AUTHOR: Nevalainen, Terttu TITLE: An Introduction to Early Modern English PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2006
David I. Cahill, School of English, Beijing Foreign Studies University
The author intends this book as an undergraduate textbook for a ten-week course. Each chapter is subdivided into relatively short sections with numbered headings, followed by a brief chapter summary, a list of exercises, and suggestions for supplementary reading. At 148 pages (excluding appendices and references), the book does not plumb the Early Modern English period in any great depth, but seeks rather to isolate key linguistics features of the English language from roughly 1500-1700 for the benefit primarily of students who want to know more about this period and who might wish to specialize in it in greater scholarly depth in the future.
Chapter one, ''The Early Modern English period,'' offers an approach to determining the starting and ending points of the period. Aware that it is impossible strictly on linguistic grounds to fix precise period dates, Nevalainen makes use of Lass's (2000) ranking system measuring the relative ''archaism'' of earlier periods of English along ten representative grammatical features shared by other Germanic languages. Lass's study revealed that Middle English has more in common with Modern English than it does with Old English, although the Middle English period itself is so diffuse that, as Nevalainen notes, ''there is no unambiguous cut-off point that would mark the boundary between Middle and Early Modern English'' or likewise between the Early Modern and Modern English periods (p. 3). As Shakespeare (1564-1616) by most accounts serves as a convenient representative of the Early Modern English period at its mid-point, the author draws illustrative examples from his plays in this chapter and throughout her book. She also provides examples of earlier and later writers from around 1500 and 1700 to mark out the extent of language change over the period.
An important development during the Early Modern period was the gathering strands of standardization of the language, the earliest of which can be traced back to the late Middle English period (Chancery English, Caxton's printing press, etc.). Nevalainen's sociolinguistic approach rightly requires, however, that a focus on standardization not neglect the extensive regional and social variation that has always existed in the language's history, not least in the Early Modern period. The author adopts the term ''General English'' (from the seventeenth-century schoolmaster Alexander Gil, tutor of John Milton)--''the common variety that people from different regional backgrounds oriented to especially in writing'' (p. 9)--to characterize more loosely and inclusively the predominant varieties of Early Modern English and their ongoing mixing and leveling into a proto-standard centered around London.
Chapter two, ''Sources for the study of Early Modern English,'' is concerned with the choice of texts to use as evidence of the state of the language. Gil's Logonomia Anglica (1619) is examined for its account of the major dialects of England (the so-called General, Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western, and Poetic dialects), along with its proposals for spelling reform, which provides the modern historian with valuable contemporary information on Early Modern pronunciation. Early grammars such as Roger Ascham's The Scholemaster (1570) and William Bullokar's Pamphlet for Grammar (1586) began a long misguided tradition of describing English grammar through the distorting lens of Latin grammar, but they are nonetheless useful in listing a number of morphological variants indicative of diachronic variation at that time. Besides the limited clues that rhyming poetry sheds on pronunciation, other genres in the Early Modern period can help flesh out a fairly comprehensive picture of the features of naturally occurring speech. The increasing use of vernacular prose dialogue in comedies by sixteenth and seventeenth-century playwrights is an inexhaustible source of data on dialectal variation in pronunciation and the rich vocabulary of colloquial speech. Informal letter writers unwittingly assist us in understanding Early Modern pronunciation when spelling words naively as they sound rather than according to existing versions in print, particularly the phonetically transparent renderings of barely literate (often female) writers. Nevalainen is one of the people responsible for compiling the Corpus of Early English Correspondence at the University of Helsinki, containing 6,000 letters in original spelling, twenty percent of them by women, along with the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts (also compiled at the same university), which includes such workaday genres as autobiographies, educational treatises, sermons, and trial proceedings. These electronic corpora, along with others cited by the author (e.g., The Lampeter Corpus of Early Modern English Tracts, the Michigan Early Modern English Materials, the Early English Books Online, etc.), can now provide us with a comprehensive linguistic picture of Early Modern English, and Nevalainen makes use of such corpora to give us a judicious cross-section of the language within the narrow confines of this textbook.
