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Review of  The History of English

Reviewer: Stefan Dollinger
Book Title: The History of English
Book Author: Ishtla Singh
Publisher: Hodder Education
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.293

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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 [1993] 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

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:

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:

Leith, Dick. 1997. A social history of English. 2nd ed. London:

Moessner, Lilo. 2003. Diachronic English linguistics: An introduction.
Tubingen: Narr.

Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo. 1993 [1982]. 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,, 25 Jan. 2006.

Schendl, Herbert. 2001. Historical linguistics. Oxford: OUP.

Vienna English Working Papers (VIEWS) - online at:,
24 Jan. 2006.

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".

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0340806958
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: c.256pp
Prices: U.K. £ 14.99