LINGUIST List 12.2320

Thu Sep 20 2001

Review: Price, Languages in Britain & Ireland

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  1. Dominic Watt, Review of Price (2000)

Message 1: Review of Price (2000)

Date: Thu, 20 Sep 2001 14:50:30 +0100
From: Dominic Watt <>
Subject: Review of Price (2000)

Price, Glanville, ed. (2000) Languages in Britain and
Ireland. Blackwell, paperback, 240pp., $35.00, ISBN: 0-

Dominic Watt, Department of Language and Linguistic
Science, University of York

'Languages of Britain and Ireland' (LBI) is essentially a
revision of Price's 'The Languages of Britain' (1984),
and as the titles indicate, the major difference in
content is that LBI covers the linguistic history of the
whole of Ireland as well as that of the United Kingdom.
As there are chapters on the Isle of Man, the Northern
Isles (Orkney and Shetland) and the Channel Islands, the
book might equally well have been called 'Languages in
the British Isles', were it not for the fact that
Trudgill (1984) and Britain (forthcoming) use an almost
identical title for their own works.

Another addition is the inclusion of chapters by other
authors in the newer work, though nonetheless nearly half
of the chapters are written by Price himself. They are
loosely grouped by language family: Q-Celtic (Goidelic)
languages are dealt with first, followed by the P-Celtic
(Brythonic), Germanic and Romance (other than Latin)
groups, with Romani and 'community languages' at the end.
Although these groupings appear to be made according to
linguistic criteria, Price makes it clear that, unlike
for instance Lockwood (1975) or Trudgill (1984), LBI does
not aim to deal with the languages' structural
properties. Rather, the theme is sociohistorical: the
typical chapter is a potted biography of each language,
beginning with the language's origins, its subsequent
development, and in many cases the reasons behind its
extinction. Of the sixteen languages to which full
chapters are devoted, nine are either extinct in these
islands or extinct altogether; of the survivors, only
English, and perhaps Welsh, thrive. The book thus reads
rather like a series of obituaries, with the relentless
domination of English, the 'killer' language (p.141), a
recurring motif.

The chapters, with their respective authors, run as
follows:(1) Prehistoric Britain (Price); (2) Irish in
Ireland (Cathair O Dochartaigh); (3) Irish in Early
Britain (Price); (4) Scottish Gaelic (Kenneth MacKinnon);
(5) Manx (Robert Thomson); (6) British (Price); (7) Welsh
(Janet Davies); (8) Cornish (Philip Payton); (9) Cumbric
(Price); (10) Pictish (Price); (11) Latin (Price); (12)
English (Price); (13) Scots (Jeremy Smith); (14) Norse
and Norn (Michael Barnes); (15) Flemish in Wales (Lauran
Toorians); (16) French in the Channel Islands (Price);
(17) Anglo-Norman (D.A. Trotter); (18) Romani (Price);
(19) Community Languages (Viv Edwards). Selection of
languages for inclusion must have been troublesome, since
it is by no means clear what makes one language more or
less 'indigenous' than another, a consideration which
perhaps prompted the use of 'in' rather than 'of' in the
book's title. Space limitations preclude detailed
discussion of the contents of each individual chapter in
the present review, and since in any case LBI's approach
is essentially descriptive, little would be gained by
summarising each of the contributions. Some general
commentary on LBI's strengths and weaknesses is instead
offered below.

The chapters in LBI vary widely in length and depth,
ostensibly by virtue of the relative importance of each
language to the linguistic history of the British Isles,
and because of the poverty of evidence for long-extinct
languages such as Pictish or Cumbric. Price has
presumably also taken into account the amount of existing
literature devoted to each language. The chapter on
English, for instance, is only half the length of that on
Welsh. It could be argued, on the other hand, that
Scottish Gaelic deserves as much space as is allotted to
Irish since the former is spoken by at least twice as
many people as the latter, or that in the absence of
anything but the scantiest evidence for either British or
Cumbric, the accounts of these languages could be
collapsed into one chapter. With the exception of the
chapter on Welsh, ample additional sources on each
language are provided, though it is noticeable that many
of these are now rather dated (e.g. those for Cumbric),
and some important sources are conspicuous by their
omission. There are, most strikingly, no references
anywhere in LBI to Trudgill (1984), which seems odd
considering the convergence between the two books'
contents and the fact that five of the contributors
(Barnes, Edwards, MacKinnon, O Dochartaigh, Thomson) have
written entries on the same languages for both

LBI is a rich, interesting and useful source of
information on the individual histories of and
interrelationships between the languages in question, and
can be recommended for this reason alone. There are
several areas in which the book might be improved,
however. For example, in the parts of chapters which deal
with languages in early Britain and Ireland, LBI alludes
disappointingly little to debates currently taking place
among linguists, historians and archaeologists concerning
the evidence for accounts of invasion, migration and
trade within the British Isles and between the Isles and
the European mainland. MacKinnon's description of the
arrival of Irish-speaking Scots in Argyll, for instance,
is based on Bannerman's (1974) history of Dalriada. In a
book published over a quarter of a century after
Bannerman's, and in view of developments in
archaeological techniques and thinking over that period,
one might have hoped that MacKinnon would at least have
provided a reference to contemporary reinterpretations of
the 'Irish invasion' such as those of Foster (1996) or
Campbell (2001). Linguists' engagement with such issues
is clearly crucial if these closely interdependent
disciplines are to avoid becoming 'parasitic' upon one
another, as Forsyth (1997) and others have warned.

