LINGUIST List 24.1640

Thu Apr 11 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics: Bergs & Brinton (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 27-Feb-2013
From: Igor Yanovich <>
Subject: English Historical Linguistics
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Alexander T. BergsEDITOR: Laurel J. BrintonTITLE: English Historical LinguisticsSUBTITLE: Volume 1SERIES TITLE: Handb├╝cher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft / Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 34.1PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Igor Yanovich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

SUMMARY''English Historical Linguistics'', edited by Alexander Bergs and LaurelBrinton, is the first 1100+ pages volume of a new handbook, covering in detailthe development of English starting from the Old English up to the Late ModernEnglish period, as well as the issues of language standardization in thehistory of English, and the language of the different kinds of media. Thesecond volume will mostly cover the areas of English historical linguisticsthat have emerged more or less recently, such as language contact in thehistory of English or regional varieties. Many chapters of the handbook areauthored by scholars whose groundbreaking work was crucial to the advances ofEnglish historical linguistics.

The first part of the present volume introduces the periodization of thehistory of English. Each period starting with Pre-Old English and ending withPresent-Day English, is covered in a chapter discussing the major features ofEnglish at the time, issues of historical evidence, and where appropriate, thehistorical context of the language development.

The chapters of the second part each review a different linguistic level asthey figure in English historical linguistics, from phonology and prosody tosemantics and pragmatics. Orthography, idioms, onomastics and registers of thelanguage are also discussed as separate levels of the linguistic system.

The next four parts are the core of the volume, and provide in-depthdescriptions of each of the four major periods of the language, namely OldEnglish, Middle English, Early Modern and Late Modern English. For eachperiod, linguistic levels from phonology to semantics are discussed inseparate chapters, as well as the dialectology of the period, the issues ofliterary language and standardization, and language contact andsociolinguistics. For later periods, special chapters are included on thelanguage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and on several important phenomena ofhistorical change such as the Great Vowel Shift.

The seventh part covers issues of language standardization in several detailedchapters that deal with such issues as the English prescriptive tradition, therole of dictionaries in the standardization of English, the role ofindividuals who developed prescriptive resources for English, etc.

Finally, the last part discusses the use of English in different media:newspapers, television, radio and the internet.

The editors see the intended audience for the handbook as ''researchers in thefield of (historical) linguistics generally'' and ''in allied fields''. Theexposition, however, is largely self-contained, and does not presupposeparticularly deep knowledge of either the history of English or theoreticallinguistics, which makes the book an excellent resource for students. Thepresence of overview chapters discussing the general issues within eachlinguistic level should make it easy enough for such emerging scholars to usethe book both independently and as supplementary material for particularclasses. At the same time the accessibility of the material does notcompromise the depth of presentation, so the book may indeed serve as avaluable resource for current practitioners in linguistics and allied fields,as the editors have intended.

One notable feature of the handbook is the conscious inclusion of informationon modern technology and electronic sources of data that may be useful for ascholar of the history of English. While every handbook aims to provide thereaders with a rich bibliographical apparatus to guide the reader to moreadvanced literature, the current handbook attempts to complement that by alsoguiding the reader to primary sources of data in a form that makes it easy towork with them, and providing a basic critical assessment of those.

EVALUATIONTo put it briefly, the present handbook is the kind of book that one is happyto keep on the shelf next to one's desk. It should allow a researcher withlimited background in English historical linguistics to quickly gain commandof the most necessary entry-level knowledge, and then, if needed, proceedfurther using the references in the relevant chapters.

The chosen format thanks to the inclusion of both specific material onparticular periods and more general introductory chapters makes it easier forreaders with very varied backgrounds to understand the logic of differentparts of the field, and how that logic manifests itself in individual studies.For example, the chapters on historical prosody or historical syntax wouldexplain to the reader just what kind of issues the corresponding disciplinestudies.

Many of the chapters, though not all, are written in a way that makestransparent not only the main conclusions reached in a particular subfield ofEnglish historical linguistics, but also helps the reader to become accustomedto forms of argument frequently used in it. For a researcher from aneighboring discipline that will likely prove of great value. As an example,Keith Williamson's chapter on Middle English dialects not simply describes thedistributions of characteristic dialectal features, but also explains themethods used by historical dialectologists, and the limits and successes ofthe techniques used, including the very recent efforts to start establishingthe dialect picture with regard to the lexicon, in addition to the dialectpicture with regard to sound correspondences.

