LINGUIST List 20.1931

Wed May 20 2009

Review: Historical Linguistics: McIntyre (2009)

Editor for this issue: Randall Eggert <>

        1.    Jacob Thaisen, History of English

Message 1: History of English
Date: 20-May-2009
From: Jacob Thaisen <>
Subject: History of English
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

AUTHOR: McIntyre, Dan TITLE: History of English SUBTITLE: A resource book for students SERIES: Routledge English Language Introductions PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2009

Jacob Thaisen, School of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

SUMMARY The past decade has seen an increase in the number of new publications on the history of the English language, including teaching materials. The addition to the book which is under review here, McIntyre's first publication in the field, draws on advances in textbook design during the same period to enhance learning for the beginner undergraduate student. The volume seeks to ''provide a basic introduction to the main themes and events of both the external and internal history [of the language]'' (p. v) and is therefore ''necessarily selective'' (p. v) in its coverage with elements discussed ''in a simplified form'' (p. v). This is according to the foreword, as the back cover, in contrast, describes the content as being ''comprehensive''. The themes and events selected as characteristic of each chronological period are illuminated from four different perspectives in conformity with other volumes in the Routledge English Language Introductions series. In the present context, these are external history (section A), internal history (section B), theory and practice (section C), and key readings (section D). This arrangement gives a two-dimensional structure, since it permits reading to proceed section by section or period by period.

Written in accessible language interspersed with informal remarks, section A specifically skips through a selection of the external events that have influenced the development of the language. After a sketch of events such as the respective arrivals of the Anglo-Saxons, St Augustine, the Vikings, and William the Conqueror, the spotlight shifts to the reintroduction of English, the consequences of Bible translation, and the impact of the printing press. The account then fast-forwards to Johnson's Dictionary in little more than a single page before leaving England behind with a chapter on the spread of the language to foreign shores. The next chapter lands the reader back on the island with its five focal points of the Industrial Revolution, the Oxford English Dictionary, Received Pronunciation, the two world wars, and communication technology, only for the scope to broaden again in this section's final chapter, this time to describe the global role of English in specific domains. This pattern of a loosely connected series of snapshots focused only initially on England itself is paralleled in section B. Five chapters outlining aspects of the phonology, orthography, vocabulary, and inflectional morphology of Old, Middle, and Early Modern English are followed by three chapters addressing features of the brands of English spoken in North America, Australia, and India, of pidgins and creoles, and of ''global'' English.

Where the only aspects of Early Modern English grammar described in section B are personal pronouns and verbal inflections, selectivity also characterizes section C, a catalogue of short self-contained exercises each typically preceded by an introduction giving useful theoretical background to the issue at hand and each followed by a commentary on, often even solution to, the tasks set. This theory spans wide, for it not only comprises extended definitions of essential terms such as ''phoneme'' or ''grammatical subject'', but also as-needed tracing of the fundamentals of various disciplines; for example, Labov's classic fieldwork in New York City and Trudgill's in Norwich are cited to place a recurrent emphasis on contact and social motivation as drivers of linguistic change. Specifically, chapters C1-C3 address language family trees, the pronunciation of Old English, the notion of morphological case, Old English dialectal differences illustrated by reference to localized versions of the Lord's Prayer, Old English onomastics, and Norse, French, and Latin loanwords in Middle English; in addition, they exemplify the latter of these stages in the chronological development of the language by means of a 12-line extract from Chaucer's ''Canterbury Tales'' and yet another version of the Lord's Prayer. Early Modern English is the focus of chapters C4 and C5, with the dictionaries of Cawdrey (1604) and Price (1668) selected as illustrative of the codification process but a call for the policing of grammar made in a 2007 letter to the editor of ''The Observer'' newspaper serving the same function relative to prescriptivism. Socially marked variation between ''thou'' and ''you'', double marking of adjectival grade, and the use of ''do'' in affirmative contexts are the specific points of difference from present-day English sketched out next. Apart from a single exercise on the mechanisms of word formation in chapter C7, all the remaining exercises again relate to other varieties of the language than those found in England: the semantic fields of words borrowed by early settlers in North America, Webster's orthographic reform, the pidgin characteristics of the English of eighteenth-century African slaves and of Tok Pisin, the uniqueness of the lexicon of Australian English, the potentially damaging effects of the global spread of English, and the likely course of the language's future development.

As can be seen, it is not only the arrangement of the materials that is innovative for a publication on the history of the language but also both the intentional coverage of selected themes and events only and the balance between England-based and non-England-based varieties existing at various points in the temporal development of the language, including the present day. While period-by-period reading generates the impression of a more traditionally structured volume, the main innovations, in terms of textbook design, are the significant proportion of space allotted to the exercises - one quarter or some 40 pages - and the inclusion of selections from the suggested further reading within the volume itself. As with other volumes in this Routledge series, the readings that constitute section D are a collection of lengthy extracts from previously published materials written by other scholars; chapter D4.2, for example, reproduces the discussion of chain shifts from Aitchison (2001), another textbook targeted at much the same audience. A selective glossary of basic linguistic terms, recommendations for still further reading, a list of references, and an index complete the volume, which thus provides the instructor of a course with a full set of teaching materials within a single set of covers.

