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Review of  English Words

Reviewer: Marc Picard
Book Title: English Words
Book Author: Donka Minkova
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 13.5

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Stockwell, Robert, and Donka Minkova (2001) English Words: History and
Structure. Cambridge University Press, xi+208pp, hardback ISBN
0-521-79012-3, $54.95, paperback ISBN 0-521-79362-9, $19.95.

Reviewed by Marc Picard, Concordia University

In general terms, "[t]his book is about the origins of English words"
(p. 1). More specifically, it is concerned with a particular subset of
these words, namely "that portion of the vocabulary which is borrowed
from the classical languages (Latin and Greek) either directly, or
indirectly through French" (p. 1). The book is made up of ten chapters
which contain anywhere from two to ten sections. This is followed by two
appendices, one consisting of an introduction to various types of
dictionaries, and another listing over 400 high-frequency free and bound
morphemes. Moreover, one can find online at
<> exercises
that accompany each chapter as well as further readings on recent loans
and the legal and medical vocabulary of English.

Chapter 1 deals with word origins, and Stockwell and Minkova (henceforth
S & M) start out by asking the following question: "where do our new
words originate ' how do they get created ' when we don't borrow them?"
(p. 3). They then go on to describe ten different sources, viz.,
inheritance, outright creation (neologisms), blending, acronyms,
shortening, derivation, conversion, compounding, eponyms and
onomatopoeia. The rest of the book is devoted to borrowing since,
according to the authors, "well over 80 percent of the total vocabulary
of English is borrowed" (p. 18).

The purpose of Chapter 2 is "to highlight the important socio-historical
events and circumstances which have shaped our vocabulary" (p. 19). It
is divided into two main sections. The first traces the family history
of English back to Indo-European and gives an overview of the different
branches, focusing firstly on Celtic, Hellenic and Italic since these
have had the greatest effect on English vocabulary, and then on Germanic
for obvious reasons. The second section discusses the historical
influences on the early vocabulary of English, namely those of Celtic
and Latin, Scandinavian, and especially French during Middle English
period (1066-1476).

Chapter 3 continues with the history of the enrichment of the English
lexicon through borrowing, first during the Renaissance and then into
the Modern English period. In addition to French, Latin and Greek, S & M
show how other European languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and
especially Italian became major contributors to English vocabulary. In
sum, "[t]he historical survey in Chapters 2 and 3 makes it clear why and
how our language developed its rich and varied vocabulary, both in terms
of numbers of items, and in terms of sources" (p. 49). From the
homogeneous vocabulary of Old English where as many as 97 percent of the
words were Germanic, the cultural changes following the Norman Conquest
created conditions for the development of the very heterogeneous
vocabulary we have today.

Chapter 4 begins by explaining the major properties of morphemes. The
authors point out that they are the smallest units associated with
meaning, that they are recyclable units, i.e., they can be used again
and again to form new words, that they are not to be confused with
syllables, and that they can take on phonetically different shapes which
are known as allomorphs. S & M then go on to discuss the various types
of morphemes, viz., free and bound roots, and inflectional and
derivational prefixes and suffixes.

In the authors' own words, "Chapters 5, 6, and 7 in this book address
the mechanisms of borrowing roots and affixes from the classical
languages in detail" (p. 54). The first of these undertakes an analysis
of some of the regular changes that occur in the phonological form of
roots, affixes and words. In order to present an account of the origins
of allomorphy, S & M must first go through the basics of English
phonetics. This introductory material is followed by an extensive list
of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate affixes. The rules that account for
predictable allomorphy are set out in Chapters 6 and 7. The former deals
with replacement rules, i.e., those that replace one sound by another in
processes like (various types of) consonant assimilation as well as
vowel reduction and lenition. Chapter 7 is on different kinds of vowel
and consonant deletion rules, and on morphological processes that insert
epenthetic segments, which the authors refer to as expansion rules.

Chapter 8 bears mainly on what the authors call fossilized allomorphy
which "[u]nlike allomorphy resulting from phonetically motivated
replacement, deletion, or epenthesis . . . cannot be attributed to the
operation of an active and transparent phonetic rule" (p. 128). This
includes cases of Ablaut or gradation such as the Indo-European root
*gen- yielding the variants GENetic (e-grade), GONorrhea (o-grade) and
coGNate (zero-grade), rhotacism which produced Latin alternations like
opuS and opeRa from which English has derived forms like opuScule and
opeRate, and metathesis which shows up in pairs like sPECtacle and
sKEPtic, or nuRTure and nuTRition. S & M also address the issue of
obscure cognates where "the formal relationship between the allomorphs
has become non-transparent, or . . . the semantic and logical link
between . . . allomorphs can no longer be reconstructed" (p. 133), e.g.,
DONor, DATa, anecDOTe, DORothy, DOSe and DOWager which all stem from the
root meaning 'give'. The chapter ends with a discussion of false
cognates of the sort that can arise as a result of root and affix
homophony, as in apPARition (< par 'show'), PARent (< par 'produce') and
prePARation (< par 'setup') or ANarchy (< an- 'not'), ANnihilate (< an-
'to, towards') and ANode (< ana- 'back, again').

Chapter 9 delves into the area of semantic change. After explaining
fundamental terms like homophone, homograph, homonym, polysemy,
synonymy, etc., S & M focus on the mechanisms and results of this type
of linguistic evolution by seeking to answer the following questions:
(1) "what forces in our society, or what forces in our thinking,
typically have brought about semantic change?", and (2) "how do these
changes affect the lexicon?" (p. 149). This leads them to explore the
various external and internal forces that actuate and shape semantic
change as well as the common types of meaning shifts that occur over and
over, such as amelioration and pejoration, or specialization and

Finally, in Chapter 10 S & M turn their attention to the pronunciation
of classical words in English both from a segmental and an accentual
point of view. Firstly, though there are a few exceptions and
inconsistencies as regards the interface between spelling and
pronunciation, their conclusion is that "the consonants and vowels of
the classical words are well on their way to becoming fully assimilated
into the corresponding English values" (p. 168). When it comes to
stress, however, things are somewhat more complicated mainly because of
the effect of certain suffixes. Thus, although Germanic suffixes are on
the whole 'stress neutral' in that they exercise no influence on the
original position of primary and secondary stress, e.g., MARtyr -
MARtyrdom, inTERpret - inTERpreter, many borrowed suffixed are either
'stress demanding', e.g., DOCtrine - doctriNAIRE, ABsent - absenTEE, or
else they bring about a stress shift, e.g., MASculine - mascuLInity,
DEmon - deMOnic.

It should be evident from the foregoing description that the linguistic
concepts presented in this book, be they phonological, morphological or
semantic, are very elementary in nature, and that the target audience is
definitely not the professional linguist at large. Nor is it meant for
the accomplished wordsmith, as the authors fully acknowledge when they
state in the introduction that "if you use a dictionary a lot, you
probably don't need this book" (p. 1). Yet that does not in any way
detract from the intrinsic quality of the work. This is a well written,
clearly structured and thoroughly professional presentation produced by
two seasoned and highly proficient scholars, and it definitely belongs,
at the very least, on the reading list of any undergraduate course on
the history and structure of English.

About the Reviewer:
Marc Picard teaches phonetics, phonology and general linguistics in the
TESL Centre at Concordia University in Montreal. He is currently doing
research on differential substitution in L2 phonology as well as on the
place of allophones in L2 pronunciation teaching.


Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521793629
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 220
Prices: U.S. $ 20
U.K. £ 14.95
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521790123
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 220
Prices: U.S. $ 58
U.K. £ 40