LINGUIST List 12.1095

Fri Apr 20 2001

Review: Fennell, History of English

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  1. Elvira Myachinskaya., Review of B. Fennell, A History of English

Message 1: Review of B. Fennell, A History of English

Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2001 10:52:41 +0400
From: Elvira Myachinskaya. <>
Subject: Review of B. Fennell, A History of English

Fennell, Barbara (2001) A History of English. A
Sociolinguistic Approach, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
xiv+284 pages.

Reviewed by Elvira Myachinskaya, St. Petersburg State
University, Russia


The History of English is published as part of a series of
Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics and follows the textbook
format-- with introduction of relevant technical terms and
theories, tables of noun declension and verb conjugation.
Each chapter is preceded by a helpful and informative
timeline of events in human civilization which are relevant
to language evolution and followed by a short list of
Suggested Readings. The textbook also includes a
considerable amount of material and information not covered
by the title of the book, which makes sense if the book is
targeted at a student without previous instruction in
philology. The subtitle of the book indicates the author's
intention to find, wherever possible, extra-linguistic
motivation and circumstances of language evolution.

The book consists of an Introduction and seven chapters, as
well as an extensive bibliography and index of names and
terms. Its aim is to cover the evolution of the English
language from its start, through Middle Ages to the present
day diversity of regional and national forms.

The Introduction is significant because it establishes
several fundamental methodological assertions. The author
strives to approach the history of language from various
angles and offer different perspectives, so that "each
chapter contains socio-historical and cultural background,
a descriptive account of major structural characteristics
from stage to stage and a particular topical focus" (p.1)
The causes of language change are summarized with an
orientation towards extra-linguistic motivation, such as,
language contact, imperfect learning, substratum, social
prestige; language internal causes are not structural, cf.
ease of articulation, analogy, randomness and the like.

Chapter 2 The Pre-history of English (pp.15-54) describes
the Indo-European languages, their relation, typology,
spread, phonological characteristics, etc. giving quite a
lot of space to a topic which definitely lies outside the
sphere indicated by the title of the book.

Chapter 3 Old English [OE] covers the Anglo-Saxon invasion,
Scandinavian influence, linguistic development from sound
to vocabulary, texts, dialects, language contacts -- some
in detail, others fragmentary. One of the strongest points
in the evolution analysis first appears here and is
developed throughout the book: the restructuring of the
English linguistic system from synthetic language type to
analytical. Language contact theory, especially Thomason
and Kaufman's borrowing scale, is also introduced, to be
further elaborated in connection with creolization
hypothesis (ch.4,pp.126-131).

The main topic of Chapter 4, Middle English [ME], is the
breakdown of the inflectional system, yet other changes are
treated as well, perhaps rather perfunctorily. Thus, the
formation of analytical verbal forms receives only a
cursory glance and the questioned "What is an analytical
form as opposed to a syntactic word group" is not discussed
at all. However, ME dialects receive proper attention and
sample texts provide beautiful illustrations.

An extensive (and in my judgment excessive) discussion of
English language pidginization and creolization under
Scandinavian and French influence results in the a
conclusion that the influences were only superficial and
cannot be interpreted as creolization, that the
simplification was "a result of the move from synthetic to
an analytic language that had begun already in the shift
from Indo-European to Germanic" (p.130). This conclusion is
so evident that one regrets having been obliged to read
more or less irrelevant argumentation on language contact.

Chapter 5, Early Modern English [EMdE], introduces EMdE as
a period of tremendous historical changes, whereas the
changes of short vowels, consonants, morphology and syntax
are considered slight (p.138) and are only mentioned. The
Great Vowel Shift is given special attention, the long
vowel evolution is traced from pre-Old English times (some
of the changes from Germanic are mentioned here for the
first time) through Middle English to Present Day English
and sociolinguistic interpretation is supplied, cf. "we are
able to hypothesize that the change is motivated by social
stratification. That is to say, it was caused by the
increase in social differentiation typical of the swelling
urban population" (p.161)

Chapter 6, Present-Day English, concentrates on lexical
development, describes dialect variation, Received
Pronunciation (RP), Estuary English, English in Scotland,
Ireland and Wales, immigrant varieties of English in

Chapter 7, English in the United States, covers the history
of settlement and the language starting with 1607
(Jamestown, Virginia, the first English settlement in
America) region by region. Political, ethnic and linguistic
aspects of divergence from British English are traced.
Dialect diversity in Modern American is presented in
linguistic, geographic and social perspective.

