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Formation of the English national language



The formation of the national literary English language covers the Early NE period (c. 1475—1660).

There were at least two major external factors which favoured the rise of the national language and the literary standards: the unification of the country and the progress of culture.

The term "national" language embraces allthe varieties ofthe language used by thenation including dialects; the ''national literary language"applies only to re­cognized standard forms of the language, both written and spoken.

The end of the Middle English period and the beginning of New English is marked by the following events in the life of the English people:

1) The end of the war between the White and the Red Rose (1485) and the establishment of an absolute monarchy on the British soil with Henry Tudor as the first absolute monarch – the political expression of the English nation.

The War of the Roses (1455 – 1485) was the most important event of the 15th century which marked the decay of feudalism and the birth of a new social order. It signified the rise of an absolute monarchy in England and a political centralisation, and consequently a linguistic centralisation leading to a predominance of the national language over local dialects.

2) The introduction of printing (1477) by William Caxton (1422— 1490).

Printing was invented in Germany by Johann Gutenberg in 1438. It quickly spread to other countries and England was among them. The first English printing office was founded in 1476 by William Caxton.The appearance of a considerable number of printed books contributed to the normalisation of spelling and grammar forms fostering the choice of a single variant over others. Caxton, a native of Kent, acquired the London dialect and made a conscious choice from among competing variants.

Since that time – the end of the 15th century the English language began its development as the language of the English nation, whereas up to that time, beginning with the Germanic conquest of Britain in the 5th century and up to the 15th century, the English language was no more than a conglomerate of dialects, first tribal and then local. Indeed, a notable feature of the Middle English period is the dialectical variety that finds expression in the written documents. It was only late in the 14th century that the London dialect, itself a mixture of the southern and south-eastern dialects, began to emerge as the dominant type.



Thus, the English national language was formed on the basis of the London dialect which was uppermost among Middle English dialects due to the political, geographical, economic and "linguistic" position of London which became the capital of England already in the 11th century – before the Norman conquest and which was in the 15th century a thriving economic centre and port of England due to its geographical position near the estuary of the largest river in England. The geographical position of London as a large port and city in the centre of the country where people of the North mingled with people of the South, on the one hand, enabled the Londoners to acquire features of both southern and northern dialects, and on the other hand, the people coming to London helped to spread the London dialect all over the country.

The importance of the London dialect as the foundation of the English national language grew also because of the fact that many of the best writers of the 14th – 15th centuries (e.g. Geoffrey Chaucer) were Londoners or used the London dialect in their writings. But the literary norm of the language was established later, in Early New English. Many English authors of the forthcoming centuries contributed to it, among them Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and, finally, William Shakespeare.



In New English there emerged one nation and one national language. But the English literary norm was formed only at the end of the 17th century, when the first scientific English dictionaries and the first scientific English grammar appeared. In the 17th and 18th centuries there appeared a great number of grammar books whose authors tried to stabilise the use of the language.

The grammars and dictionaries of the 18th c. succeeded in formulating the rules of usage, partly from observation but largely from the "doctrine of correctness", and laid them down as norms to be taught as patterns of correct English. Codification of norms of usage by means of conscious effort on the part of man helped in standardising the language and in fixing its written and spoken standards.


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