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Review of  A History of the English Language

Reviewer: Steven Gross
Book Title: A History of the English Language
Book Author: Elly van Gelderen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 18.867

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AUTHOR(S): van Gelderen, Elly
TITLE: A History of the English Language
YEAR: 2006
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Steven Gross, Department of English, East Tennessee State University


Elly van Gelderen's _A History of the English Language_ is a recent
addition to the current collection of textbooks on the history of the
English language (e.g., Algeo & Pyles 2004, Baugh & Cable 2002, Fennell
2001, Millward 1996), which is intended for an advanced undergraduate or
beginning graduate student audience. The author notes, in the Preface, that
this book focuses mainly on internally motivated language change;
nevertheless, she does not completely ignore sources of external influences
on language change. She occasionally discusses these influences at various
points throughout the text. The overarching theme of this book concerns the
development of English from a synthetic to an analytic language.

The book contains ten chapters, each ending with a list of keywords and a
set of useful exercises. Chapters 4-9, which deal with the various
historical periods of the language also contain appendices with examples of
authentic texts from the time frame covered in the chapter. Answers to the
exercises, and an appendix on how to use the electronic version of the OED,
a historical timeline, a list of references, and an index are provided at
the end of the book.

There are a couple of features that distinguish this book from other
textbooks on the history of the English language. First, there is a
companion website associated with the book that includes a glossary of
technical terms that students will encounter in the text. Second, as
students are reading the book, they are frequently directed to electronic
resources, which may include additional or supplementary information about
a particular topic or sound files of a spoken version of an Old or Middle
English text, for example. In what follows, I will present a detailed
summary of each chapter of the book and a critical evaluation.


Chapter 1, 'The English Language', briefly discusses the origins and
migration of the Germanic people from northwestern Europe to Britain. In
addition, the distinction between synthetic and analytic languages is
presented as a point of comparison between Old and Modern English. Finally,
the distinction between externally and internally motivated language change
is discussed. The author includes a timeline of the major external
influences on English and pre-English in the last 2,000 years (9). This
timeline notes a few instances of language contact in the past, e.g. with
Latin, Scandinavian, and French; however, the examples of linguistic
influence include only a few lexical items that English borrowed from those

Chapter 2, 'English Spelling, Sounds, and Grammar', includes discussion
about some irregularities in the Modern English spelling system attributing
them, in large part, to sound changes that have occurred in the language
after the spelling system was standardized. In this chapter, the IPA is
introduced with the usual distinctive features for English consonants and
vowels. In a section on phonetics and sound change (19-23), a few common
phonological processes such as assimilation, epenthesis, and so forth are
presented, and the subject of the Great English Vowel Shift (GVS) is first
entertained here. There is an explanation concerning the difference between
derivation and inflectional morphemes and the function of the Old English
case system, with a number of fine examples from Old English.

After some introductory reflections on theories of the origins and
divergence of human language, the genetic relationships among languages,
and early writing systems, the real meat of Chapter 3, 'Before Old
English', begins with an explanation of the Comparative Method, which leads
to a presentation of Grimm's Law with relevant examples comparing Sanskrit,
Latin, and English. The author then presents the Second Germanic Consonant
Shift as a way to explain the split between Low German and High German
varieties: however, she mentions nothing of Verner's Law. In a short
section titled 'Indo-European to Germanic: Changes in morphology and
syntax' (39-41), the author notes the development of a class of weak verbs
and a system of weak and strong adjective inflections as distinguishing
features of Germanic. The author ends this section by presumably
illustrating some morphological and syntactic changes that occurred in
Germanic languages, but oddly using examples that compare Sanskrit with
Hindi/Urdu (40). The chapter ends by revisiting the Comparative Method and
pointing out that at various times in history, politics and nationalism
interfered with linguistic work on language reconstruction.

