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Review of  External Influences on English

Reviewer: Maria Volkonskaya
Book Title: External Influences on English
Book Author: Gary D. Miller
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.3042

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This book is aimed at virtually anyone interested in the history of English, for it complements the existing internal studies and discusses the external influences on the English language from its beginnings up to the end of the Renaissance. As stated in the preface (p. x), throughout the book Miller employs the framework of Trudgill (2010, 2011a, 2011b) to examine different types of language contact, distinguishing between adult second-language acquisition and continuing contact leading to child bilingualism. The former results in simplifications, whereas the latter brings about complexifications. Within this framework, the author’s main focus is on “the constituent ingredients of contemporary English” (p. x). To this end, he examines the influence of Celtic, Latin and Greek (early and later), Scandinavian, and French on English lexis, phonology, morphology, and syntax, providing a variety of examples and detailed case studies to illustrate the point at issue. The chapters that follow are mostly organized chronologically.
In the introduction (Chapter 1) Miller situates English within the Indo-European and Germanic families. He briefly describes the main constituents of Germanic and Celtic, giving numerous examples of borrowings from North Germanic, Continental Germanic, Insular and Continental Celtic into the English language. The majority of these loanwords, however, is relatively recent and often fulfills a terminological function, such as ‘fjord’ (1674) from Norwegian (p. 5), ‘pumpernickel’ (1738) and ‘shiksa’ (1892) from German and Yiddish, respectively (p. 7), or ‘banshee’ (1771) from Irish (p. 11).

Chapter 2 reviews the Celtic, Roman, and Germanic background of English. Miller starts by discussing the genetic evidence for the pre-Celts, the subsequent Celtic settlement of the British Isles and its mark on place names and other loanwords in English. Next, several periods of contact with the Romans and the influence of Latin both on the British Celts and the early Germanic tribes are mentioned, though the latter is described in detail in Chapter 4. In the following sections Miller discusses the arrival of the pre-English tribes in c.5 and provides linguistic and archeological evidence for the survival of Celtic population in many areas around England after the Anglo-Saxon settlement. He argues that “the initial contacts between Celts and speakers of pre-Old English were based on equality” (p. 40), resulting in complexifications. Miller claims that the two Old English paradigms of ‘to be,’ ‘it’-clefts and the English aspect system are all examples of this development. The enslavement of Brittonic women by the invading Germanic tribes and the following language shift, on the other hand, led to simplifications, as “in [slave] communities... children would not have been exposed to Brittonic but would have learned the imperfectly acquired (non-native) English from their mothers and/or the female slaves as their first language” (p. 40). According to Miller, these morphosyntactic simplifications became manifest in Middle English.

Chapter 3, entitled “English: The early period”, provides a short overview of the main events of the external history of English from c.6 to c.10-11. Although this chapter somewhat overlaps with the previous one, its main focus is shifted towards Latin influences. Miller emphasizes the importance of Christianization for the English language, as it resulted both in the several layers of Christian borrowings and a revival of Roman culture, the Roman alphabet, and the use of Latin.

Continuing the previous discussion, Chapter 4 is a careful study of early English loanwords from Latin and Greek. This chapter falls into two parts. In the first part Miller discusses the dating of loanwords on the basis of their phonological shape and gives a brief outline of sound changes (a) from Latin to Romance and (b) from West Germanic to Old English. The second part of this chapter is a comprehensive chronological list of Old English borrowings arranged according to their sphere of use. However, one has to be careful when trying to narrow a loanword down to a particular period, and Miller puts considerable emphasis upon (re)borrowing, which “occurred over the course of a millennium” (p. 53), as in the case of, for instance, ‘sponge’ (p. 68). This chapter ends with a succinct appendix offering an overview of Latin and pre-Old English sound changes.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to the Scandinavian legacy of the English language. It begins with a discussion of the history of Scandinavians in England, from the Viking raids in c.8 to complete assimilation to the English in c.12. The account that follows traces Scandinavian influence on toponyms, the lexicon, phonology, morphology, and syntax. Norse-derived words have considerably enriched the English language, even though the types of contact between Scandinavians and the English seem to be different, depending on the area and period. Miller believes that the initial borrowings are the result of adult contact, whereas the later loans testify to bilingualism and code-switching (p. 106). The profound lexical influence also led to some phonological differences between southern and northeastern English; depalatalization of native palatals in the northeast is a case in point, cf. native ‘church’ and Danelaw ‘kirk(e)’ (p. 121). As for the morphological influence, Miller attributes the following changes to Scandinavian-English contact: the borrowing of the pronoun ‘they’, the diffusion of the northern present participle ‘-and(e)’, and the generalization of nominal ‘-ing’ to participles. Moreover, East Norse (in particular, early Jutland Danish) and English share a number of morphosyntactic innovations, such as noun plural and genitive singular ‘-(e)s,’ phrasal genitive, reflexive ‘(-)self’, omission of the conjunction ‘that’, relative ellipsis, preposition stranding with pronominal ‘wh’-words, preposition stranded passives, adoption of V2 order in the north, and the shift from SOV to SVO. “The fact that Scandinavian and English were closely related provided for a higher degree of hybridization than occurs with more distantly related languages or dialects,” concludes Miller (p. 147).