In chapter three, ''Towards a standard language,'' Nevalainen charts two early trends towards standardization in the early Modern period: the legitimization and elaboration of a vernacular written variety based on Chancery Standard, replacing Latin and French as the High variety and language of government, and the attempts at fixing spelling after Caxton together with the subsequent codification of the emerging standard in spelling books, dictionaries, grammars and other prescriptive genres enabled by the printing revolution (the factors leading to standardization were in fact more numerous and complex than Nevalainen can do justice to in her book, but this need not be dealt with here; see e.g., Wright 2000). Influential books engaged with this task are reviewed, e.g., John Hart's The Opening of the Unreasonable Writing of Our Inglish Toung (1551), Richard Mulcaster's Elementarie (1582), and Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604), the latter being the first of the ''hard-word'' dictionaries. Chapter four, ''Old words and loan words,'' is devoted to determining the scope of the Early Modern English vocabulary and how the vocabulary changed during the period. Word-frequency counts in the Helsinki Corpus reveal that the common Germanic core of the English vocabulary (along with proper names) has altered little over time up to the present day, with the thousands of new additions to the Early Modern lexicon being Latinate and learned (Latin alone supplying 13,000 new words between 1575-1675), reflecting the cultural, political, and technological diversification of English society in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
The next five chapters shift the focus to the linguistic categories of semantics, morphology, syntax, and phonology. Chapter five, ''Word-formation and semantic change,'' goes over the various processes by which Early Modern English enlarged its lexicon besides extensive borrowing from French, Latin and other languages, namely, compounding, affixation, and conversion. Semantic change through generalization, specialization, polysemy, metaphoric transfer, and contextual inferencing further enabled new concepts to find expression. Chapter six, ''Nouns and pronouns,'' treats the distribution of the second-person pronouns and eventual loss of the 'thou/thee/thy' forms, the spread of the northern 'they/them/their' forms, and the ''dehumanization'' of the relative pronoun 'which'. Chapter seven, ''Verbs, adjectives and adverbs,'' covers the spread of the northern '-(e)s' verb inflection and the eventual loss of the southern '-(e)th' and '-(e)st' forms, along with other changes in verb tense, aspect and mood. Key developments to note in chapter eight, ''Syntactic structures,'' are the generalization of the auxiliary 'do' to contexts of not-negation, question inversion, emphasis, as well as non-emphasis in affirmatives (e.g., ''...there I did see the whole Consent of the Realm against it...'' (p. 109)), the latter use common in Shakespeare's time but dropping out gradually over the seventeenth century; and syntactic loosening of subject-verb inversion after adverbs, the so-called ''verb-second'' constraint found in Germanic languages (e.g., ''...then are the spirits of lyfe melted and resolved away...'' (p. 113)), which is now a function of discursive or stylistic rather than syntactic factors. In chapter nine, ''Changing pronunciation,'' the author cautions that our evidence of Early Modern pronunciation is not given in texts but must be inferred and we are therefore on shakier ground. The Great Vowel Shift was of course the major sound change event but scholarly disagreement remains on the causes and extent of the shift (whether, for instance, it has been entirely completed or is still going on in parts of northern Britain or North America).
Finally, in chapter ten, ''Language in the Community,'' Nevalainen looks at social developments in the Early Modern period which impinged on the language: the printing press and the book trade that flourished in London, and the subsequent extraordinary rise in literacy during 1500-1640 from ten percent of males to thirty percent of males countrywide and sixty percent of males in London (with female literacy lagging behind but growing significantly among the gentry), accompanied by an almost ten-fold increase in London's population in the same period as a result of massive internal migration in the country and general improvements in human health and longevity. London's growth as a political, commercial and cultural center led to national dialect leveling and (though this point is not pursued) the eventual development of the national prestige variety in England now labeled Received Pronunciation.
Nevalainen describes her textbook as one suitable for ''undergraduates in English...on a ten-week course'' who can be presumed to have ''some familiarity with Shakespeare'' or who are ''linguistics undergraduates studying the structural development'' of English (p. ix). Wow, a whole course devoted to the study of Early Modern English (as opposed to Shakespeare or Early Modern literature). I'm envious, as I'm afraid I will never have the opportunity to teach such a course. I have usually been invited to teach the History of the English Language and courses in linguistics and Shakespeare. I believe the great majority of teachers are in a similar situation to mine and will likely never teach a course solely on the Early Modern English period from a linguistics perspective to undergraduates (though I can imagine a graduate student seminar on the same). So this textbook realistically must be assessed for possible joint use with other textbooks in a comprehensive history of English course or as a supplementary text to a Shakespeare course.
In whatever context this book is used, it might seem pointless or even perverse to find fault with Nevalainen's contribution. She writes in a clear, accessible manner, reflecting hands-on experience as a teacher, while also being a scholar with fresh insights to offer from her cutting-edge corpus-based research into early English, research which is effecting a much-needed corrective shift away from the traditional literature bias among historians of English toward non-canonical and previously unexamined vernacular texts. Her previous scholarship has found its way into my own history of English courses, for instance on women's writing in the Early Modern period (Nevalainen 2002). It is all the more impressive that the important research being led by Nevalainen and her team is taking place among scholars of non-Indo-European extraction at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Still, the central question, I believe, in assessing any new book on the history of English, including textbooks intended for the classroom, is whether or not it advances the history in a decisive way, and Nevalainen's book does not. The paradox here is that it is precisely because Nevalainen does such a satisfactory job (i.e., according to contemporary expectations) that her book epitomizes everything that is currently wrong with the present state of scholarship on the history of English. My critique should thus be understood as being directed less to Nevalainen's work in particular than to the broader scholarship, though her text illustrates many of the problems I raise.
Practically all histories of English both in and out of print in recent memory that I am aware of adopt the orthodox chronological division into the Old, Middle, Early Modern and Modern English periods (I would very much like to be informed of exceptions). Increasingly in recent years doubts have been expressed, for instance by Graddol, Leith and Swann (1996), Lass (2000), Milroy (2002), Crystal (2004), and by Nevalainen herself in the present book. The doubts concern the problem of periodization, that is, the impossibility of fixing even approximate starting and ending points for the major periods of English. As Nevalainen writes: ''...there does not appear to be any one set of linguistic features that could be used to mark the beginning and the end of the Early Modern period'' (p. 9); nonetheless, ''[l]anguage historians are prepared to accept the fact that named periods such as Middle and Early Modern English are delimited by conventional but basically arbitrary cut-off points'' (p. 8). In other words, she is disturbed enough by the problem of periodization to raise it, but not enough to elevate it to a central crux in the field, where it would get the attention it deserves and ultimately lead to a solution. Implicitly she seems to understand that there is too much at stake in terms of academic reputations, the entrenched university textbook industry, etc. But why are doubts being expressed? The problem is this: the history of the English language used to be confused with the history of English literature (with each of the periods seen as culminating in and expressing respectively the greatness of Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.). Now the history of the language is generally recognized as falling within the purview of linguistics. The earlier question of how English formerly looked at its most eloquent at representative points in the past is now better reformulated as: How was English spoken by different classes of people in different places and times up to and including the present?
