Teaching the history of the English language 1: changing attitudes and expanding opportunities

English language


Wim van der Wurff
Newcastle University

What’s the use of that?

Teaching the history of English? What’s the use of that? In the 1970s and early 1980s, this question was often asked but the answers usually given did not exactly sparkle with enthusiasm. Methods and materials used were often old-fashioned and the ultimate aim of teaching the history of English appeared to be … well, that students should know a lot about the history of English. The last two-and-half decades, however, have seen real change in methods and aspirations in this area of English-language studies. Attitudes to the subject are more positive and opportunities for it have significantly expanded, in terms of how the subject is studied, how it relates to other areas of language study and how it can be taught. In what follows I briefly trace this development and its consequences.

gvsIn the 1970s and early 1980s, studying the history of English was, for many lecturers and students of English language, a somewhat dull and gloomy activity. Hanging over it was the heavy hand of philological tradition, with the a-, i-, u- and vocalic stems of Old English and their Proto-Germanic precursors, its ‘ash 1’ and ‘ash 2’ (disconcertingly always manifested as one and the same sound in the Old English texts normally read), the orthoepic evidence for the Great Vowel Shift and the spelling niceties of the ‘AB language’ (a dialect of Middle English that, in spite of the whimsical name invented for it by wordsmith supreme J.R.R. Tolkien, is a hard nut to crack for any but the most dedicated scholar). Much of the field habitually looked backwards, to the halcyon days of the Neogrammarians, who one century earlier had formulated bold hypotheses about mechanisms of language change and had shown how these could shed light on intricate details of linguistic forms and their reconstructed shapes. In contrast, there was little Neo to boast about in contemporary work on the history of English, which seemed to be suffering from severely arrested development. A further element of backward-lookingness was present in the strong focus on what happened to the language in the Old and Middle English periods, which were considered to be the ones of greatest interest for the study of change

The language of days gone by

Unfortunately, this interest in the language of days long gone by was not shared by great numbers of students. These might be more taken with the excitement palpable in other areas in English language studies, such as generative syntax and phonology, sociolinguistics, discourse studies and computer linguistics, all of them still new fields at this time, which were undergoing rapid practical and theoretical development and offering prospects of a real understanding of the nature of language, its place in society and the principles governing its use. Not surprisingly, teaching the language of the distant past came under fire from those doubting its intellectual and social relevance. Certainly on the continent, it was not unusual in this period for teachers of the history of the language to adopt a markedly defensive attitude to their subject.

Thus, studying English language and literature at the University of Amsterdam in the late 1970s, I and my fellow-students were at one point given a document setting out explicitly the need for a graduate in English to know about its linguistic history, because of its intellectual worth, the light it shed on literary productions of earlier centuries and its essential place in the make-up of a well-rounded Anglicist. The following year I witnessed the same thing happening at a module on Old Norse that I was auditing, where very much the same points were made in response to what must have been similar pressures. Clearly, historical linguistics was a beleaguered field in those days. Some of these pressures indeed continued into the 1990s – examples and responses can be found in many of the papers in Fischer and Ritt (1997).

A shift: convergence with other branches of Linguistics

Since the 1990s, several developments have led to a shift in the evaluation of historical linguistics. For one thing, research in other areas of linguistic study has increasingly taken on board facts of language variation and change. In generative syntax and phonology, this was partly a consequence of the growing importance of comparative and cross-linguistic study, which received a strong boost from the development of the principles-and-parameters model from the early 1980s onwards (see Holmberg, to appear, and the Responses to it for a range of views). In sociolinguistics, a focus on variation and change was a natural outcome of close study of linguistic patterning in the community, as already advocated by Labov (1963, 1966) at the beginnings of the discipline. To some current practitioners, in fact, sociolinguistics is the study of linguistic variation and change (it is also the name of the major sociolinguistics conference held annually in the UK). As a result, linguists working in these other fields are now quite ready to consider questions such as the mechanisms underlying Old English i-Umlaut, the social factors triggering (parts of) the Great Vowel Shift, the relation between the early Modern English weakening of inflectional endings and the introduction of dummy do or the relative weight of the various factors contributing to the growth of, for example, New Zealand English as a distinct variety. Similarly, students too are much more likely to see the links between the history of English and language study more generally.

Another development that has led to a new perspective on historical work is the rise in corpus linguistics. In general terms, this has inspired renewed respect for data and a greater realisation that theorising needs to be accountable to the facts. Close inspection of corpus data has in many cases led to the discovery of previously unsuspected patterns, thus transforming traditional ideas about the grammar and pronunciation of present-day English. A strong orientation towards data is of course what historical linguistics has always had. While this had for a while been regarded as a weakness, in the new corpus-inspired climate that is informing large areas of language study, such criticism would sound positively misguided.

Conversely, scholars working on the history of English have fully incorporated concepts and techniques from other fields in linguistics, with the result that their work has become much more flexible and outward-looking. Anyone currently working on the details of, say, Middle English negative clauses will routinely apply structural, sociolinguistic or corpus-linguistic methods of analysis to their material. Historical linguists have indeed also used their considerable expertise in textually based work in order to create historical computer corpora of English, which they have subsequently mined with unparalleled enthusiasm (see Kohnen 2007 for an overview). The result has been an undoubted rapprochement between work on the history of English and that on other areas of the language.

The turn towards Modern English

A further relevant development is that practitioners of the history of the English language have increasingly turned their research attention away from its medieval stages. Part of the reason for this may have been a feeling that the most significant work on Old and Middle English had been done. Another part may be traceable to an editorial decision. When Richard Hogg and his team of editors in planning the Cambridge History of the English Language in the mid 1980s decided that there would be separate volumes for each of the major periods, the result was a number of lengthy chapters, written by leading scholars, mapping out what was interesting and significant in Early and Late Modern English. This work did not fail to inspire others, resulting in an upsurge of activity, in particular in Late Modern English (for a survey of this growth, see Pérez-Guerra et al 2007). And more was to follow. Once the first digital corpora of English, created in the 1960s, had been in existence for a few decades, it was realised that creation of comparable corpora composed of language produced in the 1990s would make possible comparison of the two stages, with a view to identifying current change in English. Such study of the very recent history of the language is now developing into a thriving field, some of it described and referenced in Mair (2006) and Leech et al (2009). It is not difficult to imagine the effect of this shift away from Old and Middle English on student perceptions of the subject. In concrete terms, it involves the difference between studying changes taking place between, for example, Old English and early Middle English (on the basis of edited texts that keep the full complexity of the original manuscripts at arm’s length and that are obviously produced for use in classrooms only) and changes taking place between the 1960s and the 1990s (on the basis of data that can be found everywhere, in its full authentic glory, with ever greater amounts of it being available at the click of a mouse).