Chapter 6 examines French influence on English, which, according to Miller, was mostly lexical. He criticizes the traditional view that loanwords from Central French followed those from Norman French and agrees with Rothwell’s assertion (1996, 1998) that the division between these two periods is rather artificial (p. 150), for central and northern forms often coexist in one text. Furthermore, due to the imperfect learning of French, an insular variety, Anglo-French, appeared. Loans after the conquest easily fall into groups according to cultural domains (for instance, titles of nobility, law, government, religion) and reflect borrowing from a superstrate; however, “one must distinguish terms superimposed by the Norman conquerors... from the later borrowings that reflect cultural prestige” (p. 167). It is particularly noteworthy that Miller pays special attention to the literary and stylistic status of French words in English texts (pp. 162-164), a topic that rarely comes under careful scrutiny. The period of continued bilingualism was followed by the gradual decline and death of Anglo-French c.1400, which correlates with “the increase (by double) of French suffixes in English hybrids” (p. 176). Therefore, English was left with a large number of derivational affixes. Whereas the morphological legacy of French is described in great detail (pp. 176-184), the discussion of French impact on English syntax is rather brief (pp. 185-187), as Miller believes that the influence is “very limited” (p. 185). The appendix to this chapter presents an overview of major sound changes from Latin to French.
The title of Chapter 7, which deals with later Latin and Greek influences, is “Continuity and revival of classical learning”. Therefore, the first part of this chapter is dedicated to the emergence of a liberal arts education, the works of influential Christian writers of c.2-8, and the history of Latin in the Middle Ages, though the latter account slightly overlaps with the previous sections of the book. The second part of the chapter covers the Middle English period, the humanistic movement, and the Renaissance (c.1300-1600) as the peak period for Latinisms. A detailed survey of Latin and Greek influence on English word formation is offered towards the end of this chapter. All in all, Miller argues that the legacy of Greek and Latin is restricted only to the lexicon and word formation (pp. 219, 221-223).

The final chapter, “External linguistic input to English,” summarizes the main argument of the book: 1) French borrowings reflect “a substratal situation in which English borrowed heavily from the dominant language” (p. 228). Furthermore, French, Latin and Greek influence is restricted to the lexicon and morphology; 2) the contact with Scandinavian was mixed, leading to a considerable number of loanwords, whereas the contact with Celtic was substratal. However, “for both, the major influence has been structural” (p. 232). Miller also raises some remaining problems and identifies areas that are understudied, such as the loss of gender in English, acknowledging the need for further research. He uses the last page to restate his key point, “A typical family tree of the Indo-European languages lists English on a terminal node in the Germanic subfamily, which is really relevant only for Old English. Syntactically, morphologically, and lexically, Modern English reflects multiple input languages” (p. 236).


Miller’s account of the external influences on English is striking. As his book puts together the bulk of recent studies in etymology, linguistics, archeology, history, and genetics, we should acknowledge the mere body of scholarship that he takes into consideration while discussing a myriad of phonological, lexical, morphological and syntactical influences. Furthermore, far from being just a summary of previous research, the consistent application of Trudgill’s theory of sociolinguistic typology even to some frequently disputed or obscure cases, as well as the sharp focus on external impact, make his work a notable contribution to current studies on English historical linguistics.

However, a book that has to tackle such a vast and complex subject is bound to contain a few irrelevant details. Occasionally, random associations, which are due to the sheer vastness of the topic, lead the author astray and confuse the reader, as the above-mentioned borrowings from Germanic and Celtic in Chapter 1 that fall beyond the time scale of the present study, or a rather redundant list of the Church Fathers in Chapter 8. There is also a slight degree of overlap in the chapters discussing classical background to English (Chapters 2, 3, 7).

