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History of English in the systemic conception of English
Subject and Aims of the History of English. Its Ties with Other Disciplines. Germanic Language in the System of Indo-European Family of Languages
Procedure for role play
Learning one’s mother tongue (first language, native language) is a natural process. When a child acquires first knowledge of his or her mother tongue, s/he usually takes all its peculiarities for granted as s/he has no other language to compare with. Things are quite different with mastering a foreign language: when learning it the student compares it to his/her mother tongue and is often astonished to find great differences in the way ideas are expressed in the two languages, and if the learner is an adult person, he or she will often be struck by inconsistencies in the foreign language, illogicalities, and contradictions in its structure. Thus, any student of English is well aware of the difficulties of reading and spelling English. The written form of the English word is conventional rather than phonetic. The values of Latin letters as used in English differ greatly from their respective values in other languages, e.g. French, German or Latin. Cf.:
bit – [bit] full correspondence between Latin
three letters – three sounds letters and English sounds
bite – [bait] no correspondence between the vowels
four letters – three sounds and their graphic representation: the
final e is not pronounced, but
conventionally serves to show that the preceding letter i has its English alphabetic value which is [ai], not [i] as in other languages
knight – [nait] the letters k and gh do not stand for
six letters – three sounds any sounds but gh evidently shows
that i stands for [ai]
This illogicality can be explained by the history of English sounds and spelling. Without going into details, suffice it to say that at the time when Latin characters were first used in Britain (7th c.) writing was phonetic: the letters stood, roughly, for the same sounds as in Latin. Later, especially after the introduction of printing in the 15th c., the written form of the word became fixed, while the sounds continued to change. This resulted in a growing discrepancy between letter and sound and in the modern peculiar use of Latin letters in English. Many modern spellings show how they were pronounced some four or five hundred years ago, e.g. in the 14th c. knight sounded as [knix’t], root as [ro:t], tale as ['ta:lə].
In the sphere of vocabulary, there is considerable likeness between English and German. Thus, for example, the German for summer is Sommer, the German for winter is Winter, the German for foot is Fuß, the German for long is lang, the German for sit is sitzen, etc. On the other hand, in certain cases English has something in common with French, as the following examples will show: English autumn – French automne, English river – French rivière, English modest – French modeste, etc. These similarities are easily observed by anyone having some knowledge of German or French. But we cannot account for them if we remain within the limits of contemporary English; we can only suppose that they are not a matter of chance and that there must be some cause behind them. These causes belong to a more or less remote past and they can only be discovered by going into the history of the English language.
As far as grammar is concerned, it can only be noted that the history of the language will supply explanations both for the general, regular features of the grammatical structure and for its specific peculiarities and exceptions. It will explain why English has so few inflections; how its “analytical structure” arose – with an abundance of compound forms and a fixed word order; why modal verbs, unlike other verbs, take no ending –s in the 3rd p.sg.; why some nouns add –en or change the root-vowel in the plural instead of adding –s (e.g. oxen, feet) and so on and so forth.
All the above-mentioned phenomena are traced back to a distant past and they cannot be accounted for without a study of history.
Thus knowledge of the history of English should be an integral part in the training of a teacher of the language.