, but I would suggest, following the argument of this essay that it is a possibility. Conclusion. I have looked here briefly at some of the theory involved in language change, pointing out the principle of uniformitarianism which informs the theory, and touching on some of the mechanisms involved in language change. It appears that language is a dynamic system, constantly in a state of flux, always affected by outside factors, inexhaustible in terms of its future possibilities. I have also compared one of the more obvious aspects in which Old English is distinguished from Modern English: that of the move from synthesis to analysis in language. In comparing the old English system with the Modern German system also, I have ventured my own example of what I believe to be a language change in progress, suggesting that perhaps a similar process could have affected the English language also. ...read more.

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