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Old English (600-1100)
Early Middle English (1100-1300)
Later Middle English (1300-1450)
Early Modern English (1450-1650)
and Modern English (since 1650)
--are terms of convenience and somewhat arbitrary. It isn't like speakers of Old English thought that their language was "old," naturally, or that speakers of Middle English saw their language as transitional.
Old English(600-1100) is a purely Germanic, highly inflected language with several literary standards: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish.
EarlyMiddle English (1100-1300) is a radically simplified English, losing most of its inflectional endings, but as yet keeping a mostly Germanic vocabulary. It retains many different dialectal forms and has little standardization in spelling and other orthography.
LaterMiddle English (1300-1450) is heavily influenced by French vocabulary and has two major literary dialects: Midlands/Northern and London. Particularly in the London dialect, we begin to see standardization, under the influence of the Chancery clerks.
Early Modern English(1450-1650) moves sharply toward standardization, with the invention of printing being the major factor here; London standard tends to become a national standard, with consciousness that other dialect regions are sub-standard or non-literary. The impact of the English translation of the Bible is very strong in this standardizing of the written language.
Modern English(since 1650) is characterized by relatively rigid standardization (compared to other English periods, though not to Modern French) and by the increasing role of travel and electronic media in establishing a spoken as well as a literary standard. At the same time, the worldwide spread of English has resulted in new dialect areas well beyond Britain. In particular, American English becomes a competing standard with British "received" or "BBC" English.
In broad theoretical terms, what we see in the development of the English language is the intersection of "organic" or "natural" language processes (which however one should always see as political, not unconscious or biological) with technological forces.
One of the best ways of charting the development of the English language through historical periods is to compare different versions of a stable text, and the Bible is the most stable text historically, since it must be translated into English (ultimately from the Greek original, sometimes through Latin).
For the rest of this session we'll look at thesecond chapter of the Gospel of Luke for some key "snapshots" of moments in the development of the language.