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LINGUIST List 25.955

Wed Feb 26 2014

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Nevalainen & Traugott (2012)

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

Date: 27-Oct-2013
From: Corey Zwikstra <corey.zwikstrawashburn.edu>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of the History of English
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-5002.html

EDITOR: Terttu Nevalainen
EDITOR: Elizabeth Closs Traugott
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of the History of English
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Handbooks
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Corey J. Zwikstra, Washburn University

This edited collection is something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a book: a
daunting assembly of parts that becomes more endearing as one gets to know it.
A big, diverse collection, the book achieves coherence in describing and
demonstrating the state of the art in English historical linguistics. It comes
in at nearly 1000 pages, in 4 Parts each containing 2 complementary sections
coordinated by different specialists, with a total of 68 chapters by 86
authors (many are co-written) representing nearly 20 countries. The book also
includes a general introduction, introductory guides to the Parts, a glossary
(a more extensive version of which is available on an associated website), and
several useful indices.

Chapters range in length from 3 pages (“Coins as evidence”) to 30 pages
(“Cycles and continua: On unidirectionality and gradualness in language
change”), with most about 10 pages long including bibliography. Chapters tend
to be specialized and technical. Authors make their points through select
examples that demonstrate the specific (but often also more general) point
they are making. They show rather than tell. They also situate their essays in
the context of previous scholarship, placing the chapters into ongoing
disciplinary conversations and trends. This helps indicate gaps or areas where
further work needs to and could be done using the techniques they exemplify.
Moreover, the authors sometimes engage one another in relevant conversation
within the book itself. The book, then, is current in its concerns and
approaches yet also well informed by previous and developing scholarly trends
in the various topics covered.

Part I “Rethinking Evidence” concerns the ever-broadening empirical evidence
for the history of English and how research into that history is conducted and
evaluated in view of that evidence, especially using electronic corpora. The
coordinators of the first part of the book, Susan Fitzmaurice and Jeremy Smith
(“Evidence for the history of English: Introduction”), remind us that
linguistic data are problematic and cannot be accepted at face-value. We must
approach them critically, as well as diachronically, to make full and proper
sense of them. Hough (“Evidence from sources prior to 1500”) adds that the
interpretation of linguistic data is cumulative, depending on the weight of
all relevant evidence, not on individual witnesses, and must be continuously
revisited in light of new discoveries and methodologies. Beal (“Evidence from
sources after 1500”) too notes that one kind of evidence can often corroborate
another, resulting in a more complete linguistic picture. Nearly all authors
in the first section of Part I emphasize the careful, cautious, integrated
study of primary witnesses to the history of English. Their work finds a
complement in the essays of section two, coordinated by Mark Davies, which
explore how linguists can profitably use various kinds of corpora. These
corpora -- small and large, synchronic and diachronic, online and offline --
can help us compile and interrogate linguistic data, past and present, both
productively and reliably. Davies (“Some methodological issues related to
corpus-based investigations of recent syntactic changes in English”) cautions,
however, that corpora must be properly designed and implemented for their
results to be valid.

Part II “Issues in Culture and Society” investigates sociocultural issues and
processes bearing on language change, including the changing role of media and
other forms of mass communication in the history of English, along with the
political aspects of the commodification of English. The first section
coordinators, Thomas Kohnen and Christian Mair (“Technologies of
communication”), explain how media have helped English text types to
proliferate and kinds of English to develop, change, and expand, resulting in
a heterogeneity of English language. Authors in the first section of Part II
treat technological issues of orality, print literacy, electronic
communication, news and religious discourse, among other areas of interest.
The second section of Part II, coordinated by Jonathan Culpeper and Minna
Nevala, focuses on the social rather than the technological aspects of
language change, among them democratization, political correctness, identity
politics, politeness, standardization, globalization, and colonialism. Tony
Crowley (“English in Ireland: A complex case study”) ends this part
appropriately by reminding us how language change and social change are often
the same thing and how language change therefore impacts economic, cultural,
and political issues. Many authors in Part II foreground the importance of
studying English as a complex interaction of language and various often
inter-connected socio-cultural concerns.

