Why the history of English?

HEL, or:
Why the history of English?

Why the history of anything? Is history about anything? Is there anything about history? While some students say the history of language is a nightmare, those who arrange the school curriculum claim it’s a nice filler. Still, many professors hate teaching it and postgraduates are happy to get it over with. So, why study history? And why the history of a language?


Very rarely does someone give a gasp of amazement at the intricacies of the old and archaic and even more rarely does someone decide to delve into the elaborate analysis of historical artefacts. After all, it’s just a history of something which belongs to the past and has nothing to do with the here and now, but at the same time it is sad when we realize that, although there are so many professionals claiming to specialize in one field or another, they seem not to be able to make heads or tails of many processes underpinning their own specialization.

Jeremy Smith sympathizes with the view that nowadays it is particularly difficult to find an all-round specialist who would be able to properly explain the interlaced events from various areas, and he quotes “operational reasons” as the main cause of his nemesis. On the other hand, he argues that “operational reasons are insufficient justification for turning disciplinary boundaries into insurmountable barriers” as there is a strong link between history and linguistics, proving that one cannot exist without the other and that “‘unfolding conversation’ between them is a crucial part of the future of the discipline” (Smith 2007: 160).

LANGUAGE at the heart of its creation

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary presents history as “a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their cause” which by definition should form the basis of any serious study. And speaking of studying the language, one cannot fully appreciate its beauty unless they get to the very bottom, the very essence, and the very heart of its creation.

I must admit that I belong to this ever-shrinking circle of language history fans and the moment when as a student myself I discovered the existence of Homorganic and Open Syllable Lengthening came as enlightenment – I’ve been lost in historical phonology ever since. Suddenly, all the little twists and turnings fell into place and actually began to make sense for a change, which not only revolutionized my linguistic world, but also made me think of a little linguistic revolution as well.

Now, years later, the same thought still gives me shivers at the sheer prospect of changing the history and image thereof. So, I keep trying to question and make my students doubt the foundations of what they assume they already know, trying to smuggle in some tidbits about the Great Vowel, Southern and Northern Shift, and relying on their graceful appreciation of those delicacies. When some students raise their hands and with disgust painted all over their faces ask “why on earth can’t English have a regular spelling in line with its pronunciation?” (or the other way round), I leap at the chance, and with all my might I get down to explaining the difference between child and children, and book and flood, and I run to the board, and scribble passionately all the formulas and processes, making arrows, drawing circles, underlining, pointing, emphasizing, and when finally, filled with unbridled enthusiasm, I turn back to the students… I find a sea of blank, expressionless faces with their mouths sagging open and eyes filled with questions “Do we need to remember all of that?!”

I’ve never said this is easy but I keep on learning to hold my horses and to “sieve” the knowledge, serving it more as appetizers than full courses, with a nice dressing so that my students do not bite off more than they can chew. I think nowadays this is what one may call “operational reasons” as understood by Smith, particularly if one takes into account the mode of today’s learning and teaching.

REVIVING THE IMAGE of historical linguistics

Nevertheless, I have never given up on my personal crusade for reviving the image of historical linguistics and I continue to spice up all kinds of classes with some historical anecdotes and stories. Above all, I keep on fighting against the misguided belief that English pronunciation is absurdly illogical as almost all kinds of phonetic curiosities can be explained, referring to the phonological changes that took place in the past.

Surely, as many historians claim, such changes can never be perceived as occurring in isolation since they are born of the interaction between context and contingency (McMahon 2000). This may refer both to linguistic and social factors, and is a subject of frequent debates between linguists, which proves that the history of language has some strong scientific foundations, hard to shake and hard to break into particular elements. Smith draws attention to the “observer’s paradox,” i.e. “the way in which the frame of reference of the investigator constrains the enquiry,” at the same time refuting this constraint and claiming that “[h]istorians are (or should be) aware that their work is in no sense a last word on a topic but simply part of a continuing discussion (…)” (Smith 2007: 157).

This discussion has also been joined in by Donald Dudley (1975) and Roger Lass (1980, 1987), to mention just a few, who agree that the subtlety of circumstances surrounding linguistic change makes it impossible to fully grasp the mechanism of all the processes. Therefore, April McMahon’s (1994: 45) concluding statement in Smith’s work rings so true: “For the moment, we may have to accept a lower-key definition of explanation at a less elevated but more common sense level: explanation might then constitute ‘relief from puzzlement about some phenomenon.’”

This is the essence of the history of the language – to offer some relief from puzzlement about various linguistic complexities, and much as students might fear the subject and teachers might feel disheartened by the prospect of teaching it, this can actually be the most important key to understand many processes underlying the language we use today. Quoting from Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Agnieszka Kocel (2016/2017) Palatable Palatalization: A Story of Each, Much, Such, and Which in Middle English Dialects. San Diego, CA: Æ Academic Publishing.

Warsaw Studies in English Historical Linguistics; a series based on historical corpora of English texts.

Further reading

Dudley, Donald (1975). Roman Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lass, Roger (1980) On Explaining Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lass, Roger (1987) The Shape of English. London: Arnold.

McMahon, April (1994) Understanding Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McMahon, April (2000) Lexical Phonology and the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith Jeremy, J. (1995) Sound Change and the History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.