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LINGUIST List 24.1640

Thu Apr 11 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics: Bergs & Brinton (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 27-Feb-2013
From: Igor Yanovich <yanovichmit.edu>
Subject: English Historical Linguistics
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-2443.html

EDITOR: Alexander T. Bergs
EDITOR: Laurel J. Brinton
TITLE: English Historical Linguistics
SUBTITLE: Volume 1
SERIES TITLE: Handb├╝cher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft / Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 34.1
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Igor Yanovich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

''English Historical Linguistics'', edited by Alexander Bergs and Laurel
Brinton, is the first 1100+ pages volume of a new handbook, covering in detail
the development of English starting from the Old English up to the Late Modern
English period, as well as the issues of language standardization in the
history of English, and the language of the different kinds of media. The
second volume will mostly cover the areas of English historical linguistics
that have emerged more or less recently, such as language contact in the
history of English or regional varieties. Many chapters of the handbook are
authored by scholars whose groundbreaking work was crucial to the advances of
English historical linguistics.

The first part of the present volume introduces the periodization of the
history of English. Each period starting with Pre-Old English and ending with
Present-Day English, is covered in a chapter discussing the major features of
English at the time, issues of historical evidence, and where appropriate, the
historical context of the language development.

The chapters of the second part each review a different linguistic level as
they figure in English historical linguistics, from phonology and prosody to
semantics and pragmatics. Orthography, idioms, onomastics and registers of the
language are also discussed as separate levels of the linguistic system.

The next four parts are the core of the volume, and provide in-depth
descriptions of each of the four major periods of the language, namely Old
English, Middle English, Early Modern and Late Modern English. For each
period, linguistic levels from phonology to semantics are discussed in
separate chapters, as well as the dialectology of the period, the issues of
literary language and standardization, and language contact and
sociolinguistics. For later periods, special chapters are included on the
language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and on several important phenomena of
historical change such as the Great Vowel Shift.

The seventh part covers issues of language standardization in several detailed
chapters that deal with such issues as the English prescriptive tradition, the
role of dictionaries in the standardization of English, the role of
individuals who developed prescriptive resources for English, etc.

Finally, the last part discusses the use of English in different media:
newspapers, television, radio and the internet.

The editors see the intended audience for the handbook as ''researchers in the
field of (historical) linguistics generally'' and ''in allied fields''. The
exposition, however, is largely self-contained, and does not presuppose
particularly deep knowledge of either the history of English or theoretical
linguistics, which makes the book an excellent resource for students. The
presence of overview chapters discussing the general issues within each
linguistic level should make it easy enough for such emerging scholars to use
the book both independently and as supplementary material for particular
classes. At the same time the accessibility of the material does not
compromise the depth of presentation, so the book may indeed serve as a
valuable resource for current practitioners in linguistics and allied fields,
as the editors have intended.

One notable feature of the handbook is the conscious inclusion of information
on modern technology and electronic sources of data that may be useful for a
scholar of the history of English. While every handbook aims to provide the
readers with a rich bibliographical apparatus to guide the reader to more
advanced literature, the current handbook attempts to complement that by also
guiding the reader to primary sources of data in a form that makes it easy to
work with them, and providing a basic critical assessment of those.

To put it briefly, the present handbook is the kind of book that one is happy
to keep on the shelf next to one's desk. It should allow a researcher with
limited background in English historical linguistics to quickly gain command
of the most necessary entry-level knowledge, and then, if needed, proceed
further using the references in the relevant chapters.

The chosen format thanks to the inclusion of both specific material on
particular periods and more general introductory chapters makes it easier for
readers with very varied backgrounds to understand the logic of different
parts of the field, and how that logic manifests itself in individual studies.
For example, the chapters on historical prosody or historical syntax would
explain to the reader just what kind of issues the corresponding discipline

Many of the chapters, though not all, are written in a way that makes
transparent not only the main conclusions reached in a particular subfield of
English historical linguistics, but also helps the reader to become accustomed
to forms of argument frequently used in it. For a researcher from a
neighboring discipline that will likely prove of great value. As an example,
Keith Williamson's chapter on Middle English dialects not simply describes the
distributions of characteristic dialectal features, but also explains the
methods used by historical dialectologists, and the limits and successes of
the techniques used, including the very recent efforts to start establishing
the dialect picture with regard to the lexicon, in addition to the dialect
picture with regard to sound correspondences.

