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Review of  The Oxford History of English

Reviewer: Jessie Sams
Book Title: The Oxford History of English
Book Author: Lynda Mugglestone
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.2262

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In the Introduction, Lynda Mugglestone writes that “the emphasis throughout the following volume is placed on the construction of ‘a history’ rather than ‘the history’, recognizing many other pathways could be navigated through the past--and present--of the English language” (2). The path this text takes is one that asks its readers to:

“rethink the various aspects of the history for the English language—to engage with the past through private as well as public discourses, to look at the usage of men and women, of standard and non-standard speakers, at English at the borders and margins of time and space, from pre-history to the present-day, and as subject to the changing pressures and contexts which constantly influence usage, as well as to examine some of the motives and explanations which may underpin change as it took place within the past” (7).

The intended audience includes both beginning students and interested scholars, as evidenced through the use of short texts with appropriate glosses (and translating in full where necessary), explanations of terminology used, and full sections of suggested further readings at the end of each chapter. Each chapter also footnotes sources directly quoted and/or summarized in the text. The footnotes often are shown with commentary on the source(s) being cited and include related readings to direct interest readers to similar sources.

The chapters are organized primarily chronologically, though groups of chapters focus on the same time periods but analyze the language usage from different angles during that same time period. While the text does not separate its chapters into groups, I have grouped the fourteen chapters into four major groups: pre-history and earliest attestations of English (including Old and Middle English), Early Modern English, moving toward Modern English, and the English language today.

The first four chapters cover the prehistory and earliest forms of the English language. In Chapter 1, “Preliminaries: Before English,” Terry Hoad writes about the Indo-European and Germanic beginnings of what would become the Old English language and discusses linguistic concepts like language families, historical linguistics, proto-languages, and Grimm’s Law. Chapter 2, “Beginnings and Transitions: Old English,” by Susan Irvine, moves on to the Old English language and she organizes the chapter--and its example texts--around “five historical watersheds” (41): the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, the rise of Christianity, King Alfred’s reign, the Benedictine Reform, and the Norman Conquest. The third chapter, “Contacts and Conflicts: Latin, Norse, and French,” by Matthew Townend, addresses the role of language contact in the development of medieval English, specifically focusing on Latin (ecclesiastical influence), Norse (Viking influence), and French (the Norman Conquest). And, finally, in Chapter 4, “Middle English: Dialects and Diversity,” Marilyn Corrie discusses (as the title suggests) dialectal diversity in Middle English but also discusses the anxieties of scholars about the English language, which began the initial waves of standardization, and the changing roles of written language in society.

The next four chapters cover roughly the same time frame, the late fifteenth through late seventeenth centuries. In Chapter 5, “From Middle to Early Modern English,” Jeremy J. Smith addresses the fours stages of standardization in English during the transition from Middle to Early Modern English (elaboration, selection, codification, and acceptance), weaving together the internal and external histories of the language to show how the language progressed through those four stages. Chapter 6, “Restructuring Renaissance English,” by April McMahon, discusses changes to long and short vowels during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and, thus, the debate surrounding what many term the Great Vowel Shift. In the seventh chapter, “Mapping Change in Tudor English,” Terttu Nevalainen writes about specific linguistic features of sixteenth-century English and the use of corpora to distinguish these features; the primary features discussed are verbal ‘-(e)th’ versus the ‘-(e)s’ ending, the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘thou’, and ‘do’ as an auxiliary verb. In the eighth chapter, “The Babel of Renaissance English,” Paula Blank aims to debunk the myth that English was largely standardized by late Renaissance English by examining regional dialects and sociolects.

Chapters 9 and 10 both cover English from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In “English at the Onset of the Normative Tradition,” Ingrid Tieken-Boon Van Ostade further discusses standardization, focusing on how geographical and social mobility of speakers during the eighteenth century led to the (near) completion of the four stages of standardization noted in Smith’s chapter. She analyzes language from personal correspondence and a wide variety of writers (male/female, differing levels of education, class distinctions) and information from grammars. In “English in the Nineteenth Century,” Lynda Mugglestone points out that while many regard the English of the nineteenth century as a language that has been stabilized, there was still a great deal of change in the language--especially when considering private writings and dialectal variations. She also discusses the origins of the Old English Dictionary.

The final four chapters cover English today. In Chapter 11, “Modern Regional English in the British Isles,” Clive Upton discusses the beginnings of dialectology, how regional dialect areas are defined, and features that vary (pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar). Throughout, he reminds readers that dialects are not easily pinned down and that even strongly distinctive regional features can be muddied by other factors, such as education level, socioeconomic status, gender, and geographic mobility of individual speakers. In the twelfth chapter, “English Among the Languages,” Richard W. Bailey discusses language interaction between English and other languages from the fourteenth century to today, focusing on borrowings, pidgins/creoles, and speaker attitudes toward other languages and other “Englishes.” In Chapter 13, “English World-wide in the Twentieth Century,” Tom McArthur writes about the changes to English in the twentieth century, its growing status as a global language, and the difficulties of defining “English” due to that growth. The final chapter, “Into the Twenty-first Century,” by David Crystal, addresses three major areas in which the long-term consequences are unknown: globalization, the Internet, and educational change.