When viewed from this linguistic standpoint, the conventional notions of ''Old English'' (500-1100), ''Middle English'' (1100-1500), ''Early Modern English'' (1500-1700) and ''Modern English'' (1700-) are redundant and misleading, as these terms and their respective dates do not correspond to any linguistic events. The onset dates of these periods roughly mark some (but not all) of the important external events -- the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invasions, the eleventh-century Norman invasion, the fifteenth-century invention of the printing press, the eighteenth-century codification of the language -- that did indeed have an impact on the language, but the linguistic changes following these events were typically slow in coming and unfolded in a gradual arc over 200-300 years. The history of the language would be better characterized as continuous and multiple processes of change at differential rates among a variety of dialects, with one particularly dramatic acceleration of change taking place in the transitional period between 1100-1300 (or 1200-1400, depending on the criteria selected), when English proper begins to take recognizable shape. The conventional periods are not linguistically relevant but have been marshaled for another, ideological purpose. They are cultural-nationalistic signifiers which serve to extend the origin of the language back far enough into the past to coincide with the arrival in England of the people of the same linguistic pedigree, although what the Anglo-Saxon invaders in fact spoke bears far less linguistic relatedness to English than Latin does to Italian. I agree with Milroy (2002) that for orthodox historians of the language, ''Old English'' functions ideologically to mythologize English as a language of more ancient and historic proportions than it really is.
This is not a theoretical problem unrelated to the assessment of an introductory textbook for undergraduates, but a pedagogical problem through and through. In my early years of teaching the history of English, I had a great deal of unlearning to do amidst much initial confusion among myself and my students about linguistic changes that failed to correspond to period dates. It is a problem that I have found intensely engaging in my quest for a solution, but unfortunately the same cannot always be said of the students, who may come away from a standard history of English textbook with no more than a handful of ''facts,'' namely that the Old English period began in 500 and ended in 1100, that the Middle English period began in 1100 and ended in 1500, etc. That these are not facts at all but arbitrary designators for heuristic use may be a distinction recognized by scholars and teachers but a subtlety lost on the students. The ironic result is that the pedagogical convenience of giving students periods to grasp onto has the unwanted opposite effect of distorting and reifying the history of the language as dead knowledge, a musty museum collection of discrete items in four chronologically ascending rooms representing each period.
A preferable goal would be to teach the history of the language as an organic and indivisible process of change which we can understand as leading directly to the present or from the present extending backwards into the past, as Strang (1970), for example, accomplished by arranging her history of the language in reverse chronological order in 200-year segments rather than period divisions (while retaining the period terms Old, Middle, New, and Present-Day English), aptly describing her object of study as ''the ceaselessly, oceanically, heaving, swelling, flowing, ungraspable mass that historians corset into manageable chunks on to which quasi-scientific labels can be stuck'' (p. xv). If period dates and descriptors are dispensed with, how to refer to English in the past? My own preference, similar to Strand's, is the elegant neutrality of century divisions that all historians make use of—thus nineteenth-century English, sixteenth-century English, fourteenth-century English, as so on, down to the hazy period of the twelfth century, when we should perhaps no longer refer to the language as English but Anglo-Saxon, as in twelfth-century Anglo-Saxon, nine-century Anglo-Saxon, etc. Milroy (2002) presents a case for shifting the starting point of English forward to the thirteenth century, but a starting point is moot when one cannot be established solely on linguistic grounds in the first place, as Milroy himself reminds us. English had no decisive beginning, just a gradual emergence over several centuries after momentous, transformative language contact between Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman French; nor will this hybrid tongue called English have an ending (at least one that can be given a date).
So however plain and obvious the title of Nevalainen's book, I am still troubled by it, as it affirms the standard period divisions (not to mention her reliance on the ideologically fraught term ''Modern'' and its connotations of ''highly developed'' and ''advanced''), with the Early Modern period here being marked off by the author at 1500-1700. Would not a primer on the language between 1400-1600 or between 1600-1800 be equally plausible? Why, apart from convention, the dates 1500-1700? Shakespeare nicely straddles the mid-point in this range and one can imagine her text as a helpful linguistic supplement to a course on Shakespeare. A more practical choice might be Crystal's Pronouncing Shakespeare (2005), which addresses one of the main issues covered by Nevalainen—pronunciation -- but turns it into a compelling theoretical challenge: to profile the phonology of the language during Shakespeare's time with an end to performing his plays in a plausible re-creation of Elizabethan English. Such a focused purpose transcends mere pedagogy and for that very reason is ideally suited to the classroom. A textbook such as Nevalainen's, which partitions up the features of Early Modern English into chapters according to grammatical module (semantics, noun morphology, verb morphology, syntax, phonology), I feel, is not. Perhaps this reflects her training as a philologist weaned on introductory linguistics textbooks that do the same. But if I find it a dry reading experience, I fear my students would too. Her approach mimics and continues the endless series of Latin-style English grammars over the centuries that chopped up the language into parts of speech, albeit without the ironic critical distance the author herself adopts in reviewing this prescriptive tradition in chapters two and three. These chapters do contain useful information, but might there not be a better way to package it? Her discussion of borrowing and word-derivation processes is also useful, but since it's less comprehensive than Pyles and Algeo's (1993) treatment of the same in the concluding chapters of their widely adopted history of English, why would teachers give that textbook up?
