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LINGUIST List 24.551

Thu Jan 31 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics: Richard E. Morris (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 07-Jan-2013
From: Jean-François Mondon <jfmondongmail.com>
Subject: Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar Containing Accidence and Word-Formation
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3097.html

AUTHOR: Richard E. Morris
TITLE: Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar Containing Accidence and Word-Formation
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jean-François R. Mondon, Minot State University


Richard Morris’ 1884 “Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar” has
recently been republished by Lincom Europa. The book consists of 15 chapters
of varying lengths followed by a short index of topics.

The first seven chapters serve both to place English into its historical and
geographical position as well as to provide background linguistic knowledge to
the reader. Chapter 1 (pp. 1-5) offers a very brief overview of the place of
English among the Indo-European family and the Germanic branch more
specifically. Chapter 2 (pp. 6-30) offers an outline of the various lexical
and morphological influences on English, ranging from a Celtic element through
a Scandinavian one through to the four individual stages of Latin borrowings.
Chapter 3 (pp. 31-34) presents the typical periods of Old, Middle, and Modern
English together with a very brief and general discussion of dialect
differences in Middle English. Chapter 4 (pp. 35-41) serves as a basic
introduction to phonetics. It closes with a short discussion of the
imperfections of English orthography. Chapter 5 (pp. 42-52) moves away from
the synchronic description of English phonetics into a listing of various
diachronic ‘permutations’ which have occurred throughout its history. Ample
room is unsurprisingly dedicated to Grimm’s Law, still a major discovery at
the time of Morris’ writing. Chapter 6 (pp. 53-60) effectively serves as an
introduction to morphology and morphosyntax, defining compounds and inflection
on the one hand, while presenting the parts of speech on the other and a
sampling of their syntactic uses.

The next eight chapters concentrate in turn on each part of speech. Chapter 7
(pp. 61-86) tackles the noun. It begins with an overview of various
noun-forming suffixes, both inherited from Proto-Germanic and borrowed from
Romance, moves onto a discussion of plural formation, and concludes with an
overview of how every Old English nominal class developed into Middle English
and finally into Early Modern English. Chapters 8 (pp. 87-100) and 9 (pp.
101-128) deal with adjectives and pronouns respectively. Every aspect of
adjectives, from their comparison to apparent traces of original comparatives
and superlatives in individual lexical items is discussed. Likewise, every
type of pronoun is covered, from personal to indefinite, with individual forms
often being broken down in order to track their apparent history. Chapter 10
(pp. 129-186), by far the longest chapter of the book, is richest in dealing
with the development of strong verbs from Old to Modern English. The text is
organized according to the seven classes of Old English strong verbs. The Old
English forms are listed alongside their later descendants, with
clarifications of those verbs which have become regular or have jumped to
other strong classes. Chapters 11 (pp. 187-194), 12 (pp. 195-199), 13 (pp.
200-202), and 14 (p. 203) deal with adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and
interjections respectively. Finally, chapter 15 (pp. 204-246) extends the
small discussions of derivational morphology scattered throughout earlier
chapters and brings them together into one coherent chapter. This chapter is
particularly rich in its exemplification of affixes of Romance and Latin


The book’s primary shortcoming is its simply being out-of-date, which is
certainly understandable since it is over 125 years old. This defect is
noticeable in both the terminology used, such as ‘Teutonic’ for ‘Germanic’ and
‘flat’ and ‘sharp’ for ‘voiced’ and ‘voiceless’ respectively, but also in the
absence of information which was simply not known at the time of writing, such
as the existence of the Anatolian and Tocharian branches of Indo-European.
This shortcoming is also evident in Morris’ discussion of sound changes in
chapter 5. While the chapter is doubtless rich in providing examples of
various phonetic changes which have occurred in the history of English, it is
strikingly poor in not having apparently embraced the regularity of sound
change. The richness of the examples comes across as a random list of
unpredictable changes with borrowings being mixed together with inherited
roots. As an example, it is mentioned that ‘b’ changed to ‘v’ in ‘have’ from
Old English ‘habban’ but to ‘m’ in ‘summerset’ from French ‘soubresaut’ with
no discussion of either the phonetic environments which conditioned both
changes or of the oddities often accorded borrowed words (cf. Ito and Mester’s
1995 work on the Chinese element in Japanese and its standing in a different
layer of the synchronic phonology). The end of this same chapter, however,
does classify some random sound changes by type, such as ‘aphaeresis’ and
‘apocope’. While this still amounts to listing random sound changes without
indicating their exact phonetic environments, the introduction of terms for
some of these changes does at least start to point in the right direction
(e.g. that word-end plays a role in those cases classified as apocope).

Additional drawbacks are the oftentimes erroneous and arcane views on
morphological changes. Morris all too freely embraces, for instance, the
emanation of verbal suffixes from post-verbal subject pronouns in his
discussion of the verb. This same tendency, which comes down to an
over-indulgence in finding a source for every morpheme, leads him to trace
the passive ‘r’ of Latin (cf. ‘amor’) to a post-verbal reflexive pronoun,
which is absolutely unprovable. One other defect which is a reflection of the
time of writing but which the author himself acknowledges in the preface, is
the lack of any section discussing syntax.

These defects, however, are more than compensated for by the sheer number of
examples, both lexical and literary, for most points under discussion. The
section on lexical borrowings into English, for example, is flooded with
copious examples from each language source. While a handful of these may
appear dubious in light of more recent scholarship and should be verified with
more recent grammars and etymological dictionaries, the book offers great
fodder for students and researchers alike. The richness of the literary
examples really gets going in chapter 5. In discussing the transfer of ‘peas’
to a plural from a singular, Morris cites 3 samples from Early English texts.
‘Peas’ is not an exception; rather, this kind of meticulous care in finding
relevant textual examples that prove his point is strikingly present on nearly
every page. What is even more valuable is that while plenty of examples come
from the giants of English literature such as Shakespeare and Chaucer,
countless more come from an array of sources ranging from texts on husbandry
to lesser known chronicles.

In sum, Morris’ synchronic data, particularly at the Middle and Early Modern
levels, is by far the book’s strongest attribute. His delving into diachronic
matters, while sometimes harmless with respect to individual lexical matters,
is dangerously out-of-date when it comes to many morphological matters. I
feel that this book, which too often reads like a dictionary, could not be
used as a course book, but could certainly be referred to when either lexical
or textual examples from Middle and Early Modern English are needed. Beyond
that, the reader should absolutely not take any diachronic developments from
it without consulting more recent and authoritative works, such as Hogg


Hogg, Richard. 1992. “A Grammar of Old English: Phonology, vol. I.”
Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Ito, Junko & Armin Mester. 1995. Japanese Phonology, in “Handbook of
Phonological Theory” (ed. J. Goldsmith). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell: 817-838.


Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Latin at Minot State University engaged
primarily in the phonological development of Classical Armenian, Celtic and
other branches of Indo-European, and secondly in the creation of pedagogical
materials for these languages.
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