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Review of  The Cambridge History of the English Language

Reviewer: Kate Burridge
Book Title: The Cambridge History of the English Language
Book Author: Roger Lass
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Issue Number: 12.257

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Roger Lass, ed. (1999) The Cambridge History of the English Language,
Volume 3 (1476-1776). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 771 pages.

Reviewed by: Kate Burridge, La Trobe University

This book is the third volume in "The Cambridge History of the English
Language" series; its contributions trace developments in the language from
the end of Middle English to the beginning of Early Modern English. This
represents a turbulent time period, coinciding at the start with the
appearance of Caxton's printing press and at the finish with the American
Declaration of Independence. This represents an important time in the
history of English because it covers the formative centuries of the
emerging standard language. For the first time we have writers -
lexicographers, grammarians and orthoepists - commenting on language
structure. For the first time we have dictionaries, grammars and reliable
phonetic descriptions of English. While detailed accounts are readily
available for the Old and Middle English periods, this volume fills a
definite gap in our bookshelves by providing a comprehensive treatment of
the language that concentrates solely on this Early Modern period.

Each chapter in the volume focuses upon a single area, covering the most
spectacular developments in linguistic features like orthography /
punctuation, phonology / morphology, syntax, semantics / lexis, as well as
regional and social variation and the literary language. As the editor
Roger Lass expressed it, the account this volume presents is "a
distillation from an immensely complicated picture of ongoing change and
variation - more a treatment of 'landmarks' than a 'full history'" (p. 12).
Each of these chapters provides an excellent combination of theory and
description and the further reading sections given at the end present a
thorough survey of the scholarship in each of the different areas. The work
is also given further rigour by the inclusion of excellent bibliographies
for the chapters, a glossary of terms and a comprehensive index. At the
same time this remains an immensely readable book that would appeal to both
specialists and non-specialists alike - anyone with an interest for the
history of English. I will give a brief account of the seven chapters

Chapter 1 "Introduction" by the editor Roger Lass provides the backdrop to
the work. It highlights the common themes that run through the later
chapters (for example, variation and change, standardization) and it also
signposts the sorts of changes in linguistic structure to be discussed in
those chapters. Together with Richard Hogg's general introduction to the
series, this first chapter gives coherence and strength to the collection.

In Chapter 2 "Orthography and Punctuation" Vivian Salmon examines the state
of the language at the time when printing first makes its appearance and
covers the introduction of standard orthography and spelling. The chapter
opens with an account of the relationship between speech and writing.
Although the point is not made explicitly here, the discussion nicely
highlights the contrast between modern times - where writing occupies such
a privileged position that speech is almost viewed as its oral
representation - and earlier times - where, as Sir Thomas Smith (1568) put
it, "writing exists to express what is uttered". It is a common
misunderstanding that spelling issues were automatically resolved with the
advent of printing. Salmon makes it abundantly clear that this was not the
case - spelling was far from standardized. In fact the early English
printers showed very little interest in the establishment of a standard
orthography and it wasn't until the late sixteenth century that some
attempts were made at regularizing and normalizing. The chapter goes on to
examine some of these early efforts at codifying a system of rules. By the
late 17th such a system was achieved and the orthography was virtually that
which we have inherited today - a system which, as later chapters
(principally Chapter 3) make clear, better reflects the pronunciation of
English in the fifteenth century. The chapter also examines some of the
early proposals for reform.

In Chapter 3 "Phonology and Morphology", Roger Lass begins with a detailed
and yet remarkably readable account of the Early Modern English sound
system. Against a backdrop of the Old and Middle English systems, Lass
looks at the "landmarks of change and variation" in phonology during this
time, including the Great English Vowel Shift, the velar nasal,
palatalization and loss of post-vocalic /r/. The account takes in
information from spelling, rhythm and rhyme, and also the abundance of
orthoepic evidence from that time. Indeed Lass gives considerable
discussion to the problem of interpreting these early descriptions. Not
only was knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of speech lacking, but
these writers also didn't have the benefit of current-day metalanguage and
phonetic theory - what does the description of a vowel as "thin" or "clear"
really mean? The phonology section concludes with an account of the
development of the modern-day stress system. The second half of this
chapter provides a full treatment of the morphology of this period,
examining in detail each member of the major word classes. Underlying this
account is the overriding transition from synthetic type to analytic type,
and the disappearance of the remnants of the old inflectional system.