My final concern has to do with Nevalainen's corpus-based approach. Expanding our field of data through a growing repertoire of corpora has much to offer, particularly in combination with powerful computational tools that can capture patterns and trends with precision. But there is a danger in privileging quantitative methodology to the point where it alone becomes identified with empirical truth. Here I have to agree with Chomsky in his critique of corpus linguistics that empirical inquiry should combine higher-order theorizing with real-world data and that this is a quite different task from the non-theoretical quantitative tabulation that a corpus approach may invite: ''The standard method of the sciences is not to accumulate huge masses of unanalyzed data and to try to draw some generalization from them. The modern sciences, at least since Galileo...have sought to...construct refined experiments which ask, which try to answer specific questions that arise within a theoretical context...'' (Andor 2004, p. 97). Admittedly, Chomsky's out-of-hand rejection of corpus linguistics as an essentially meaningless endeavor is extreme and must be understood as a polemical gesture of caution—against the backgrounding and inadvertent eliding of whole areas of linguistic significance due to the exclusionary focus on quantifiable data. Again, this is not to dispute the value of electronic corpora and computational analysis to macro sociolinguistics and historical linguistics, as exemplified by Nevalainen's own (2002) study in which frequency counts of certain gendered constructions (such as women's alleged preference for using 'you' and 'I think') allow her to make some informative claims about female-led language change in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The limitation, as I see it, is when various generalizations about this period of English are made, as in the present book, on the basis of corpus analyses of exactly the sort of decontextualized linguistic items (morphemes, lexemes, syntactic structures, etc.) that lend themselves to quantifiable analysis. This data-driven closed-loop effect whereby valuable knowledge is generated within a very narrow methodological framework is itself a problem that needs to be opened up to critique. However, since history of English scholarship lacks both a tradition of critique and a dynamic theoretical framework, any new developments in the field get fed into the same old OE-ME-EME-ME paradigm as so much informational mulch.
Among the more promising approaches to the history of English combines quantitative analysis with close pragmatic readings of texts, as Jucker (2002) has done with plays and trial records for an assessment of discourse markers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We also have a fine pragmatic study by Brown and Gilman (1989) of politeness strategies in Shakespeare's four major tragedies. The latter two studies are interesting because of the importance they assign to drama as perhaps the most valuable historical genre for understanding oral speech (even if the mimicking of natural speech in dramatic dialogue can only ever be an idealization), but while they are on the right track, they leave many other possibilities unexplored. Close reading within a theoretical framework forces us to ground analysis of the language in specific historical contexts while enabling powerful explanations from singular instances. Especially useful would be a Hallidayan systemic-functional approach or a social-semiotic approach such as outlined by Hodge and Kress (1988), with their interest in the way ideology is instantiated in texts and signs, right down to words and phrases. Hodge and Kress, for example, distinguish between how information is intended to be understood among producers and receivers (the semiosic plane) from what information ostensibly refers to (the mimetic plane). In this light, historians of English need to shift their focus from partitioning up the language into linguistic modules and periods to describing the historically evolving means by which ideology has animated the expressive capabilities of the language.
