LINGUIST List 24.338|
Sun Jan 20 2013
Review: General Ling.; Historical Ling.; Ling & Literature: Momma & Mato (2011)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
From: Corey Zwikstra < corey.zwikstrawashburn.edu">anhaga73gmail.com, corey.zwikstrawashburn.edu>
Subject: A Companion to the History of the English Language
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-34.html
AUTHORS: Haruko Momma and Michael Matto
TITLE: A Companion to the History of the English Language
SERIES TITLE: Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture
Corey J. Zwikstra, Department of English, Washburn University, Topeka, KS
This book is aimed at a broad audience of students of English literature and
culture who could benefit from increased understanding of the English language
and how it has changed and been studied over time. Although English
linguistics can be a challenging subject, most of these short, accessible
chapters will be readily understood by readers with little background in
linguistics. The book is especially sensitive to the social and political
contexts of language use, with contributors frequently treating nationalism,
political correctness, linguistic diversity, and historical contingencies. The
editors offer their collection as a ‘companion’ rather than a comprehensive
An edited collection of almost 700 pages in 9 parts, some with sections, the
book contains 59 chapters by 61 international and often distinguished authors,
as well as ancillary headnotes, timelines, maps, figures, a glossary, and
index. A few of the contributions have been published previously in some form.
Part 1 (Chapters 1-3), the shortest, introduces the field of the History of
the English Language (HEL) and its disciplinary history and teaches a few
essential linguistic terms and concepts necessary for beginners to make sense
of what follows. Part 2 (Chapters 4-8) surveys the traditional areas of
linguistics--phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and prosody--while the
brief Part 3 (Chapters 9-11) extends consideration to semantics and
lexicography. Part 4 (Chapters 12-13) briefly considers the prehistory of
English as both an Indo-European and Germanic language. Part 5 (Chapters
14-33), the longest, focuses at great length on the histories of English in
England and America within various regional and political contexts. Part 6
(Chapters 34-41) extends that focus to places outside England and America,
emphasizing along with Part 5 the diversity and proliferation of the English
language across time and space, especially in post-colonial contexts. Part 7
(Chapters 42-49) studies English as a literary language via major authors and
texts from all historical periods. Varieties of contemporary English,
including dialects, creoles, and pidgins, are the focus of Part 8 (Chapters
50-55). Part 9 (Chapters 56-59), the last, complements the others with
examples of approaches to language study. The book concludes with a refined
glossary of linguistic terms and a thorough, useful index.
Since evaluation of all the contributions is impractical, I will focus on
representative chapters that stand out or might especially benefit the
intended audience of students of English literature and culture. Several of
these chapters both teach about and exemplify a productive linguistic approach
or context to literature.
Chapter 7, “A History of the English Lexicon” by Geoffrey Hughes, nicely
explains how the lexis of English is distinctly mixed in its Germanic, French,
and classical components, but is increasingly cosmopolitan, and how this mixed
lexis, capable of different registers, reflects the diverse external history
of English. Hughes also explores how words become “socially mobile” (p. 70)
and further describes “the lexicon as an indicator of power relations” (p.
70). Given the intended audience, especially welcome are the sections on
“literary words” and other types of words such as neologisms. Students need to
know words change and lexical histories can productively inform literary
analysis, as when Chaucer in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales uses
Germanic words to characterize the lowly Miller and Romance words to
characterize the churchly Prioress (p. 73).
Chapter 8, “History of English Prosody” by Geoffrey Russom, demonstrates
insightfully how “English historical metrics and English historical
linguistics have much to offer one another” (p. 87). The essay, though brief,
is full of suggestive analyses and neat explanations, the clear products of
decades working in this specialist field: for example, his historical and
syntactic explanations of the decline of compounding in Middle English (p. 84)
and the rise of English rhymed iambic poetry in the Early Modern period (p.
86). An understanding of metrical fashions brings increased knowledge of how
language works, and comprehending meter and language together can result in
more informed, nuanced, and historical understandings of English poetry.
Prosody is a subject I wish literature students knew more about, and Russom’s
chapter showcases how metrical considerations lead to insights about both
language and literature.
Together Chapters 42-49 on literary language provide a solid introduction to
literary uses of English, with chapters on Old English poetry, Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Faulkner, Rushdie, and Morrison. English literary
history is “multivalent” (p. 433) in its language use and wider connections to
culture. “The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Tradition” (Fred C. Robinson) interestingly
claims that unlike later classical- and French-influenced verse in English
“the OE [Old English] verse patterns are a selection of natural speech
patterns” (p. 438) and thus Old English poetry grows naturally and natively
from the Germanic stress patterns of English. “Chaucer’s Literary Language”
(John F. Plummer) rightly points out that Chaucer’s literary language might
well have been French before moving on to describe how Chaucer’s English
incorporates much from the foreign languages and authors whose works and
styles inspired him. Chaucer in general has “a keen ear for diction and
register” (p. 449) and often uses them to advantage. The original and
stimulating “Shakespeare’s Literary Language” (Adam N. McKeown) paints
Shakespeare’s poetry as “speaking pictures” (p. 462) that inhabit our mind’s
eye and compel us to contemplate the social world and our place within it.
