English etymology course

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

This page is one starting point for those that want to understand more about the development of the English language. AWE includes a 'course in etymology'. It is for people who know little about it - linguistic experts will find AWE's introduction deficient. Its goals are simply to supply an outline account of the development of the English language, with some insight into how such knowledge can help students use the language more accurately and elegantly - or at least avoid some of the usages that academics find inaccurate, or barbarous. It is true that most teachers who take a pedantic view of written style have a basic knowledge of language history, and this may lead students to want to acquire it too.

The most basic principle of all is that languages evolve, in ways that resemble those of biological evolution. Some rules or broad principles hold good in this process, such as the rule known as Grimm's Law in phonetic change. These are not dealt with here. We only cover English and its relatives in this guide. The mention of 'relative' may suggest that you look at language families now; otherwise, carry on reading.

The English language has a long history, its earliest written records dating from the first half of the eighth century. Its origins are very misty. Like all natural languages, it evolved as a spoken language, and the earliest written records are sparse. Though there is great scholarly dispute over many details, its development can be summarised in the following one-page schema, which may serve as a framework for any further knowledge that users of AWE may seek, or stumble across. You are invited to follow the links in order to put a little more flesh on the bare bones of this page; but, for anyone who wants to understand it in depth, there is no real substitute for reading a decent history. One warning may be necessary: there are no neat boundaries in the history of a language. No parent woke up in 1066 or 1485 unable to understand what a child was saying (at least, no more than usual): such dates are only convenient markers. Languages change gradually.

To continue with our potted version of the history of English, start at Development of English.