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History of English Language

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History of English Language

English has evolved over thousands of years, changing and adapting to suit the needs of the people who speak it. Someone alive twenty generations ago would have spoken a completely different version of English to the one we use today.

Let’s go back to where it all started.

Short history of English language

You might be thinking 'English has been around a long time, how can its history possibly be short?', and you'd be 100% right. The history of English is anything but short, but for the purposes of this article, we'll try to keep it as brief as possible. In the next few sections, we'll be looking at the evolution of the English language from time period to time period.

The History of English Language History of English StudySmarterFig. 1 - The history of English is a long and rich one, and the language has changed dramatically over the centuries.

Here we go!

Evolution of English language

Each of the following sections will briefly map the evolution of the English language, as well as the different factors that would have influenced these changes.

Old English (5th-11th century)

English was originally a group of West-Germanic dialects (or ‘Anglo-Frisian’) spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded Britain in around 5AD. Their language (‘Old English’) is the earliest form of the language we call English today.

Literature was written during this period, including the well-known poems ‘Beowulf’ (a story of a monster-slaying hero) and the Exeter Book (a collection of riddles). These have allowed linguists to develop an understanding of how Old English looked and how it was used.

Features of Old English include the use of grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter genders, as in German) and the use of four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Again, like modern-day German!). There were also a lot more inflectional endings, meaning that word order was much freer.

FUN FACT: Many Old English place names have survived up to the present day such as ‘Plymouth’ meaning the mouth of the River Plym and ‘Oxford’ meaning a ‘ford for Oxen’. England itself is named after the Angles (ie. ‘Land of the Angles’) as well as the area of ‘East-Anglia’!

Middle English (ca. 11th-15th century)

Fast forward to 1066 and Britain is experiencing another invasion, this time from the Normans. This marks the beginning of a new era of language called Early Middle English.

During this time, English was briefly replaced by Anglo-Norman French. This was mostly used by the upper classes, while regional varieties of English were still being used by ordinary people. Due to the occupation of the Anglo-Normans and the use of French in writing, not much Early Middle English literature has survived.

Many of the Old English grammatical features were lost or simplified. For example, grammatical case endings and other inflections disappeared. This led to sentence structures (or ‘syntax’) becoming more complex and word order becoming more important. Early Middle English also adopted plenty of Anglo-Norman French vocabulary, particularly in areas such as the church, law, politics, and the arts (ie. the areas occupied mainly by the upper-class population).

FUN FACT: We still see the remains of the Old English plural inflection -en in words such as ‘oxen’ and ‘children’!

Going into the Late Middle English period (ca. 14th-15th century), English saw further changes. This included a push for standardisation, changes in our writing system, and changes in pronunciation, which is part of the reason modern-day spellings are so irregular!

The most famous surviving piece of literature from this period is ‘The Canterbury Tales’, written by Chaucer in the 1390s. Chaucer’s writing was mostly based on the East-Midlands dialect, a dialect which was also used in the Chancery Standard. It was this Chancery Standard that William Caxton used when he introduced the printing press to Britain in 1476. This helped to stabilise the English language and drive standardisation.

The History of English Language Middle English StudySmarterFig. 2 - If you've studied English Literature too, you'll probably be familiar with some of Chaucer's work.

Early Modern English (ca. 15th-18th century)

The 15th century marks the beginning of Early Modern English. A key event during this time was the Great Vowel Shift, an event true to its name. Over the course of around 300 years, the pronunciation of long vowels shifted ‘upwards’ to a shorter version of the vowel (either raised vowels or diphthongs).

The Middle English words ‘weef’ and ‘heer’ are now the words ‘wife’ and ‘her’. Try saying the Middle English word then the current word - notice how the vowels change from a lower position to higher up in the mouth.

The push for standardisation continued during this time, particularly in the spelling system. It was the London-based dialect that was seen as the standard, which led to the recognition of other ‘accents’ and ‘dialects’ (new terms acquired to describe regional variations). The use of the printing press was a way of establishing spelling conventions (ie. the ‘correct’ way of spelling words). The first English dictionary, called ‘A Table Alphabeticall’ was released in 1604 and, not soon after, the King James Bible was published, in 1611. However, standardisation was still a work in progress, so there were still many inconsistencies in spelling during this time.

The Early Modern English period was also the time of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who is regarded as the greatest writer in the history of English. Shakespeare introduced over 1,700 words to the English language, including the words ‘lonely’, ‘fashionable’, and ‘swagger’. Pretty impressive stuff!

By the end of the 16th century, English was seen as of equal importance in learning to the classical languages, such as French and Latin. However, it was still seen as inelegant by some.

Late modern English (ca. 18th-Present)

The Late Modern English period saw the rise of the British Empire, as well as the industrial revolution. Modern English remained pretty much the same in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and spelling; however, a lot of new vocabulary was introduced.

The industrial revolution was a time of innovation, and new words were needed to name the inventions. New means of transportation, machinery, materials, and techniques were all being developed and many of these were of British origin. English became the common language of science and technology with many scientific publications being written in English.

The History of English Language Evolution of English StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Industrial Revolution brought about much language change.

FUN FACT: The words ‘spinning wheel’ and ‘steam engine’ were coined during the industrial revolution.

Colonialism and the growth of the British Empire in the 16th century meant that English was adopted in regions across the world, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, India (and surrounding areas), and Africa.

Many countries in these areas have developed their own dialects of English over the years, which are now recognised as their own varieties and called ‘New Englishes’. Examples of ‘New Englishes’ include American English, Indian English, Caribbean English, and Singaporean English (sometimes called ‘Singlish’).

FUN FACT: New words and expressions were adopted into English from many different countries, such as the word ‘pyjamas’ deriving from the Hindi word ‘payjamah’.

In more recent times, we’ve seen the rising influence of American culture and American English. Throughout the 20th century, American influences such as big American corporations, Hollywood, pop songs, fast food, and fast fashion were distributed around the world. People were therefore listening to music, watching films, and buying products that were all written in the English language.

FUN FACT: The menu items of American fast-food chains often remain the same to give the full American experience. For example, in France, you’ll find ‘Big Mac’ and ‘McChicken’ written on the menu.

With over 1.35 billion speakers, English has become one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Today’s version of English is very different from the Old English spoken by our ancestors. English is still evolving and will continue to adapt to the linguistic needs of its speakers. The recent development of technology and text speak (e.g. ‘thank u, c u l8r’) is a prime example of this.

So what does the future hold for the English language? Well, according to linguist David Crystal, English is one of the most 'desirable Lingua Franca[s]' worldwide (Crystal 1999). It exists in many different varieties, from British English to Indian English to Singaporean English, and we expect to see these varieties develop even further as time goes on.

English Language family

Like people, languages can be related to each other. Countries in the same family usually have a common linguistic ancestry (ie. derive from the same language).

The English language belongs to the Indo-European language family (which consists of most languages in Europe and European settlement). The Indo-European family can then be split further into groups (eg. the Romance languages and Germanic languages). English is part of the West-Germanic family, along with German and Dutch. You can see the language groups as siblings - they share common parents but still have their differences!

The History of English Language - Key takeaways

  • The English language belongs to the Indo-European language family and originated as a West-Germanic dialect.
  • Old English (5th-11th century) was brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons in 5AD Britain and was very different to what we know today.
  • The Middle English period (11th-15th century) began when the Normans invaded Britain in 1066 bringing Anglo-Norman French. During this period there was a push for standardisation and the printing press was established.
  • The Early Modern English period (15th-18th century) saw the Great Vowel Shift and was the time of William Shakespeare.
  • The Late Modern English period (18th-Present) saw the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the British Empire. There has also been the influence of American culture and English has become one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

References

  1. Crystal, D. 'The future of Englishes', English Today, 1999, 15 (2), 10-20.

Frequently Asked Questions about History of English Language

English first originated as a group of West-Germanic dialects (or ‘Anglo-Frisian dialects’ to be more specific) spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded Britain in around 5AD. Their language, now conveniently named ‘Old English’, is the earliest form of the language that we know today. 

There is no specific founder of the language, however, Geoffrey Chaucer is seen as the father of the English language. Chaucer was an outstanding poet and made great contributions to English literature such as The Canterbury Tales (1392).

The English language first evolved after invasions by groups such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. Since then many other factors have influenced English such as standardisation, the Great Vowel Shift, contact with other countries during colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, and developing technologies.

Some of the oldest languages in the world include Sanskrit, Tamil, and Hebrew.

English first originated in 5AD when the Anglo-Saxons first invaded Britain.

Final History of English Language Quiz

Question

International English refers to a type of English that is used worldwide for communication. True or false?


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Answer

True! International English can be used to communicate between people of many different nationalities.


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Which Standard is International English based on?


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The British Standard

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How many people speak English worldwide?


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1.5 billion

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Name 2 domains in which English is influential. 


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English is influential in the domains of science and technology, business and the economy, and in popular culture.

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What key invention led to the standardisation of English?


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The printing press (1476) led to the standardisation of English as people needed to agree upon a common language to print.

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Question

Descriptivists believe that there is a ‘correct’ way to use language. True or false?


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False! Descriptivists do not view any varieties as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, instead, they look at how language is used in daily life.

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What is the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism?


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Prescriptivism is the idea that ‘correct’ language should follow specific rules (looking at how language should be used). Descriptivism is the idea that language can take many forms and none of these are superior (looking at how language is actually used in daily life).

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What is variety?


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A variety is a specific form of language that can be defined by certain features.

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What is the difference between accent and dialect?


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An accent is a way in which people pronounce words. Dialect is the particular words that people use in a specific region or group.

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Question

What language do the majority of people use on the Internet?


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English

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Technological determinism assumes that a society is determined by the _________ they use. Fill in the blanks.


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Answer

 technology

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Streven’s model of English groups varieties of English in what way?


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Answer

Hierarchically

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What are the 3 circles of Kachru’s concentric circles model?


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The circles consist of the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle, and the Expanding Circle

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What is linguistic imperialism?


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Linguistic imperialism is the idea that English as a global language maintains inequalities between countries and imposes norms and values.

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What is a dialect?


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A dialect is a form of language that is spoken amongst a specific group or in a particular region.

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Fill in the blanks: Dialect levelling is the process by which the differences and variations between certain dialects are ________ or ________ over time.

A: reduced; eliminated

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reduced; eliminated

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In the context of dialect levelling, what does it mean to ‘level’ something?

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To drop it

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TRUE or FALSE: Dialect levelling occurs over the space of 15 years

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TRUE: It has been proven that dialect levelling typically occurs over the space of 15 years 

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What is step 1 in the process of dialect levelling?


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Answer

The original generation to immigrate to this location kept and continued their home dialect

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Fill in the blanks: As it unfolds over time, dialect levelling results in the dialects and speech varieties of various parts of a country becoming increasingly _______

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similar

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When does dialect levelling seemingly occur the most?


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It seems to occur most frequently in languages following the industrialisation and modernisation of the areas where they are spoken.

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Which of the following are valid reasons for dialect levelling?

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Decreased social mobility

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  1. In the dialect levelling process, what is step 2 that leads to the final step of dialect levelling?

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The second generation picked and chose language from the linguistic options available to them

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What is the biggest problem with dialect levelling?

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The erasure of the uniqueness of individuality of dialects which means certain cultural quirks are now lost forever.

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Can you think of any examples of different dialects in Britain?

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Cockney, Brummie, Scouse, Yorkshire, Geordie...etc

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What event can we point to in Britain that led to the mixing of dialects?

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Economic change led to industrialisation and modernisation (migration of Britons), close proximity of soldiers during the World Wars, the popularity of media like TV and radio

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How likely is it that dialect levelling will eventually lead to one uniform dialect in Britain?

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Not very likely, as many close-knit communities/cultures will probably want to preserve the uniqueness of their own dialects

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How are the dialects of many adolescents often influenced by other adolescents?


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 Agemates likely to influence each other, as they are often in close proximity through youth group activities like schools and clubs

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How does social mobility often lead to dialect levelling?



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 Different social classes typically have had different dialects. Lower classes often  have to assimilate by their own dialect and the dialect of those from the higher class

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Why does watching a movie alone not count as a social interaction?


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Social interaction must occur between two or more people.

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True or False: Social Interaction refers to the verbal communication between individuals.


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False - Social interaction can involve verbal or non-verbal communication.

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T or F: Linguistic prescriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such.  


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True

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What is the aim of linguistic prescriptivism?

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To explore non-standard English in order to distinguish it from other languages

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What determines the ‘correctness’ of language to prescriptivists?

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‘Correct’ language refers to grammatical rules and conventions that have been predetermined by a system of language standardisation by scholars and those in positions of power. 


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Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a __-______ approach to analysing language usage.

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Answer

non-judgemental


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What is the relationship between prescriptivism and descriptivism?

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Answer

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are antithetical approaches to analysing language.


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T or F: Prescriptivism and Descriptivism both analyse standard English.

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​True

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When is prescriptivism most likely to be used?

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Prescriptivism is typically used in fields such as education, publishing, and professional environments.


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Do dictionaries take a prescriptivist or descriptivist attitude?

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Both - they are constantly updating to account for how language changes over time, which is a descriptivist attitude. However, they are a vital aid to prescriptivism as they provide the tool with which to enforce the standard use of language.


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Fill in the blanks: Descriptivism studies what language ____ ____ while prescriptivism studies what language should ____ ____.

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looks like

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Which approach is more frequently used by academic linguists?


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Descriptivism is the more followed approach - linguists are typically more interested in studying language usage than enforcing rules.

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Give one negative and one positive about the prescriptivist approach.

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Negative - Prescriptivism hyper-fixates on established grammatical rules to critique use of language rather than attempting to understand the intended message

    Positive - Prescriptivism establishes a standard practice in these fields that is consistent. This can be useful.

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How has descriptivism reduced the stigmatisation of certain language usage?

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It is an approach that looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their way of using language in an analytical and non-judgemental way.


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T or F: Both approaches acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.

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True - Both prescriptivism and descriptivism acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.


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Which approach is more likely to be used to write a letter to Buckingham Palace?

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Prescriptivism, it is used in formal situations.


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Which approach is more likely to be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world?

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Descriptivism, it analyses our use of language used in daily life.


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Fill in the blanks: Technological Determinism is a _______theory which points to ________ as the driving force of development in society.

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Answer

Psychological; technology

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Who coined the term technological determinism?


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Answer

Thorstein Veblen. 

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What is the primary concern of Technological Determinism?

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Answer

Language

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T or F: The creation of new slang terminology has slowed since the invention of the internet and social media

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Answer

True

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