As another example of an effort to make the content accessible to a wide rangeof readers, Robert D. Fulk's chapter on the literary language of the OldEnglish period not only describes the important features characteristic ofdifferent registers, as well as the likely dialectal origin of those and theamount of variation between different texts, but also makes a conscious effortto explicate the terms of the trade for linguists with no background in thetradition of Old English studies.

As a feature of overall design, the chapters covering the same linguisticlevel at different periods are not organized according to the same template.Depending on the needs of the reader and on the details of realization, thisstrategy may prove very useful to a particular user of the handbook, or it mayprove otherwise.

In many cases the difference in the content of corresponding chapters is dueto the fact that the state of the relevant research is different. For example,the study of historical pragmatics is relatively new, compared to suchestablished areas as historical phonology. Consequently, Ursula Lenker'schapter on Old English pragmatics and Elizabeth Closs Traugott's chapter onthe pragmatics of Middle English discuss a different range of topics. Forinstance, both discuss politeness strategies and types of speech acts, butonly the latter surveys degree modifiers. It is not that Old English lackedthem, but more can be said about Middle English on the topic. In part thedifference in the volume of available research stems from a difference in theamount of existing evidence: for instance, Middle English texts represent awider variety of registers and genres than surviving Old English ones, andthat is also reflected in the composition of the two chapters.

In other cases, however, different choices do not follow directly from thestate of scholarship or the evidence. For example, the syntax chapters on Old,Middle and Early Modern English are all structured differently. RafalMolencki's chapter on Old English syntax presents all crucial information onthe subject neatly organized into sections on, e.g., the noun phrase orcomplex sentences, so that a reader not acquainted with Old English couldquickly learn the basic syntactic facts about the language. Elena Seoane'schapter on Early Modern English does not aim to be as comprehensive,explicitly referring the reader who needs a full overview to the CambridgeHistory of the English Language, and instead discusses in detail severalimportant syntactic changes of the period.

In contrast to those two, Jeremy J. Smith's chapter on Middle English syntaxattempts not so much to give an overview of the syntactic system, but ratherto discuss the importance of using diplomatic editions and not imposing themodern grammatical notion of sentencehood onto medieval speakers. That aim isquite laudable, but the reader whose only goal is, for instance, to find outwhat the Middle English noun phrase looked like, would have a hard timefinding the relevant information in the chapter. As the discussion presupposesa high level of familiarity with English historical linguistics, it may provehard to follow for people outside the field. Finally, small mistakes also donot help (for instance, when discussing the modal auxiliaries, the authormisanalyses CHULLE from Ancrene Wisse as a form of SCAL (> modern SHALL),while in fact it is a form of WULLE (> modern WILL) with the initial Wassimilated to the CH at the end of the preceding word. As such assimilationis a familiar, automatic phonological feature of the so-called AB dialect inwhich Ancrene Wisse is written, the misanalysis is harmless for practitionersin the field, but for a person from the outside, small details like that mightlead to some confusion. That said, there is definitely a value in illustratingthe syntax of a period not with isolated sentences, but rather with largefragments of translated and commented text belonging to different temporalsubperiods and different genres, so overall the chapter would proveinteresting even for readers who are not quite able to follow all the detailsdue to a lack of background.

As mentioned above, one of the goals of the handbook is to provide the readerwith an apparatus of electronic, easily accessible resources that help one tostudy the history of English. With the rapid development of various historicalcorpora, the book will soon be far from exhaustive in that respect, but evenso it should not become irrelevant. While it is the second volume that willfeature chapters specifically devoted to textual resources, many chapters ofthe present volume provide an overview of the available corpora whereappropriate. Perhaps naturally, such descriptions may be found more frequentlyin the chapters that concern subject areas where the use of massive datasources is widespread, such as those on English dialects, as well as in thosethat address the language in a particular type of media such as newspapers orradio. This apparatus of pointers towards various sources of empirical datawill make it easier for a scholar entering into the field to quickly move fromstudying the existing knowledge to actively engaging the empirical data inaddition to that. In that sense, the handbook truly creates a new standard.

To sum up, the first volume of Alexander Bergs and Laurel J. Brinton'sHandbook is a well-rounded volume containing an enormous amount of relevantinformation in a generally well-organized and easy-to-use form. It is avaluable addition to the rich literature on the subject.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERIgor Yanovich is a PhD student at MIT, specializing in formal semantics,phonology, and historical linguistics.

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