Chapter 4, 'Old English: 450-1150', includes sections on spelling, the OE
sounds, its morphology, its syntax, the lexicon, and OE dialects. Some OE
phonological processes are presented, e.g., fricative voicing,
palatalization, breaking, and umlaut. In the section on morphology,
numerous tables are given, as we would expect, for OE pronouns,
demonstratives, the OE noun classes, weak and strong verbs, weak and strong
adjective inflections, and a table giving the forms for the verb 'be'.
Unfortunately, in the author's discussion of suppletion regarding the verb
'be', she offers no comment for why there are two present tense paradigms
in the table. In the OE syntax section, examples of verb-second in main
clauses and verb-final word order in subordinate clauses are presented. In
addition, this section offers additional examples of question formation and
negation in Old English. There is some discussion of different categories
of semantic change in the section on the OE lexicon, and the final section
on dialects notes that this issue continues to generate controversy
regarding the number and the precise nature of OE dialects.

Chapter 5, 'From Old English to Middle English', begins with the statement
that 'This chapter investigates the changes between Old English and Middle
English caused by direct external influence' (91). The bulk of this chapter
sees those external influences as confined to loan words from Celtic,
Latin, Old Norse, and Norman French. In fact, much of the discussion of
this lexical influence concerns the pre-Old English time period (for Celtic
and Latin loans), and post-Middle English time period (later Celtic loans,
Latin in the Renaissance, and even 15th-18th-century Dutch loans).
Unfortunately, for all of this focus on loan words, there is no mention of
the distinction between cultural and core borrowings, which might have been
useful. In the realm of possible external influences on the structure of
English, the author suggests that the simplification in verbs, nouns, and
adjectives observed in northern English texts 'is most likely due to
contact with Scandinavian' (98). In the final section of this chapter,
there is a brief discussion of Bailey and Maroldt's (1977) creolization
hypothesis for Middle English and a table that reproduces Thomason and
Kaufman's (1988) borrowing scale. Van Gelderen closes the chapter by noting
that the ME grammatical system is substantially different from Old English,
and 'We will assume the reasons for this to be internal' (107).

Chapter 6, 'Middle English: 1150-1500', is organized like Chapter 3 on Old
English beginning with a section on texts and spelling and then moving on
to the structure of language: ME sounds, morphology, syntax, word
formation, and finally ME dialects. Again, the focus is on 'internal
changes' (111). To begin the section on ME sounds, the author says that
'The main trend in Middle English is consonant deletion, as in the case of
[g], [h], [w], and [l], and vowel shifting, especially in non-northern
texts' (117). The issue of h-dropping is mentioned, noting that loss of
initial 'h' may have been due to French influence, but leaves more detailed
discussion to later chapters. The author attributes the occurrence of /v,
z/ in Middle English to French loans, but offers no additional information
on the sources of ME voiced fricatives. Various vowel changes are
catalogued, for example, long /a/ > long /o/ and the eventual loss of
phonemic length. A few examples of ME lengthening and shortening are given,
but unfortunately, no discussion of the rules for lengthening and
shortening is offered. In the section on ME morphology, the author presents
evidence with examples and tables illustrating analogical leveling and
other changes in the language that shift it to a more analytic language. In
the ME syntax section, the focus is on the growing importance of word order
because of the 'grammaticalization of prepositions, demonstratives, and
some verbs' (126). The section on word formation focuses on the
introduction of various derivational suffixes from Romance sources, and in
the final section, 'Middle English dialects', three major dialect regions
are discussed, North, Midlands, and South, with respect to differences in
the trajectories of change regarding the sound system and the morphology.

Chapter 7, 'Early Modern English: 1500-1700' begins with some interesting
information about the printing process. Following this section, the rest of
the chapter is organized much like the chapters on Middle English and Old
English. In the section on ME sounds, the GVS is presented in some detail.
And as in Chapter 6, the issue of h-deletion is raised, but once again a
more extensive discussion is delayed until the next chapter. In this
section, we find the first mention of the Germanic initial-syllable stress
rule but in relation to the changing nature of English word stress due to
the adoption of French and Latin loan words. In the morphology section,
further evidence for paradigmatic leveling is presented. In addition, some
discussion is offered for the loss of distinctive nominative/accusative,
singular/plural second person pronouns. The emphasis in the section on EME
syntax is on the trend toward a greater reliance on the use of auxiliary
verbs including 'do' and subordination. The remainder of the chapter deals
with issues regarding standardization, the 'inkhorn debate', and a final
section on editorial issues and methods of determining authorship.

