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Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2006 19:11:00 -0800 From: Stefan Dollinger Subject: The History of English: A student's guide
AUTHOR: Singh, Ishtla TITLE: The history of English SUBTITLE: A student's guide PUBLISHER: Hodder Arnold YEAR: 2005
Stefan Dollinger, Department of English, University of Vienna
Ishtla Singh's compact paperback volume is a recent addition to the textbook pool on the origins and development of English. As such, it joins a number of one-volume textbooks on the topic published in recent years, such as Fennell (2001), Moessner (2003), Crystal (2004), Brinton and Arnovick (2006), Hogg and Denison (eds.) (2006), and testifies to the vibrancy of the discipline and to a growing demand for concise, up-to-date historical accounts of one of today's most widely-used languages.
Singh's book covers the development of English from its Indo- European roots to very recent developments, including the spread of English as a lingua franca in international present-day contexts, on little more than 200 pages. Aimed at ''students of literature as well as linguistics'' (back cover text) it succinctly presents the most important developmental stages and features in six chapters. Chapter (1) introduces basic linguistic concepts and processes (e.g. types of linguistic change and terminology) and is aimed to ''complement the period-based framework of later chapters by outlining some of the more common changes'' that affected English (p. 5). Singh begins the chronological discussion in chapter (2) with the oldest roots of English, devoting considerable space to the question of the Indo-European homeland and settlement history. The survey is continued in chapters (3) to (6), which respectively focus on Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English since 1700. Each chapter includes the external language history (social history), the basic features of the language-internal structure and the major developments of the period. Additionally, the major literary output of the period is briefly discussed in each chapter.
The survey attempts to break with a pattern of focus on the two dominant varieties of English in modern times, British or American English, and considers ''instead the establishment of English in other colonial varieties'' (p. 2). One of Singh's major aims is to focus on ''areas in conventional histories where 'orthodox beliefs' and approaches could make room for updated and/or somewhat different perspectives'' (p. 2), which finds its most explicit expressions in four sections on select aspects of the language history. In Old English, special attention is paid to grammatical vs. natural gender, in Middle English, a review of arguments for and against creolization is offered, while the developments of English in Barbados serves as an example in the Early Modern English period and English in Singapore in the post-1700 chapter. The main features of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are presented in the usual manner in the respective sections, except in the chapter on modern English, where the main focus lies on the 18th-century prescriptive movement instead.
Study questions at the end of each chapter and index complete the book, which is, bravely defying a trend in the publishing industry, available at a price at the lower end of the spectrum.
Ishtla Singh condenses the outline of the history of the language, both from an external and internal point of view, in a surprisingly compact paperback volume. While meeting her goals of including lesser- researched areas, she supplies a fresh look on some conventional features in each chapter. In Middle English, for instance, Singh includes recent findings (Rothwell 1998) that challenge the common belief that loan words were borrowed from both Anglo Norman and Central French. The argument is illustrated with two examples, which demonstrate the methodology behind tracing the origins of borrowings. Not only is Singh's account up-to-date, including a number of very recent examples from both the popular press and specialist literature, but also the 'canonized' examples from Pyles and Algeo (1982, for some reason the 4th edition  was not used) or Baugh and Cable (2002) are also included.
The presentation of the material is very appropriate for the target audience, as it was aimed to strive for an interesting, coherent and student-friendly text with many illustrative examples. At times the text is outright funny, but remains down to the point throughout. This is the kind of presentation that is poised to attract the attention of students in general introductory courses at the undergraduate level and shows them the vibrancy and relevance of the history of English as an object of study. One aspect that might not be ideal for an introductory textbook, however, is the cautionary note that ''we cannot know with full certainty'' what Old English or Middle English sounded like (p. 76, p. 113), without emphasizing the sophisticated character of the reconstructive method.
Singh incorporates a sociolinguistic perspective that runs, at times between the lines, throughout the book. The discussion of the role of grammatical vs. natural gender in Old English, where a more literary approach to the role of female characters in Beowulf is combined with linguistic evidence, should be especially appealing to literature majors. In Middle English, attention is paid to the question whether Middle English could be the result of creolization. While the question is truly fascinating, the presentation takes the style of an argumentative essay that attacks the main proponents and concludes that creolization would not likely have occurred (pp. 127-136). One might wonder whether this question had not better be explored as an appendage to an example of actual creolization in the history of English, which is, somewhat surprisingly, not discussed in volume (as Barbadian English also does not qualify as a creole, p. 170).
In Early Modern English, the Great Vowel Shift, the spectacular lexical expansion, and a highly stimulating discussion of the development of English in Barbados are three focal points. Barbadian English, as one of the oldest overseas varieties of English, has much to offer for the study and genesis of colonial Englishes and its discussion in the present context, which is a novelty in textbooks of this type and size, is a most welcome innovation.