The book comes with a supporting website hosted by Routledge ( Date of access: 22 December 2008). The information available on this site is, however, less comprehensive than that offered by the websites supporting competing textbooks covering similar ground, notably Van Gelderen (2006) ( Date of access: 22 December 2008). Apart from a title page and marketing materials of the type most publishing houses offer in their online catalogues, the website contains little more than ten sample essay questions and a modest collection of links to dictionaries and other resources available elsewhere on the internet. Two references to the site are found within the book itself, one on the back cover that also gives its address and another on the title page. Being virtually identical, both list the site among the fortes of the volume.

EVALUATION The selectiveness characteristic of the volume with its innovative division of materials is pedagogically successful. It translates into self-contained, focused units which lessons can be based on and which the target readership can embrace, whereas the more inclusive content of certain traditional textbooks sometimes gives them an encyclopedic flavor and a less clear focus. The wealth of exercises stimulate active learning and critical appreciation, although the separation of the individual exercise from the commentary that immediately follows might have enhanced these aspects further, since the commentaries effectively constitute an answer key. The layout, typesetting, and colloquial register will also appeal to the learner, as will the many supporting examples and illustrations. Students are, in other words, likely to find the publication user-friendly.

Instructors on the history of the English language may partially agree. They may welcome the one-stop design, since it unites traditionally separate disciplines of linguistics. Introductions to the history usually treat both the internal and external developments more fully, but they rarely include the basic theory across a range of disciplines that is necessary for explaining causality and puzzling out the exercises, assuming it previously mastered. Instructors may also receive the choice of themes and events favorably. In the face of the necessary selectiveness, it adequately spans those traditionally regarded as the principal ones, except perhaps for developments within the British Isles during the period Beal calls ''Later Modern English'', which McIntyre treats in a relatively cursory way.

While the target readership of both beginner students and their instructors may thus respond enthusiastically to the design of the volume and the materials selected for inclusion in it, they may, however, vary in their reception of its representation of these materials. The reason for this possible hesitation is that the pedagogically motivated simplification of them has unfortunately led to the insidious appearance of occasional inaccuracies, although the extensive help of several scholars is acknowledged (p. xiii). Standardly accepted to originate from the Germanic second-person present indicative singular suffix, the ''-s'' found in the third-person singular in the verbal paradigm of present-day English did not develop from ''-รพ'' (p. 43), for example. Also, short and long monophthongs are typologically unlikely to have coexisted with both short and long diphthongs in Old English (p. 38), the weakening and subsequent loss of morphological inflections hardly caused the synthetic-to-analytic shift as much as they were symptomatic of it (p. 80), and since the letter ''yogh'' sometimes signaled a velar stop or even a dental fricative, it was by no means always pronounced [j] word-initially and [x] word-medially (p. 51).

Other inaccurate positions are either retracted immediately or in a subsequent chapter. The assertion that the Early Modern English masculine singular possessive pronoun ''his'' was often used in contexts where present-day English would have the neuter pronoun ''its'' (p. 63) thus contrasts with the later reminder that one should be careful never to confuse the neuter and masculine pronouns with one another as they were once identical in form (p. 94). ''The fact that some French speakers may... not have heard the inflections when listening to Anglo-Saxon speakers meant that their own efforts at speaking and writing in English would not necessarily have included these grammatical elements. Over time, this was a contributory factor to the decline of an inflectional system in English'', writes McIntyre (p. 13). Although cautious about implying creolization, he adds that borrowing of French lexis ''further increased the hybrid nature of English'' (p. 13), only in a subsequent chapter to note conflictingly that the number of French speakers was too limited to make contact a likely explanation for widespread inflectional change in English (p. 52).

Among further eyebrow-raising examples, the characterization of the Great Vowel Shift as a push-chain triggered by raising of the most open front vowel (the one in ''father'') comes with an acknowledgement that linguists disagree about the causes and chronology of the individual movements (pp. 57-58), a disagreement illustrated by the incorporated extract from Aitchison (2001), as the suggestion is made there that the Shift perhaps began in the middle (p. 152). Lastly, it may be questioned whether the process of standardization really had advanced sufficiently far by Caxton's days for Chancery Standard to be available for conscious adoption by the printer as a standard (p. 20), and it is unfortunate that the inventory of pure vowels enumerated for present-day English is non-identical between the schematic and tabular illustrations offered on p. 56 as far as the symbols used are concerned.

In conclusion, McIntyre's publication is to be recommended as a useful, modern resource for the teaching of the beginner undergraduate audience it targets, for it is certainly true that the volume is genuinely successful as an interactive textbook in terms of its design. In opting to adopt it for this purpose, however, the individual instructor will need to balance its rich pedagogy against the poor level of precision that characterizes its depiction of the selected themes and events.

REFERENCES Aitchison, Jean (2001). _Language Change: Progress or Decay?_ 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Gelderen, Elly (2006). _A History of the English Language_. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Jacob Thaisen is Visiting Senior Lecturer in the School of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan. He has research and teaching interests in the history of the English language, manuscript studies, and humanities computing and has published on the scribal tradition of Chaucer's ''Canterbury Tales''. He is currently coordinating electronic work on all the manuscripts of the ''Man of Law's Tale'' funded by a three-year project grant from the Polish Ministry of Education.