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A search on the great linguist Leonard Bloomfield turned up (as the ninth hit out of 1,649) a paper from Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies by Hildegard L.C. Tristram called “Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or what was spoken Old English like?” Bloomfield is only mentioned in passing, but the paper is extremely interesting; here’s the abstract:
This paper suggests that diglossia in caste-like Anglo-Saxon societies consisted of O[E.sub.H] used by a very, small elite of largely Continental Germanic ancestry and O[E.sub.L] spoken by the bulk of the population. These shifted from British (Low) Latin and Late British to Old English (OE) after the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, in some areas over a period of about 300 years. It is hard to guess what the spoken language of the users of O[E.sub.H] was like and how great the gap between the spoken and written language was. The latter, through intensive networking, was kept remarkably constant over the entire OE period. Speakers of O[E.sub.L] are likely to have produced the attrition of inflections in the NP and the acquisition of aspectual distinctions in the VP. This surfaced in writing only after the whole-sale replacement of the Anglo-Saxon elite by the Normans. Cross-language contact linguistic research has shown that bottom-up language shift of large population groups is likely to produce grammatical (and phonological) contact phenomena in the target language rather than lexical ones. It is therefore claimed that Middle English started to be spoken as a low variety of English not after the Norman Conquest, but not long after the Anglo-Saxon Conquest.
(I presume O[E.sub.H] represents OEH, ie “High Old English,” and correspondingly for O[E.sub.L] = OEL “Low OE.”) And here is the end of the paper:
My conclusion then is that I do not believe in the punctuation theory concerning the sudden rise of Middle English due to a language internal development, although I agree with Dixon that punctuation is possible theoretically. But I would like to know what the purely internal conditions might have been. Nor do I believe in the internal typological restructuring of English due to the effect of the stem initial stress accent or in the deletion of merely ornamental inflections. I do believe, however, that there must have existed a very large gap between the high variety of spoken Old English (O[E.sub.H]) and the low variety (O[E.sub.L]). In terms of population numbers, we may perhaps assume that the high variety was spoken by some 4 or 5 thousand people and that the low variety was spoken by 1 to 2.5 million speakers of learner Old English. The percentage of speakers of the high variety must have been very low (0.2 to 0.4%), perhaps even lower than the percentage of today’s speakers of RP as a community language (2%). The low variety of Old English would already have featured most if not all the basic grammatical characteristics of Middle English, but it never entered into the realm of writing, because of the essential caste character of Anglo-Saxon society and because of the elite’s exclusive control of the technology of writing. The well-known Middle English dialect zones reflect the former ethnic contact situations which the language of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors in Britain experienced over the centuries, i.e. Anglo-Saxon with British Latin, Brittonic and Old Norse.
Thus the assumption of a substantial diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England helps to explain why, after the removal of the Anglo-Saxon elite, Middle English dialect writing appears to feature such “sudden” innovations emanating or radiating from the two focal centres in the North and in the South West.
Angelika Lutz (2002a [“When did English begin”, in: Teresa Fanego–Elena Seoane (eds.), Sounds, words, texts and change. Selected papers from 11 ICEHL, Santiago de Compostela, 7-11 September 2000. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 145-171]) has made an interesting case against the tripartite division of the history of the English language by Henry Sweet. He divided its history into Old English, Middle English and Modern English on the basis of the degree of morphological synthesis. Lutz points out that the widely differing views held by various scholars of the beginning of Middle English suggest that the Norman Conquest and its social restructuring of England has nothing to do with the analyticization of English. Instead, she suggests a bipartite division of the history of the English language on the basis of the influx of Romance vocabulary (end of thirteenth to fifteenth century). This changed the language to such an extent that Renaissance scholars did not consider the earlier period to be “English”, but “Saxon”. According to Lutz, the (partial) relexification of English at the end of the Middle Ages was a more important change of the communicative system than the much earlier loss of inflections and the grammatical changes this entailed (Lutz 2002: 161).
In my opinion, Sweet’s (and his followers’) morphological and Lutz’ lexical criteria resorted to for the sake of the periodization of the long history of the English language do not really exclude each other. They look at language change from different linguistic angles, i.e. the system internal change of morphological structure and the change of the communicative function by (partial) relexification. Because of the views advanced in this paper, I would, however, endorse Lutz’s view concerning an unbroken continuation of English across the divide of the Norman Conquest. There was a political divide of ethnic rulership, but there was no linguistic divide as far as the spoken language of the bulk of the population was concerned. The attrition of the inflections and the restructuring of the syntax started with the adult learners of Old English whose native language was Late British and who shifted to O[E.sub.L]. In the Danelaw areas, attrition was reinforced by the contact of the former language shifters with the Norse speaking settlers. To put it bluntly, outside the East and the South East spoken Middle English, as far as grammar is concerned, began in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Like in France, where the result of the contact of Gaulish Latin, as a spoken substratum, with superstratum Frankish only surfaced in writing in the ninth century after the Carolingian Reform, it needed a strong external impetus to adjust the written language to the spoken practice. The Carolingian reformers attempted to restore the “proper” use of Latin in the Empire and thereby allowed the spoken languages of Old French and Old High German to appear in writing (Strassburg Oaths 842 AD, Eulalia 878 AD). Spoken low status Old English, however, could only surface in writing after the demise of Anglo-Saxon culture. Unfortunately, the historical grammars of English never gave credit to the speakers of the “real” language of Anglo-Saxon England.
I look forward to exploring this trove for the next couple of days, and I thank aldiboronti in Wordorigins for alerting me to it.