Also, while Price does not claim LBI's coverage of
languages in Britain and Ireland to be exhaustive, it is
puzzling that he has chosen not to include chapter(s) on
signed languages (these are, however, dealt with in
Price's recent 'Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe'
(2000)). There are estimated to be between 50,000 and
70,000 users of British Sign Language (source: Royal
National Institute for Deaf People) and around 4,000 of
Irish Sign Language, making ISL the third largest
indigenous language of Ireland. One might therefore have
expected these languages to warrant chapters in their own
right. It is regrettable that the attempts of BSL and ISL
users to have their languages recognised as such have
failed on this occasion, but this could perhaps be
rectified in a subsequent edition.

Some improvements could also be made in terms of LBI's
presentation. The longer chapters, especially those by O
Dochartaigh and Davies, are informationally very dense
and would benefit from division into headed subsections.
O Dochartaigh's chapter on Irish is, moreover, rather
disjointed in places. We move abruptly, for instance,
from a discussion of attitudes among anglophones in
Belfast towards the perceived preferential treatment of
the Gaelic speaking community in that city, to a
description of the ogam alphabet used to inscribe the
earliest written texts in Old Irish. Elsewhere (p.24/25)
we proceed without warning from Weinreich's contact model
back to Ireland's linguistic prehistory. The text
throughout the book is tightly packed and printed in
fairly small close-set type, so the reader in search of
specific pieces of information may foreseeably find the
format frustrating, especially given the shortcomings of
the index (see below).

There are places, again particularly in O Dochartaigh's
and Davies' contributions, in which the detailed
statistics on native-speaker numbers might be more easily
absorbed through the use of graphics, perhaps in the form
of charts or maps. The maps and illustrations that are
provided in the text are generally clear, though most of
the maps lack scales, and no maps are provided of certain
areas (e.g. the Channel Islands or Cornwall). The only
map of the British Isles as a whole comes toward the end
of the book - in Barnes' chapter on Norse and Norn -
though the Channel Islands are not shown here either, and
nor is the French coastline. A detailed map of the entire
British Isles somewhere more accessible (on the inner
front cover, for instance) would be a useful addition to
a second edition of LBI, since many of the book's
readers, even British and Irish ones, are likely to
unfamiliar with the geographical layout of the

The reviewer runs the risk of appearing excessively picky
about the book's formatting for expressing a strong
preference for footnotes rather than endnotes at the end
of each chapter, and for querying the odd decision to
omit publishers' names from the reference lists. These
are minor quibbles, though, compared to the serious
inadequacies of LBI's index. Only three sides are devoted
to the subject index, as compared with seven for the name
index, and its coverage is generally thin (there are no
independent entries for 'Scots', 'Hiberno-English',
'Manx', 'Gaelic', 'Gaidhealtachd', or 'Irish', for
instance). It also appears to be unfinished, with entries
ending at 'television'. There are thus no references to
Wales, Welsh, Ulster, or Yorkshire; readers who would be
interested in knowing more about the Vikings, the Welsh
language newspaper 'Y Cymro', or Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh
(the Manx Language Society), say, are committed to
searching through the text of the relevant chapters
paragraph by paragraph. A glossary, as per Trudgill
(1984), might also have been helpful for those readers
less familiar with linguistic terminology.

Despite these shortcomings, LBI will still nonetheless be
a valuable reference for anyone looking for summaries of
the principal strands in the linguistic history of the
British Isles, and the current status of the languages of
the United Kingdom and Ireland that have survived until
the present day. The book is very informative on the
attempts to protect endangered Celtic languages and to
revive extinct ones, and offers fascinating insights into
the role language has played in the political histories
of Ireland and the UK's constituent countries. Linguists
in search of information on structural aspects of the
languages must look elsewhere, but plenty of references
to appropriate historical and contemporary sources are
given. In terms of both coverage and currency, however,
it will be interesting to see how LBI and Britain's
revision of Trudgill (1984) will compare with one another
when the newer volume emerges.

Bannerman, J. (1974). Studies in the History of Dalriada.
 Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Britain, D. (forthcoming, ed.). Language in the British
 Isles, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Campbell, E. (2001). 'Were the Scots Irish?' Antiquity
 75: 285-292.
Foster, S. (1996). Picts, Gaels and Scots. Edinburgh:
 Historic Scotland.
Forsyth, K. (1997). Language in Pictland: the Case
 against Non-Indo-European Pictish. Utrecht: de Keltische
 Draak/Muenster: Nodus Publikationen.
Lockwood, W.B. (1975). Languages of the British Isles
 Past and Present. London: Andre Deutsch.
Price, G. (1984). The Languages of Britain. London:
 Edward Arnold.
Price, G. (2000, ed.). Encyclopedia of the Languages of
Europe. Oxford: Blackwell.
Trudgill, P. (1984, ed.). Language in the British Isles,
1st edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dominic Watt is Lecturer in Phonetics and Phonology in
the Department of Language and Linguistic Science,
University of York. He is involved in a research project
on the acquisition of phonological variation among
infants from Newcastle upon Tyne, work which develops his
doctoral research on variation and change in the vowel
system of Tyneside English. Other research interests
include language and identity along the Scottish/English
border, and vowel production and perception.
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