This book does indeed reach the goals included in Mugglestone’s introduction (see summary above). The chapters use a variety of sources when examining the status of the language--including, for example, private and public documents, male and female authors, and standard and non-standard usage. Moreover, authors tend to focus not just on the language itself but on the context of the changes (i.e., the majority of the chapters do not provide technical linguistic analyses of the language but instead offer a description of the types of changes taking place and potential reasons for those changes).

The book can be used by independent scholars; however, independent scholars who wish to read a history of the English language with a focus on the linguistic features themselves (or with a focus on more technical information about those features) may wish to look elsewhere (e.g., Algeo 2010, Freeborn 2006). This book focuses more on the underpinnings of the changes than on the changes themselves, making it more appropriate for readers interested in sociolinguistic information, such as shifts in attitudes toward language varieties over time.

The book can definitely be used by advanced students in an upper-level college classroom but could also be modified for more beginning students through accompanying lecture and classroom discussion. For example, chapters freely use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) but don’t stop to explain what IPA is. In the list of IPA symbols with corresponding words for pronunciation in the front matter of the book, students without introductory knowledge of IPA may miss some of the distinctions being made by, for example, sound changes in English that only affected particular phonological categories (e.g., voiceless fricatives).

When original texts are provided, only short excerpts are given (culled for their use of a specific feature or to showcase a specific dialect). These “snapshots” are especially helpful for beginning students--they provide smaller amounts of information to digest when thinking about linguistic principles and yet still provide solid examples of language during that time frame. All texts are also either fully translated or glossed (words not related to modern forms are defined in the sidebar).

Before reading the book, my biggest concern was coherence; I was worried that such a text would be jarring when each chapter was written in a different authorial voice. However, the chapters tie nicely together, with each mentioning previous and/or future chapters, and no single chapter stands out as being written by a different author. Even though some features may change from chapter to chapter, they are not noticeable enough to feel as though changing chapters is like changing books.

The use of terminology is largely cohesive throughout the text; for example, the four stages of standardization are first mentioned by Smith (Chapter 5) and then again by Tieken-Boon Van Ostade (Chapter 9), both using the same terminology and type of approach. There are a few instances, though, of mixed terminology. For example, if students are unaware of terminology for time periods, they may get confused on three chapters in particular: Chapters 6-8 write about the same time period from different angles; however, McMahon refers to it as ‘Renaissance English’ in Chapter 6, Nevalainen as ‘Tudor English’ in Chapter 7, and Blank as ‘Renaissance English’ again in Chapter 8. These labels are used without reference to one another, and even I had to look up information on the labels to verify that they were, indeed, referring to the same time period. Matters like these are simple to explain in a course, but students attempting self-study need to be motivated enough to do a little outside research to better understand labels and terminology employed throughout the text.

One difference between this text and others like it is its emphasis on more modern Englishes, as opposed to a heavier emphasis on Old and Middle English. For example, Freeborn (2006) and Baugh and Cable (2013) devote nearly half of their books to Old and Middle English while this text has only three out of fourteen chapters specifically devoted to Old and Middle English. Scholars and teachers who want to spend more time on those older forms of the language will not benefit as much from this text.

The chapters do not provide labeled “Future Research” sections, but many do mention areas that are understudied; for example, when writing about personal letters during the eighteenth century, Tieken-Boon Van Ostade writes that “a vast amount of material is therefore still waiting to be analysed” (311). Other authors mention specific corpora and how scholars can utilize such modern tools to further aid research. Some chapters provide (by design or happy accident) sections that could easily serve as prompts for student essays. An example is found in the conclusion of Blank’s chapter on Renaissance English: “The earliest language reformers, seeking to ‘remedy Babel’, hoped to promote intellectual clarity and cultural cohesion, and yet, what might have been lost--even in terms of their own goals--had they found a way to rule or suppress what Thomas Sprat, on behalf of the Royal Society, condemned in 1667 as ‘this vicious abundance of ‘Phrase’ . . . this volubility of ‘Tongue’, which makes so great a noise in the World’?” (295) Such questions could easily serve as fodder for researched essays in--or outside--the classroom.

“The Oxford History of English” is the best text I have found to date to use as the primary text for my History of the English Language course. After teaching that course in a variety of ways to a mixture of students (some of whom have never heard the word ‘linguistics’ before while others have already taken several linguistics courses), I believe the approach taken in this volume is the best for such a classroom. Its incorporation of original texts without overwhelming students, along with the many suggested further readings, will allow me to more easily adapt the information to both beginning and more advanced students.

Algeo, John. 2010. The Origins and Development of the English Language (6th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth.

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. 2013. A History of the English Language (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Freeborn, Dennis. 2006. From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Variation across Time (3rd ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jessie Sams is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX. Her primary research interests include the intersection of syntax and semantics, English quotatives, English grammar, and history of the English language.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199660162
Pages: 624
Prices: U.K. £ 14.99