Two brief examples from plays are relevant here as they instructively complicate the very notion of the ''Early Modern'' period and thereby remind us of the constructed nature of all historical periods. Most historians would probably categorize the morality play Mankind (circa 1465-70) as late Middle English, on the basis of its date, spelling and other textual conventions, and its Christian didactic function common to medieval drama. But the anonymous author's highly sophisticated parodic and self-reflexive manipulation of aureate and colloquial styles, along with the commercially motivated appeals to the audience, position this text as an obvious forerunner of the popular London theater that flourished 100 years later, and therefore as ''Early Modern'' in its aesthetic. For example, the character Nought's topical reference to ''...the comyn tapster of Bury'' (l. 274, in Bevington 1975, p. 912), referring to what must have been a local alehouse, is a semiosic gesture of solidarity with the audience that contradicts the play's conventional references to the alehouse, on the mimetic level, as the symbolic locale of the sinful life. The only significance a traditional historian of English might see in the word ''tapster'' is its Germanic origin; more interesting, to my mind, is the ideological charge of the word at that point in time.
To jump ahead two centuries, William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700) is generally treated as a Restoration play and hence as falling within the Early Modern period, but in many respects the play strikes us as quite modern. A mere phrase, ''A Chocolate-house,'' provided at the head of the play's opening scene, is one of the first instances in English drama of an explicit stage direction indicating the physical setting. There were great consequences for the subsequent development of drama, as the bare imaginative stage of earlier English theater gave way to particularized settings and the ''fourth wall.'' The chocolate house (along with the coffeehouse and the teahouse) was also a newly fashionable domain of the growing bourgeois leisure class, for which the play was written, replacing the very different social world of the tavern and the alehouse. Again, the significance is not simply the formation of a curious new compound word, ''chocolate-house,'' of joint Nahuatl-Spanish and Anglo-Saxon roots, reflecting the discovery of the New World; students need to know more about what kind of social scene the word chocolate-house indexed when it entered the language. The concept of ''Early Modern'' does not help us answer this question but is quite irrelevant to it.
Andor, Jozsef (2004) The Master and His Performance: An Interview with Noam Chomsky. Intercultural Pragmatics, 1-1, 93-111.
Bevington, David (1975) Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Brown, Roger, & Albert Gilman (1989) Politeness Theory and Shakespeare's Four Major Tragedies. Language and Society, 18, 159-212.
Congreve, William (1700). The Way of the World. Accessed January 17, 2007 from the website Bibliomania. http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/86/1877/frameset.html.
Crystal, David (2004) The Stories of English. London: Penguin Books.
Crystal, David (2005) Pronouncing Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Graddol, David, Dick Leith, & Joan Swann (1996) English: History, Diversity and Change. London: Routledge.
Hodge, Robert, & Gunther Kress (1988) Social Semiotics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Jucker, Andreas H. (2002) Discourse Markers in Early Modern English. In Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (eds.). Alternative Histories of English. London: Routledge, 210-230.
Lass, Roger (2000) Language Periodization and the Concept of ''Middle''. In Irma Taavitsainen, Terttu Nevalainen, Paivi Pahta and Matti Rissanen (eds.). Placing Middle English in Context. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 7-41.
Milroy, Jim. (2002) The Legitimate Language: Giving a History to English. In Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (eds). Alternative Histories of English. London: Routledge, 7-25.
Nevalainen, Terttu (2002) Women's Writings as Evidence for Linguistic Continuity and Change in Early Modern English. In Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (eds). Alternative Histories of English. London: Routledge, 191-209.
Pyles, Thomas & John Algeo (1993) The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Strang, Barbara M. H. (1970) A History of English. London: Methuen & Co.
Wright, Laura, ed. (2000) The Development of Standard English 1300-1800: Theories, Descriptions, Conflicts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
David I. Cahill teaches the history of the English language, critical discourse analysis, critical theory, and cultural studies. His current research interest is the application of critical theory and social semiotics to the history of English, or more succinctly, the critical history of English.