On the other hand, while Miller’s account is highly accurate and detailed, a few items are noticeably missing. For instance, one component that seems to be lacking from Chapter 2 is a discussion of possible Celtic influences on English phonology, though several studies have recently addressed this issue (Laker 2009; Minkova 2011). Another example is the case of Old English ‘cirica’ from Greek ‘kuriakon.’ Though Miller uses this loanword as an illustration a number of times (pp. 45, 81, 121), never does he mention the later form ‘cyrice,’ which was probably a learned reborrowing. Furthermore, whereas a number of Latin and French suffixes are being described in great detail, ‘-or’ of agent-nouns is only mentioned in passing (p. 174). A final instance of such omissions occurs when Miller discusses the later Latin and Greek influence, which he believes to be lexical only, and overlooks the fact that some borrowings are not fully morphosyntactically integrated and preserve their original plurals (Nevalainen 1999, p. 366).

Besides, Miller makes several claims that are quite controversial. He notes, for instance, that pre-Christian oral works, such as “Beowulf”, were written down in c.7/8 (p. 47). However, there is no consensus view on the issue in recent scholarship (Bjork & Obermeier 1997, pp. 18-28). Kiernan in particular argued for a late date for the poem, claiming that “the last poet of ‘Beowulf’ was the second scribe” (Kiernan 1996, p. 278). Indeed, whether epic poetry could be among the first texts to be written down in Christian monasteries seems rather doubtful.

Miller also suggests that /a/ in such words as ‘man’, ‘bank’, ‘land’, is due to Scandinavian influence (pp. 119-120). However, Middle English dialect maps (cf. “MAN: ‘mon’ type” in eLALME) clearly demonstrate that the /o/ vowel was restricted to the West Midlands, whereas the /a/ vowel was present outside the Scandinavian-English contact area, which does not support Miller’s hypothesis.

Overall, the book is systematically structured, concise and quite easy to read. All chapters are divided into subsections according to the topic, and most of them have both introductions and conclusions; as a result, the text is not difficult to follow. The appendices are handy and to the point. However, there are some aspects of this book that could be improved upon. On the one hand, the list of abbreviations is somewhat obscure as several abbreviations are sometimes used for one term, for instance both ‘E’ and ‘Eng.’ for ‘English’ or ‘F’ and ‘fem.’ for ‘feminine’ (pp. xvi-xvii). On the other hand, the book could benefit from a more elaborate word index, divided into subsections to include not only Modern English, but also Old and Middle English words as well as those of Celtic, Latin, Greek, Scandinavian, and French origin.
To conclude, Miller’s comprehensive account of external influences will make a highly useful resource for both academics and advanced students of the history of the English language. Even though for the most part it requires a solid background in English historical linguistics, even interested laypersons have something to gain by leafing through this illuminating volume.


Bjork, Robert E. & Anita Obermeier. 1997. Date, provenance, author, audience. In Robert E. Bjork & John D. Niles (eds.), A Beowulf handbook, 13-34. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press.

Kiernan, Kevin S. 1996. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Laker, Stephen. 2009. An explanation for the early phonemicisation of a voice contrast in English fricatives. English Language and Linguistics 13(2). 213-226.

eLALME = Benskin, Michael, Margaret Laing, Vasilis Karaiskos & Keith Williamson. 2013. An electronic version of a linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Edinburgh. (15 January, 2014.)

Minkova, Donka. 2011. Phonemically contrastive fricatives in Old English? English Language and Linguistics 15(1). 31-59.

Nevalainen, Terttu. 1999. Early Modern English lexis and semantics. In Roger Lass (ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language, vol. 3, 332-458. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2010. Investigations in sociohistorical linguistics: Stories of colonisation and contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011a. Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011b. A tale of two copulas: Language-contact speculations on first-millennium England. NOWELE 62/63. 285-320.

Rothwell, William. 1996. Playing ‘follow my leader’ in Anglo-Norman studies. Journal of French Language Studies 6(2). 177-210.

Rothwell, William. 1998. Arrivals and departures: The adoption of French terminology into Middle English. English Studies 79(2). 144-165.
Maria Volkonskaya is a Senior Lecturer at National Research University Higher School of Economics and Moscow State University (Russia). Her research interests include the history of the English language (with particular attention to the Old English and Middle English periods), the historical development of Scots, Historical Sociolinguistics and Stylistics, as well as Applied Linguistics (especially English for Academic Purposes).

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