LINGUIST List 24.338

Sun Jan 20 2013

Review: General Ling.; Historical Ling.; Ling & Literature: Momma & Mato (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 20-Jan-2013
From: Corey Zwikstra <>
Subject: A Companion to the History of the English Language
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Book announced at

AUTHORS: Haruko Momma and Michael MattoTITLE: A Companion to the History of the English LanguageSERIES TITLE: Blackwell Companions to Literature and CulturePUBLISHER: Wiley-BlackwellYEAR: 2008

Corey J. Zwikstra, Department of English, Washburn University, Topeka, KS

SUMMARYThis book is aimed at a broad audience of students of English literature andculture who could benefit from increased understanding of the English languageand how it has changed and been studied over time. Although Englishlinguistics can be a challenging subject, most of these short, accessiblechapters will be readily understood by readers with little background inlinguistics. The book is especially sensitive to the social and politicalcontexts of language use, with contributors frequently treating nationalism,political correctness, linguistic diversity, and historical contingencies. Theeditors offer their collection as a ‘companion’ rather than a comprehensivetextbook.

An edited collection of almost 700 pages in 9 parts, some with sections, thebook contains 59 chapters by 61 international and often distinguished authors,as well as ancillary headnotes, timelines, maps, figures, a glossary, andindex. A few of the contributions have been published previously in some form.Part 1 (Chapters 1-3), the shortest, introduces the field of the History ofthe English Language (HEL) and its disciplinary history and teaches a fewessential linguistic terms and concepts necessary for beginners to make senseof what follows. Part 2 (Chapters 4-8) surveys the traditional areas oflinguistics--phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and prosody--while thebrief Part 3 (Chapters 9-11) extends consideration to semantics andlexicography. Part 4 (Chapters 12-13) briefly considers the prehistory ofEnglish as both an Indo-European and Germanic language. Part 5 (Chapters14-33), the longest, focuses at great length on the histories of English inEngland and America within various regional and political contexts. Part 6(Chapters 34-41) extends that focus to places outside England and America,emphasizing along with Part 5 the diversity and proliferation of the Englishlanguage across time and space, especially in post-colonial contexts. Part 7(Chapters 42-49) studies English as a literary language via major authors andtexts from all historical periods. Varieties of contemporary English,including dialects, creoles, and pidgins, are the focus of Part 8 (Chapters50-55). Part 9 (Chapters 56-59), the last, complements the others withexamples of approaches to language study. The book concludes with a refinedglossary of linguistic terms and a thorough, useful index.

EVALUATIONSince evaluation of all the contributions is impractical, I will focus onrepresentative chapters that stand out or might especially benefit theintended audience of students of English literature and culture. Several ofthese chapters both teach about and exemplify a productive linguistic approachor context to literature.

Chapter 7, “A History of the English Lexicon” by Geoffrey Hughes, nicelyexplains how the lexis of English is distinctly mixed in its Germanic, French,and classical components, but is increasingly cosmopolitan, and how this mixedlexis, capable of different registers, reflects the diverse external historyof English. Hughes also explores how words become “socially mobile” (p. 70)and further describes “the lexicon as an indicator of power relations” (p.70). Given the intended audience, especially welcome are the sections on“literary words” and other types of words such as neologisms. Students need toknow words change and lexical histories can productively inform literaryanalysis, as when Chaucer in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales usesGermanic words to characterize the lowly Miller and Romance words tocharacterize the churchly Prioress (p. 73).

Chapter 8, “History of English Prosody” by Geoffrey Russom, demonstratesinsightfully how “English historical metrics and English historicallinguistics have much to offer one another” (p. 87). The essay, though brief,is full of suggestive analyses and neat explanations, the clear products ofdecades working in this specialist field: for example, his historical andsyntactic explanations of the decline of compounding in Middle English (p. 84)and the rise of English rhymed iambic poetry in the Early Modern period (p.86). An understanding of metrical fashions brings increased knowledge of howlanguage works, and comprehending meter and language together can result inmore informed, nuanced, and historical understandings of English poetry.Prosody is a subject I wish literature students knew more about, and Russom’schapter showcases how metrical considerations lead to insights about bothlanguage and literature.