Part III “Approaches from Contact and Typology” concentrates on English
compared to and in contact with other languages around the world, and on
typological changes resulting from that contact across time and place. Raymond
Hickey, coordinator of section one of Part III (“Assessing the role of contact
in the history of English”), notes how while varying in speed and degree
language contact always results in language change, even though sometimes that
contact-change is hard to prove (“Early English and the Celtic hypothesis”).
Hickey further implies that while language contact has long been a field of
interest within linguistics its study might be on the rise due to the
increased number of languages with which English continues to come into
contact. Languages investigated as contacting with English include early
Celtic and Scandinavian languages, but also later North American languages and
dialects of English, as well as a rich, diverse variety of African and Asian
languages. This section also looks at identity-related issues surrounding New
Englishes, especially as a second language, and pidgins and creoles around the
world. In the second section of Part III, which he coordinated and which
primarily treats morphology and syntax, Bernd Kortmann (“Typology and
typological change in English historical linguistics”) advocates
interdisciplinarity in the study of language change and stresses how the study
of non-standard language varieties, especially spoken, can increase
understanding of language change generally. Essays here examine topics such as
differences in variability of word order in English and German, drifts in
English pronoun gender and use, and the nature and development of analyticity
in English.

Part IV “Rethinking Categories and Modules” concerns internal developments in
the history of English mostly ignored by other handbooks and textbooks:
cycles, continua, and interfaces, and how these interact productively in
different domains. Section one coordinators Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero and Graeme
Trousdale (“Cycles and continua: On unidirectionality and gradualness in
language change”) note that the scholarship in this section (often highly
specialized) explores how advances in our understanding of diachronic pathways
can stimulate rethinking of the history of English in ways not limited by
standard models of periodization. Such work, they say, may be able to solve
longstanding problems in English historical linguistics. Section two of Part
IV, coordinated by Roland Hinterhölzl and Ans van Kemenade, continues
Bermúdez-Otero and Trousdale’s emphasis on “rethinking” and combining aspects
of the history of English, particularly word order, information structure, and

The essays are exceptionally well organized and surprisingly easy to read,
with clear signposting and summaries, and including plenty of helpful

The editors and contributors should be commended for the body of scholarship
they have assembled, often in non-traditional ways, and for how the book
conveys the depth and excitement of current English linguistics in a time of
changing emphases and methodologies. The collection takes stock of past and
present work in English historical linguistics, but also looks forward,
spotlighting variety and change in the English language and the study of the
English language. Much here will be read profitably and help to continue the
movement of English linguistics forward toward understanding.

The book differs noticeably from another I reviewed recently for LINGUIST,
Momma and Matto (2008), being more practical and linguistics-oriented than
that volume and similar books on the market. This book is a proper guide to
understanding the history of the English language, not just another history of
the English language. Helpfully for students, authors concentrate as often on
method as on description, transparently explaining and modeling successful
linguistic analysis. Readers learn not only about the English language but
also how to understand and do linguistics, especially English linguistics.
Essays from later sections demonstrate uses of corpora (e.g., the Helsinki
Corpus of English Texts) promoted by Part I, giving the volume added
coherence. This emphasis on methodology makes the book a useful complement to
other available handbooks and companions which usually privilege description
over methodology.

There is pronounced attention throughout to nonstandard and World Englishes,
also frequently on spontaneous spoken English, both of which are particularly
welcome in a book dealing with the entire history of English. The book threads
motifs of “rethinking” and “interconnectedness,” variously arguing that
linguistic scholarship is a work in progress addressing constantly changing
problems, and serving as a reminder that scholars must keep in mind the
linguistic forest with all of its trees.

One minor criticism: the last section, “Interfaces with Information
Structure,” becomes redundant. Its seven chapters do not read as sufficiently
different to have all warranted extended individual treatment as separate
chapters. Treatment of verbs and specifically the loss in English of
verb-second (V2) word order might have been more economical, presented in only
one or two chapters, allowing for a more varied and general treatment of
material in this concluding section more consonant with the rest of the book.

As a material object, the book is sturdily (if also expensively) bound,
sitting open easily, and remarkably free of typographical errors. In a time of
sloppy editing and proofreading, this fact is (unfortunately) noteworthy,
especially in a book so long and technical and with so many diagrams. Once in
a while a typographical error creeps in, such as the transposition “cycle
sermons” (p. 296) for intended “sermon cycles” -- I do not think the author is
writing about bikes -- but these do not detract from the overall readability
of the book.

While probably not for most people a book to be read straight through, it can
be (especially Parts II and III) and I found myself learning a lot and
enjoying the book more as I went on. The book is most suitable for advanced
students and academics.

One hopes the size and seams of the book do not scare people off and it won’t
languish on a shelf or in a database, alone like Frankenstein’s monster.

Momma, Haruko, and Michael Matto (eds). 2008. A Companion to the History of
the English Language (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture). Malden:

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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