Chapter 8, World-Wide English, starts with 1600, when the
British East India Company was founded, and covers the
history of the colonial spread of English over the globe.
This chapter is purely sociolinguistic, practically without
any linguistic analysis. It also deals with the prospect of
English becoming an international language.

Comments and discussion.

The sociolinguistic approach taken by Barbara Fennell is
both the merit and the weakness of the book. The author's
choice of this or that hypothesis in dealing with the
earliest, pre-historical periods of language/es is
sometimes arbitrary and far from justified, cf. the Kurgan
theory or farming dispersal (pp.51-53) to explain the
spread of Indo-European; cf. social stratification as the
cause for the Great Vowel Shift (p.161)seems far-fetched,
especially for a phonological change that has such serious
prosodic, structural and systemic motivation. But the
closer we come to modern times, the more diverse and
satisfying is the sociolinguistic background. The
description of Celtic multilingualism in Britain is
elaborate and illuminating, except for the scarcity of
language material. Not a specialist on American English
variation, I enjoyed reading Chapter 7 "English in the
United States". Chapter 8, which describes the way English
spread over land and sea, is to be recommended to students
of any level.

It is a excellent idea to include period sample texts,
above all the same text in different dialects,
demonstrating linguistic variation (pp.110-113). At the
same time, the book's treatment of linguistic evolution
suffers from serious flaws of inconsistency, contradictions
and errors, leaving important questions unanswered.

According to Fennell (pp.1 and 59), Old English begins in
500, which is neither the beginning of the German conquest
nor the earliest attested writing. A question arises--and
it would be fascinating to know the answer- why Fennell
thinks that fifty years are necessary and enough to form
the English language from dialects whose structure and
differences are little known, since there are no texts in
either the Germanic dialects or the British English of the

The beginning of Early Modern English 1500 is marked,
according to the book, by the introduction of the printing
press, (which, by the way, was introduced in 1476). Later,
however, in corresponding chapters, the author seems to
have changed her mind and includes both the print and
Caxton's activity, which signals the beginning of
standardization, in the Middle English period.( It would be
more reasonable to date the end of ME as 1400 and begin
EMdE with the introduction of the press and the rise of
London dialect.) As it is, to the reader's confusion,
Fennell refers Caxton to the MEn period but discusses his
importance and the printing press in the chapter on Early
Modern English (pp.156-7)

Students reading the book will be led to erroneously
believe the following claims, among others.

 a) Nouns have a weak declension similar to adjectives
 b) OE nouns of "fot-fet" type belong to the "mutated
plural" declension(p.65) (instead of "root-stem"), though
they also had mutated Dative singular and non-mutated
Genitive and Dative plural. In Old English the category of
number was not manifested independently of the category of
 c) There were both First and Second Consonant Shifts in
English (p.159).
 d) EMdE /r/ vocalization caused compensatory lengthening
of the preceding vowel (p.161). What exactly is
 e) Weak verbs were inherited together with Strong verbs
from the Indo-European system (p.69).
 f) Strong verbs of Class I have long vowels in Past
plural and Past Participle, standing for Ablaut zero
gradation (p.69).
 g) An accent, like RP, is not just pronunciation but
grammar too, cf. "On the grammatical level there are a
number of variants within RP" (p.188) RP is evidently
confused with Standard English.