Chapter 8, 'Modern English: 1700-the present', begins with a discussion of
the philosophical, social, and political movements that have influenced the
development of the language over the past four centuries. Much of the rest
of the chapter uses a rise in prescriptive attitudes toward the language as
way to examine variation in the grammar and attitudes toward that
variation. The long anticipated discussion of h-deletion occurs in this
chapter, but little additional information is offered. Variation in the
production of /r/ is also discussed in this chapter, with a brief mention
of Labov's New York City department store study. Innovations in science and
technology are cited as a major source of new vocabulary. The chapter ends
with the role of prescriptive grammars and attitudes toward 'correctness'
in attempting to slow down language change. The final section deals briefly
with regional dialects.

Chapter 9, 'English around the World', examines the development of
varieties of English outside the British Isles. After a review of the
chronology of British colonialism and Kachru's well-known inner
circle/outer circle/expanding circle model of World Englishes, this chapter
focuses on various factors responsible for convergence or divergence among
the varieties of English found around the world. These aspects of variation
are illustrated in the phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon of
English. There is a good, concise examination of English-influenced pidgins
and creoles in this chapter, which includes discussions of creole TMA
systems, their sound structure, and some examples of semantic
generalizations. This chapter concludes with a section on the consequences
of the globalization of English for the world's linguistic diversity.

Chapter 10, 'Conclusion', reviews some of the major changes in English
since Old English. A section titled 'Theories of language change' presents
an argument that much language change occurs during child language
acquisition through reanalysis. The final section in this chapter presents
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and offers some criticisms.


This textbook is a very fine, clearly presented, and well organized
introduction to the history of the English language. It includes, perhaps,
the finest collection of authentic texts located at the end of each chapter
of any textbook available. The exercises the follow each chapter are a
useful way for students to review the main points covered in each chapter,
and the step-by-step guide to using the electronic version of the OED at
the end of the book is a useful inclusion in a textbook of this sort. The
tables and figures, examples and analyses presented in each chapter provide
additional resources for students in their studies.

Although the author includes a number of useful and unique features in this
book, the decision to focus on internally motivated aspects of language
change is perhaps the most serious weakness of the book. By making a
conscious effort to avoid considering the effects of external motivation
for language change, aside from the more trivial cases of lexical
borrowing, there seems a certain awkwardness in the overall presentation.
At times, the subject of external influence (either from contact or
sociolinguistic forces) is unavoidable, and the author reluctantly
acknowledges those possibilities as in the one statement in Chapter 5 where
she states that 'Endings on verbs, nouns, and adjectives also start to
simplify in the north ... most likely due to contact with Scandinavian'
(98). Similar awkwardness is evident in discussions of variation,
especially in Chapter 8, where the author provides a short table listing
some phonological variants 'that have become social markers' (207) and
where social class and prestige are cited as important variables in
h-deletion, [-ing/-in] variation, and postvocalic [r]-lessness (208-209).
In addition, the fine discussions in this book about standardization,
attitudes toward variation, and prescriptivism could not even be
entertained without some acknowledgement of the role of external influences
on the development of the language.

When the argument about internal motivations for language change remains
true, many changes, unfortunately, still remain mysterious. It is true that
analogy, reanalysis, and grammaticalization are often presented as
language-internal mechanisms for certain changes; however, one frequently
cited internal motivation for the loss of Old English inflections, the
reduction of unstressed final vowels to schwa tied to primary stress on
root syllables (Millward 1996; Fennell 2001), is not mentioned anywhere.
Likewise, no internal explanation is offered for the GVS. Perhaps a brief
discussion along the lines of Labov's (1994) Principles of Vowel Shifting
might have been informative here.

By trying to focus so strongly on internal mechanisms of language change,
the book suffers by telling only part of the history of the English
language. Thus, Chapter 5, 'From Old English to Middle English', with its
approach to contact-induced language change as something that involves
mainly lexical borrowing, is quite a disappointment. A more fruitful
approach would be to use what we know about sociolinguistics, contact
linguistics, and historical linguistics to examine, debate, and understand
the past. When it comes to understanding language change, each of these
approaches to language change informs the others.