“Joyce’s Literary Language” (Laurent Milesi) and “Faulkner’s Language” (Noel
Polk) detail how in their own ways Joyce, who privileged “the linguistic in
the literary” (p. 471), and Faulkner defamiliarized and destabilized language
and in the process re-energized it. Theirs are virtuoso linguistic
performances not for their own sake but also for the sake of meaning and
purpose, even when meaning is being played with or slips away. These chapters
on literary language, with their sensitive attention to language issues in
English literature, exemplify and are complemented by many ideas in “Style and
Stylistics” (David L. Hoover). Hoover notes that stylistic analysis of
literature hibernated during the heyday of literary and cultural theory but
has re-emerged in the electronic age hungry and refreshed in the electronic
age . May stylistics find no more winters.
My criticisms of the book are few and mostly concern organization and balance
There are too many chapters and sections, and the chapters are too short,
averaging around 10 pages, including bibliographies, while the sections are
sometimes too long. Certain chapters satisfy more like hors d'oeuvres than
tapas. A comparison with other recent volumes in the Blackwell Companions to
Literature and Culture series shows Martiny 2011with 2 parts and 43 chapters
and Saunders 2010 with 3 parts and 34 chapters. The chapters in both are on
average longer than those in Momma and Matto. Comparable series Oxford
Handbooks of Literature and Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics seem to average
about 30-40 chapters. I suspect most such companions and handbooks are
similar, making this book relatively high in its number and length of
chapters. What might have been left out? Chapters 52 and 53 on teaching
English might well have been omitted as outside the proper scope of the book.
A case could be made that 8 chapters on literary language are too many. The
bloated Part 5 seems the most obvious choice for reduction: Having multiple
chapters on the different chronological stages and dialects of Old, Middle,
Early Modern, and American English seems excessive in a book intended for
non-specialists. Perhaps the editors tried to reach too many possible
audiences, an understandable fault.
Once in a while an individual chapter reads more advanced than its intended
audience, as with Chapter 54 “Creoles and Pidgins” (Salikoko S. Mufwene). The
way it problematizes and theorizes definitions of key terms, while important,
comes across as too specialized for a companion, though unevenness in degree
of difficulty is probably inevitable in an edited collection with so many
contributions. Some chapters, on the other hand, could have been more
substantial; for instance, Chapter 3 “Essential Linguistics” (Mary Blockley)
at 7 pages might have been more thorough in its overview of linguistic issues
and methods necessary for non-linguists to understand the rest of the book.
The book weighs heavily on the side of the external rather than the internal
history of English, though the editors suggest this “internal” vs. “external”
perspective on the English language “may have run its course” (p. 8). Maybe
so, but a balanced presentation is most useful for beginners.
Since the focus of the book is everywhere on variety and plurality, its title
might have contained something signaling that plurality: Histories of the
English Language or The History of English Languages or similar. Although such
plurals can sound awkward or forced, they nonetheless would accurately
describe the contents and emphases of the book.
I noticed a few typographical errors (persisting in the 2011 paperback
reprint), none of which compromises content: for example, an ungrammatical
comma between the subject and verb of a sentence (after “schools” p. 279), and
more significantly repeated misspellings of the name of the comic playwright
Terence as “Terrence” (p. 460 and again in the index on p. 686).
The market for companions and handbooks is crowded in most disciplines, and
linguistics and literary studies are no exceptions. The book will receive
competition from, among others, Nevalainen and Traugott 2012. However, the
Oxford volume appears to be more empirical and specialist, less global in
scope, and weighted more toward internal considerations, all indicating a
different primary audience than for the Blackwell.
In conclusion, this book succeeds in doing what it intended, to provide
linguistic grounding for readers primarily interested in the literature and
culture of English past and present. It deserves a place in libraries and
classrooms, to be read cover to cover or dipped into for specific topics. One
would struggle to use the book as a textbook to teach a HEL or English
Linguistics course, but the book would make a welcome, instructive companion
in such a course, or in a literature survey course. Because it is readable and
has good chapter bibliographies and a detailed index, it might also serve as a
reference for students researching a topic within the history of English.
Familiarity with the contents of this book would help students improve two
common deficiencies: lack of knowledge about history and language.
Martiny, Erik (ed.). 2011. A Companion to Poetic Genre (Blackwell Companions
to Literature and Culture). Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.
Nevalainen, Terttu, and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (eds.). 2012. The Oxford
Handbook of the History of English (Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics). Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Saunders, Corinne (ed.). 2010. A Companion to Medieval Poetry (Blackwell
Companions to Literature and Culture 67). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Corey J. Zwikstra left Canada to pursue graduate studies and received a PhD in
English at the University of Notre Dame. His primary interests lie in the
language and style of medieval English poetry, and he has published on the
concept of wisdom in Old English poetry. He now teaches language, literature,
and writing courses at Washburn University, where he is Assistant Professor of
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