The reader may be further confused by certain
inconsistencies such as the following.
 1. Front voiced fricative phoneme /zh/ like in "beige,
garage" (examples from the book, p.61) appeared in late Old
English. And, at the same time /zh/ filled the gap under
French influence in ME (p.129). And also, EMdE/z/+/j/
assibilation "was the source of the modern phoneme [zh],
since "usual" came to be pronounced ["as in present-day
RP"]" (p.140) (Sorry for the transcription characters: e-
mail technical restrictions).
 2. "Consonantal changes in ME are slight" (p.97)
Also,"With regard to ... consonants.. changes were slight"
in the Early Modern English (p.138) And again, phonological
change between EME and PDE is also minor (p.168). When did
the consonants change, one may ask?
 3. The statement: "foot -feet" is an i-mutation
alteration (p.62) is in conflict with: "mice, feet", -
originally Ablaut forms "(p.141)
 4. In the Early Modern English "/ai/ monophthongized to
/a:/, so "weight" and "mate" fell together as /e: open/,
then /e:/ (p.160) I must be experiencing some language
barrier phenomenon for I cannot make head or tail of it.
 5. OE chapter contains no mention of Preterite-Present
verbs so it is surprising to read "By ME the modals "shall"
and "will" are associated with the future.." (p105)
 6. OE front fricatives both voiced and voiceless /s-z/,
/f-v/ are in complementary distribution and , as a result,
allophones. In ME, when voice became a phonological feature
as a result of syllable restructuring and loss of
geminates, /s/-/z/, /f/-/v/,/th/ -/th(voiced)/ became
independent phonemes, entailing the voicing of word-initial
"the, this, though" etc. and dialectal [vader] for "father"
and [zelf] for "self". This important phonemisation
development is not mentioned in the book at all. Instead,
the phonemization of /v/ and /z/ is attributed to the
French influence (!) In fact, French borrowings with
initial voiced fricatives were only possible because the
voiced and voiceless front fricatives had already become
phonemes and were spreading to new positions. Lexical
borrowings only filled positions already existing in the
system of phonemes. This is why "French-like rounded vowels
/y:/ or /y/, or nasal vowels" (p.129) were not borrowed:
they were not part of English phonemic inventory by that
time (see p.98 for the development of /y/ in Middle
English). Thus, the author's conclusion that " we can
hardly say that the phonemic system was extensively
affected by contact with French" (p.129) is more than true
and it is regrettable that she contradicts her own

The history of pronouns is scattered throughout the book,
serving different tactical aims of the author; if it were
discussed as a class and in accordance with the theoretical
framework accepted in the book, many questions would have
been eliminated. As it is, the appearance of new 3rd person
pronouns receives a disappointingly disconnected
explanation. OE "he, heo, hie" pronouns were reduced in ME
to a homonymous form 'he', the system, thus, requiring
substitution by distinctly different forms. "He" retained
its position as the masculine singular form. "In ME the
North and East Midland dialects developed third person
singular feminine pronouns with initial [sh] (e.g. sho)
(p.143,chapter on Early Modern English, first mention of
the issue). The question of "they" in this context would
not be treated as Scandinavian borrowing - a general
misconception- but would be considered another dialectal ME
form. There is much evidence for that, even in the book
itself. Unfortunately, the OE system of demonstrative
pronouns is not included in the body of the textbook; if it
were, it would distinctly show a source for the
transplantation, namely the th-paradigm (as well as the
demonstrative "seo" as the source for "sho/she").

Scandinavian, of course, supported the tendency, but it
should be also borne in mind that there was no "pure" THEY
form in Scandinavian: the forms were THEIR and THEM, so it
was not even a direct borrowing. Anyway, Middle English
being a period of "dialect anarchy" with a standard yet to
come, we can only speak about "they" as Northern dialectal
form that later supplanted the Southern dialectal "hie,
his, him" forms. It is really a waste of the future
students' attention to introduce them to creolization
theory mainly on the basis of pronominal borrowing from
Scandinavian when there was no borrowing.

This critical revision mentions only a few objectionable
instances of many more, mainly in traditional historical
spheres of phonology and grammar. Chapters 6-8 definitely
deserve more praise than criticism. Still, a
sociolinguistic approach is not a license to kill
evolutionary logic or formal correctness.

No bibliography is supplied here for the same reason: A
couple of references will give an impression that the rest
does not deserve any critical assessment. The opposite is
true: it will take pages of bibliography to put things in a
proper perspective.

The book has a very elegant cover design, with Paul Klee's
Blau Nacht, enigmatic and mesmerizing.

Elvira Myachinskaya is Associate Professor at the
Department of English Studies, St. Petersburg State
University, Russia. She lectures on the History of English
language and British English Language Variation (Regional
and Social). Her other interests are historical phonology,
Old Germanic philology, sociolinguistic typology,
translation theory and practice, cross-cultural pragmatics,
Russian language acquisition.
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