There are some other problematic decisions the author makes early in this
book, particularly about how to approach phonetics and phonology, that have
some important consequences later in the book. In Chapter 2, she decides to
characterize the more traditional tense/lax opposition in Modern English
vowels as a long/short opposition (19). The problem and the confusion for
the students begin on the very next page when the author notes that only
long vowels were affected in the GVS (20). Figure 2.4 on page 20
graphically presents the GVS, nicely showing that /a/ > /e/. However, the
list of long and short vowels on the previous page classifies /a/ as a
short vowel. Later in Chapter 6, the author notes that Old English vowels
had both long and short variants but that the OE short vowels lengthen in
certain environments and OE long vowels shorten in other environments.
There is no coherent discussion of what those environments are. And it is
never clear how the feature 'length' is being used, whether it is a
qualitative distinction or a quantitative distinction.

Another decision made early in the book that causes some difficulty later
is not to acknowledge a difference between phonemes and allophones. So, in
Chapter 4, Table 4.7 presents the Old English consonant inventory where
voiced fricatives are included alongside voiceless fricatives (54).
However, on page 52, van Gelderen notes that 'Old English only has v, z,
and [eth] between two vowels or between a vowel and a voiced consonant'.
Even though it's not acknowledged here, this statement has the effect of
introducing the distinction between the phonemic and the allophonic level;
yet, in the table of OE consonants, phonemes and allophones are presented
as having equal status in the phonological system. So, where we might
expect a treatment of how phonemic voiced fricatives entered the language,
for example in a chapter on Middle English, we sadly find none.

There are some errata throughout the book, but they are few and generally
not too distracting. A few examples follow: In Chapter 2 in the brief
discussion of the GVS, raising is illustrated with the pairs
'serene/serenity, profound/profundity, divine/divinity'. The observation is
that 'The long vowels have shifted to [i], [aw], [aj], and [i]
respectively' (20). Table 6.7 on Late Middle English pronouns gives 'our'
as the dative/accusative form, and only the masculine and feminine
forms are listed for pronouns (122). And among the sound changes in
Early Modern English presented in Table 7.3 is [t]/[eth] > [t]/[d] (165).

I am currently using this book in my undergraduate History of the English
Language class and despite some of my critical remarks, I have found it an
easy-to-use, clear, and concise treatment of a complicated subject. I have
received a couple of comments about the book from some of my students that
I thought I would share. One comment concerns the references to
complementary web sites. The students note that these sites are not very
useful to them while they are reading because they don't read the book
while they are sitting at their computers. I certainly understand their
criticism, but in defense of the book, these references are, in principle,
no different from traditional references to printed material. A reader
still needs to make a special effort to access these sources. Where there
is a difference is that the electronic sources are much easier to access
than the printed sources. A second criticism my students have is that new
topics are frequently introduced early, only to be dropped and delayed for
a more complete treatment until later in the book. They find this to be a
rather annoying aspect of this book, and while there are times when briefly
introducing new topics is unavoidable, I sympathize with them.

In sum, this textbook is a worthy addition to an already fine group of
textbooks on the history of English. The book is well written and
surprisingly accessible to the reader, and the author does a fine job of
presenting the complexities of the subject in a student-friendly way. I can
enthusiastically recommend it for undergraduate courses in the history of
the English language.


Algeo, John, and Thomas Pyles. 2004. The origins and development of the
English language, 5th ed. Boston: Thomson & Wadsworth.

Baugh, Albert, and Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language,
5th ed. London: Routledge.

Fennell, Barbara A. 2001. A history of the English language. Malden, MA:

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change, vol. 1. Oxford:

Millward, C. M. 1996. A biography of the English language, 2nd ed. Fort
Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Thomason, Sarah Grey, and Terrence Kaufman. 1988. Language change,
creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steven Gross is Associate Professor of Linguistics at East Tennessee State
University where he teaches courses on the history of English,
sociolinguistics, dialectology, and descriptive linguistics. His research
activities include first language attrition, codeswitching, and creole