In Chapter 4 "Syntax", Matti Rissanen draws on examples from the Helsinki
Corpus of English Texts to examine the most dramatic syntactic developments
during this time, principally those affecting word order (e.g. the rise of
SVX order) and the verb structure (e.g. do-support, the progressive,
auxiliaries indicating future or (plu)perfect). Rissanen also considers the
importance of classical models of writing, especially Latin, on certain
stylistic developments in English writing; for example, non-finite clauses
and patterns of subordination. This period is an important one in the
development of English grammar for several reasons. (1) The effects of
earlier changes, principally the loss of inflections, are most evident in
this period. (2) With the establishment of the written standard we begin to
see the straight-jacket effect of writing on the structure of the language.
(3) Available at this time is a variety of registers and styles that give
us give us better insights into what is going on in the spoken language as
well as a better idea of the chronology of change. (4) This represents a
period of massive social change - rapid urbanization, greater mobility of
populations, weakening of social ties - conditions encouraging of change
(also relevant of course for those linguistic features discussed in the
companion chapters). Although discourse considerations are absent from the
discussion (for example, new methods of topicalization made necessary by
the development of less flexible word order), by the end of this chapter we
are left with the clear impression of a syntactic structure not so very
different from that of the modern-day language.

As Terttu Nevalainen points out in the next Chapter 5 "Lexis and
Semantics", change is typically the most striking in this area of the
language, largely of course because, more than any other aspect, it is tied
to the life and culture of speakers. Striking during this period is the
availability, for the first time, of dictionaries (especially monolingual
dictionaries) that could provide windows into the early lexicon. The
chapter begins by examining the different ways the vocabulary was enriched
during this time, focusing in turn on each of the different word-formation
processes - affixation (with a comprehensive account of the various
affixes), compounding, conversion, clipping, backformation, blending and
borrowing, the most important of these. This period sees the tail-end of a
dramatic increase in borrowed items - from an estimated 3% in Old English
to an extraordinary 70% in the modern period. Nevalainen also examines the
stratification that results from the kind of lexical growth that took place
during this period - resulting in a common core (containing the bulk of
Germanic words) that supports a kind of lexical superstructure comprising
those vocabulary items of refinement and nuance from French, together with
the words with connotations of learning, science, and abstraction and from
Classical languages like Latin and Greek. (This is a topic later taken up
by Sylvia Adamson in a chapter dealing with the history of literary
language.) The second half of this chapter moves to meaning change and
examines the various motivations behind the kinds of semantic shifts
evident during this time - the language of special groups, inference,
metonymy, psychological factors and so on. The chapter concludes by
emphasizing that change in this area is complicated and likely to involve
the interaction of a number of different factors, both linguistic and

In Chapter 6 "Regional and Social Variation" Manfred Goerlach examines the
historical foundation of the diversification that exists in current-day
English, focusing on the different regional and social varieties that
existed at the start of this Early Modern period and then on the impact
that standardization and notions of correctness had upon these varieties.
Part of the chapter is given to the problems of reconstructing earlier
variation and attitudes to this variation, especially to vernacular forms.
This is a significant period in the study of English diversification for
two reasons. Firstly, it marks the beginning of linguistic globe-trotting
by English with the birth in North America of the first extraterritorial
Englishes. Secondly, for first time it was possible to use the label
"non-standard". This was the period that suddenly found people talking
about their language in a different (more moralistic and judgemental)
fashion. Although observations on regional diversity had been common place,
at the beginning of the sixteenth century there suddenly appeared a real
vocabulary of abuse, of the type found in complaint literature today. On
the one hand, there was the right sort of language (described as "pure",
"true") and, on the other hand, the wrong kind of language (described as
"corrupt", "false"). And as Manfred Goerlach points out, the same confused
attitudes towards non-varieties we find today also emerged during this
period - nostaligic views of regional non-standard dialects, but
condemnation of non-standard sociolects.

The volume concludes with Chapter 7 - "Literary Language" - by Sylvia
Adamson. Hand-in-hand with standardization and the flourishing of
dictionaries and grammars of English was also the flourishing of the
literary language. Indeed, as Adamson points out at the start, these two
processes are not only simultaneous but also symbiotic - "with the 'best
authors' being quarried for instructive examples as much by grammarians and
language teachers as by rhetoricians and literary critics" (p. 539). This
is a marvellous overview of the literary history of English and the formal
developments which took place there. For example, one of the most
interesting sections in this chapter is the lengthy discussion on
amplifying ("a heightening or intensifying of emotional impact") - this
includes, for instance, an account of malapropism as a form of humour now
able to thrive on account of the lexical stratification of English (see
Chapter 5).

To conclude, I thoroughly recommend this book. It offers a very scholarly
treatment of this part of English language history, but at the same time
maintains an engaging and entertaining style throughout - there exists no
better treatment of the language for this period of development. It will
appeal to lay-people and linguistic experts alike.

Kate Burridge's main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic
languages; the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities
in Canada; the notion of linguistic taboo; the structure and history of

Kate Burridge
Associate Professor, Linguistics
La Trobe University
Bundoora, 3086


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