Together Chapters 42-49 on literary language provide a solid introduction toliterary uses of English, with chapters on Old English poetry, Chaucer,Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Faulkner, Rushdie, and Morrison. English literaryhistory is “multivalent” (p. 433) in its language use and wider connections toculture. “The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Tradition” (Fred C. Robinson) interestinglyclaims that unlike later classical- and French-influenced verse in English“the OE [Old English] verse patterns are a selection of natural speechpatterns” (p. 438) and thus Old English poetry grows naturally and nativelyfrom the Germanic stress patterns of English. “Chaucer’s Literary Language”(John F. Plummer) rightly points out that Chaucer’s literary language mightwell have been French before moving on to describe how Chaucer’s Englishincorporates much from the foreign languages and authors whose works andstyles inspired him. Chaucer in general has “a keen ear for diction andregister” (p. 449) and often uses them to advantage. The original andstimulating “Shakespeare’s Literary Language” (Adam N. McKeown) paintsShakespeare’s poetry as “speaking pictures” (p. 462) that inhabit our mind’seye and compel us to contemplate the social world and our place within it.“Joyce’s Literary Language” (Laurent Milesi) and “Faulkner’s Language” (NoelPolk) detail how in their own ways Joyce, who privileged “the linguistic inthe literary” (p. 471), and Faulkner defamiliarized and destabilized languageand in the process re-energized it. Theirs are virtuoso linguisticperformances not for their own sake but also for the sake of meaning andpurpose, even when meaning is being played with or slips away. These chapterson literary language, with their sensitive attention to language issues inEnglish literature, exemplify and are complemented by many ideas in “Style andStylistics” (David L. Hoover). Hoover notes that stylistic analysis ofliterature hibernated during the heyday of literary and cultural theory buthas re-emerged in the electronic age hungry and refreshed in the electronicage . May stylistics find no more winters.

My criticisms of the book are few and mostly concern organization and balanceof coverage.

There are too many chapters and sections, and the chapters are too short,averaging around 10 pages, including bibliographies, while the sections aresometimes too long. Certain chapters satisfy more like hors d'oeuvres thantapas. A comparison with other recent volumes in the Blackwell Companions toLiterature and Culture series shows Martiny 2011with 2 parts and 43 chaptersand Saunders 2010 with 3 parts and 34 chapters. The chapters in both are onaverage longer than those in Momma and Matto. Comparable series OxfordHandbooks of Literature and Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics seem to averageabout 30-40 chapters. I suspect most such companions and handbooks aresimilar, making this book relatively high in its number and length ofchapters. What might have been left out? Chapters 52 and 53 on teachingEnglish might well have been omitted as outside the proper scope of the book.A case could be made that 8 chapters on literary language are too many. Thebloated Part 5 seems the most obvious choice for reduction: Having multiplechapters on the different chronological stages and dialects of Old, Middle,Early Modern, and American English seems excessive in a book intended fornon-specialists. Perhaps the editors tried to reach too many possibleaudiences, an understandable fault.

Once in a while an individual chapter reads more advanced than its intendedaudience, as with Chapter 54 “Creoles and Pidgins” (Salikoko S. Mufwene). Theway it problematizes and theorizes definitions of key terms, while important,comes across as too specialized for a companion, though unevenness in degreeof difficulty is probably inevitable in an edited collection with so manycontributions. Some chapters, on the other hand, could have been moresubstantial; for instance, Chapter 3 “Essential Linguistics” (Mary Blockley)at 7 pages might have been more thorough in its overview of linguistic issuesand methods necessary for non-linguists to understand the rest of the book.

The book weighs heavily on the side of the external rather than the internalhistory of English, though the editors suggest this “internal” vs. “external”perspective on the English language “may have run its course” (p. 8). Maybeso, but a balanced presentation is most useful for beginners.

Since the focus of the book is everywhere on variety and plurality, its titlemight have contained something signaling that plurality: Histories of theEnglish Language or The History of English Languages or similar. Although suchplurals can sound awkward or forced, they nonetheless would accuratelydescribe the contents and emphases of the book.

I noticed a few typographical errors (persisting in the 2011 paperbackreprint), none of which compromises content: for example, an ungrammaticalcomma between the subject and verb of a sentence (after “schools” p. 279), andmore significantly repeated misspellings of the name of the comic playwrightTerence as “Terrence” (p. 460 and again in the index on p. 686).

The market for companions and handbooks is crowded in most disciplines, andlinguistics and literary studies are no exceptions. The book will receivecompetition from, among others, Nevalainen and Traugott 2012. However, theOxford volume appears to be more empirical and specialist, less global inscope, and weighted more toward internal considerations, all indicating adifferent primary audience than for the Blackwell.

In conclusion, this book succeeds in doing what it intended, to providelinguistic grounding for readers primarily interested in the literature andculture of English past and present. It deserves a place in libraries andclassrooms, to be read cover to cover or dipped into for specific topics. Onewould struggle to use the book as a textbook to teach a HEL or EnglishLinguistics course, but the book would make a welcome, instructive companionin such a course, or in a literature survey course. Because it is readable andhas good chapter bibliographies and a detailed index, it might also serve as areference for students researching a topic within the history of English.Familiarity with the contents of this book would help students improve twocommon deficiencies: lack of knowledge about history and language.

REFERENCESMartiny, Erik (ed.). 2011. A Companion to Poetic Genre (Blackwell Companionsto Literature and Culture). Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nevalainen, Terttu, and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (eds.). 2012. The OxfordHandbook of the History of English (Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics). Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Saunders, Corinne (ed.). 2010. A Companion to Medieval Poetry (BlackwellCompanions to Literature and Culture 67). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERCorey J. Zwikstra left Canada to pursue graduate studies and received a PhD inEnglish at the University of Notre Dame. His primary interests lie in thelanguage and style of medieval English poetry, and he has published on theconcept of wisdom in Old English poetry. He now teaches language, literature,and writing courses at Washburn University, where he is Assistant Professor ofEnglish.

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