As another example of an effort to make the content accessible to a wide range
of readers, Robert D. Fulk's chapter on the literary language of the Old
English period not only describes the important features characteristic of
different registers, as well as the likely dialectal origin of those and the
amount of variation between different texts, but also makes a conscious effort
to explicate the terms of the trade for linguists with no background in the
tradition of Old English studies.

As a feature of overall design, the chapters covering the same linguistic
level at different periods are not organized according to the same template.
Depending on the needs of the reader and on the details of realization, this
strategy may prove very useful to a particular user of the handbook, or it may
prove otherwise.

In many cases the difference in the content of corresponding chapters is due
to the fact that the state of the relevant research is different. For example,
the study of historical pragmatics is relatively new, compared to such
established areas as historical phonology. Consequently, Ursula Lenker's
chapter on Old English pragmatics and Elizabeth Closs Traugott's chapter on
the pragmatics of Middle English discuss a different range of topics. For
instance, both discuss politeness strategies and types of speech acts, but
only the latter surveys degree modifiers. It is not that Old English lacked
them, but more can be said about Middle English on the topic. In part the
difference in the volume of available research stems from a difference in the
amount of existing evidence: for instance, Middle English texts represent a
wider variety of registers and genres than surviving Old English ones, and
that is also reflected in the composition of the two chapters.

In other cases, however, different choices do not follow directly from the
state of scholarship or the evidence. For example, the syntax chapters on Old,
Middle and Early Modern English are all structured differently. Rafal
Molencki's chapter on Old English syntax presents all crucial information on
the subject neatly organized into sections on, e.g., the noun phrase or
complex sentences, so that a reader not acquainted with Old English could
quickly learn the basic syntactic facts about the language. Elena Seoane's
chapter on Early Modern English does not aim to be as comprehensive,
explicitly referring the reader who needs a full overview to the Cambridge
History of the English Language, and instead discusses in detail several
important syntactic changes of the period.

In contrast to those two, Jeremy J. Smith's chapter on Middle English syntax
attempts not so much to give an overview of the syntactic system, but rather
to discuss the importance of using diplomatic editions and not imposing the
modern grammatical notion of sentencehood onto medieval speakers. That aim is
quite laudable, but the reader whose only goal is, for instance, to find out
what the Middle English noun phrase looked like, would have a hard time
finding the relevant information in the chapter. As the discussion presupposes
a high level of familiarity with English historical linguistics, it may prove
hard to follow for people outside the field. Finally, small mistakes also do
not help (for instance, when discussing the modal auxiliaries, the author
misanalyses CHULLE from Ancrene Wisse as a form of SCAL (> modern SHALL),
while in fact it is a form of WULLE (> modern WILL) with the initial W
assimilated to the CH at the end of the preceding word. As such assimilation
is a familiar, automatic phonological feature of the so-called AB dialect in
which Ancrene Wisse is written, the misanalysis is harmless for practitioners
in the field, but for a person from the outside, small details like that might
lead to some confusion. That said, there is definitely a value in illustrating
the syntax of a period not with isolated sentences, but rather with large
fragments of translated and commented text belonging to different temporal
subperiods and different genres, so overall the chapter would prove
interesting even for readers who are not quite able to follow all the details
due to a lack of background.

As mentioned above, one of the goals of the handbook is to provide the reader
with an apparatus of electronic, easily accessible resources that help one to
study the history of English. With the rapid development of various historical
corpora, the book will soon be far from exhaustive in that respect, but even
so it should not become irrelevant. While it is the second volume that will
feature chapters specifically devoted to textual resources, many chapters of
the present volume provide an overview of the available corpora where
appropriate. Perhaps naturally, such descriptions may be found more frequently
in the chapters that concern subject areas where the use of massive data
sources is widespread, such as those on English dialects, as well as in those
that address the language in a particular type of media such as newspapers or
radio. This apparatus of pointers towards various sources of empirical data
will make it easier for a scholar entering into the field to quickly move from
studying the existing knowledge to actively engaging the empirical data in
addition to that. In that sense, the handbook truly creates a new standard.

To sum up, the first volume of Alexander Bergs and Laurel J. Brinton's
Handbook is a well-rounded volume containing an enormous amount of relevant
information in a generally well-organized and easy-to-use form. It is a
valuable addition to the rich literature on the subject.

Igor Yanovich is a PhD student at MIT, specializing in formal semantics,
phonology, and historical linguistics.
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