In the post-1700 section, for which, more generally, the term Late(r) Modern English could have been used (cf. Beal 2004: xi), Singh successfully manages her account without a discussion of American English or British English varieties, as the focus is shifted towards the growing importance of countries in the outer circle (where English plays an institutional role but is no native language). A discussion of the linguistic situation in Singapore, which merges historical and applied points of view, with ample examples from Colloquial Singapore English, is another intriguing case study. Illustrations of the vernacular are juxtaposed with recent derogatory statements about Colloquial Singapore English by the country's political leaders, which leads into inquiries of the link between language and identity on the one hand, and language in a global context on the other hand, which should make it easy for students to inquire into their own varieties (and their attitudes towards them).
The more recent emergence of English as a Lingua Franca (p. 175ff) and examples of present-day concerns with language use in radio shows and internet forums provide the setting for a discussion of 18th- century prescriptivism. This important normative tradition, which is presented in some detail, may appear to be a bit lopsided in its focus on Swift's attitudes, while Johnson's dictionary and Lowth's grammar would probably warrant a slightly more thorough treatment (cf. Beal 2004: 40ff, 105ff).
While most of these points of criticism are ultimately a matter of taste and emphasis, the utter lack of maps is probably the most pressing shortcoming of an otherwise excellent textbook. Since students, for instance, are required to picture the area ''east of a line from London to Chester'' (p. 72) for the Danelaw, a little map section would very effectively facilitate tasks like these. On the upside, the book includes a number of important findings from less-widely circulated contributions (e.g. Vienna English Working Papers, Internet Proceedings of Postgraduate Conferences, or the Anglo-Norman On- line Hub), which provide some new perspectives on stories long told.
Overall, this volume is a very compact and user-friendly introduction to the topic. It is admirable how Singh manages to merge three aspects of language history - the external, the internal and philological aspects - into the confines of 200 pages. The book includes enough detail and many springboards for discussion for introductory courses. It can be readily used in courses on the history of English in the European academic context (of c. 20 contact hours), and is also a good base reading for a half course in the North-American context (of c. 40 hours). The book can also be recommended to general readers, who, however, would need to familiarize themselves with IPA transcriptions to fully understand the sections on phonetics and phonology.
Singh's history of English does a remarkable job merging the staples of the discipline (i-umlaut, Grimm's Law, Great Vowel Shift, questions of periodization etc.) with related, more recent examples and changes (e.g. the Southern Cities Vowel Shift, insights from new-dialect formation on the dating of periods [p. 67, p. 104]). The basic nominal and verbal paradigms are all found in the book for each period, including some dialectal variants (e.g. Middle English verbal conjugation, p. 121).
While the book provides a good account on *how* the language changed, it does not offer much on *why* English changed the way it did (structuralist explanations for the Great Vowel Shift [p. 154] and Neo-Grammarian analogy for plural formation [p. 25f)] are mentioned, however). Basic concepts from various theoretical schools, as presented in other textbooks (e.g. Schendl 2001: 67-85), would have further enriched the book, but may have been beyond its scope (e.g. iconicity as a reason for the spread of the a-stem noun declension pattern, functional load to explain the emergence of postalveolar fricative pronunciations for /zj/ in words like pleasure, treasure etc.).
To conclude, Singh (2005) is a very interesting, highly stimulating textbook: it is more specific and detailed than many contributions (e.g. Barber 1993, Leith 1997), which makes it specifically apt for undergraduate level courses, and more general and diverse than the standard textbooks of long standing (e.g. Baugh and Cable 2002, Pyles and Algeo 1993), which are sometimes felt to be either too comprehensive or too traditional in presentation. Singh (2005) is a very good textbook for introductory courses, both for language specialists and a more general academic audience, as it presents the material in a manner that should arouse students' interest. Moreover, it comes at a price that is perhaps one of the best values on the market. Judging by the recent output of one-volume works, the 21st century is going to be a good one for the teaching of the history of English and it is to be hoped that Singh (2005) will have its fair share in it.
Barber, Charles 1993. The English language: A historical introduction. Cambridge: CUP.
Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language. 5th ed. London: Routledge.
Beal, Joan C. 2004. English in modern times. 1700-1945. London: Arnold.
Brinton, Laurel J. and Leslie K. Arnovick. 2006. The English language: A linguistic introduction. Oxford: OUP.
Crystal, David. 2004. The stories of English. London: Lane.
Fennell, Barbara. 2001. A history of English: A sociolinguistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hogg, Richard M. and David Denison (eds.) 2006. A history of the English language. Cambridge: CUP.
Leith, Dick. 1997. A social history of English. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Moessner, Lilo. 2003. Diachronic English linguistics: An introduction. Tubingen: Narr.
Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo. 1993 . The origins and development of the English language. 4th ed. [3rd ed.] Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace.
Rothwell, W. 1998. ''Arrivals and departures: The adoption of French terminology into Middle English''. The Anglo-Norman On-line Hub, http://www.anglo-norman.net/articles/arrivals.xml, 25 Jan. 2006.
Vienna English Working Papers (VIEWS) - online at: http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/ang_new/online_papers/views.html, 24 Jan. 2006.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Stefan Dollinger's research interests include the history of English, sociohistorical linguistics and computational linguistics. He has recently completed his PhD dissertation on "New-dialect formation in early Canada: the modal auxiliaries in Ontario, 1776-1850" and is currently in the planning stages for a revision of the "Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles".