LINGUIST List 24.551

Thu Jan 31 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics: Richard E. Morris (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 07-Jan-2013
From: Jean-François Mondon <>
Subject: Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar Containing Accidence and Word-Formation
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Richard E. MorrisTITLE: Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar Containing Accidence and Word-FormationSERIES TITLE: LINCOM Classica 19PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbHYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jean-François R. Mondon, Minot State University


Richard Morris’ 1884 “Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar” hasrecently been republished by Lincom Europa. The book consists of 15 chaptersof varying lengths followed by a short index of topics.

The first seven chapters serve both to place English into its historical andgeographical position as well as to provide background linguistic knowledge tothe reader. Chapter 1 (pp. 1-5) offers a very brief overview of the place ofEnglish among the Indo-European family and the Germanic branch morespecifically. Chapter 2 (pp. 6-30) offers an outline of the various lexicaland morphological influences on English, ranging from a Celtic element througha Scandinavian one through to the four individual stages of Latin borrowings.Chapter 3 (pp. 31-34) presents the typical periods of Old, Middle, and ModernEnglish together with a very brief and general discussion of dialectdifferences in Middle English. Chapter 4 (pp. 35-41) serves as a basicintroduction to phonetics. It closes with a short discussion of theimperfections of English orthography. Chapter 5 (pp. 42-52) moves away fromthe synchronic description of English phonetics into a listing of variousdiachronic ‘permutations’ which have occurred throughout its history. Ampleroom is unsurprisingly dedicated to Grimm’s Law, still a major discovery atthe time of Morris’ writing. Chapter 6 (pp. 53-60) effectively serves as anintroduction to morphology and morphosyntax, defining compounds and inflectionon the one hand, while presenting the parts of speech on the other and asampling of their syntactic uses.

The next eight chapters concentrate in turn on each part of speech. Chapter 7(pp. 61-86) tackles the noun. It begins with an overview of variousnoun-forming suffixes, both inherited from Proto-Germanic and borrowed fromRomance, moves onto a discussion of plural formation, and concludes with anoverview of how every Old English nominal class developed into Middle Englishand finally into Early Modern English. Chapters 8 (pp. 87-100) and 9 (pp.101-128) deal with adjectives and pronouns respectively. Every aspect ofadjectives, from their comparison to apparent traces of original comparativesand superlatives in individual lexical items is discussed. Likewise, everytype of pronoun is covered, from personal to indefinite, with individual formsoften being broken down in order to track their apparent history. Chapter 10(pp. 129-186), by far the longest chapter of the book, is richest in dealingwith the development of strong verbs from Old to Modern English. The text isorganized according to the seven classes of Old English strong verbs. The OldEnglish forms are listed alongside their later descendants, withclarifications of those verbs which have become regular or have jumped toother strong classes. Chapters 11 (pp. 187-194), 12 (pp. 195-199), 13 (pp.200-202), and 14 (p. 203) deal with adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, andinterjections respectively. Finally, chapter 15 (pp. 204-246) extends thesmall discussions of derivational morphology scattered throughout earlierchapters and brings them together into one coherent chapter. This chapter isparticularly rich in its exemplification of affixes of Romance and Latinorigin.


The book’s primary shortcoming is its simply being out-of-date, which iscertainly understandable since it is over 125 years old. This defect isnoticeable in both the terminology used, such as ‘Teutonic’ for ‘Germanic’ and‘flat’ and ‘sharp’ for ‘voiced’ and ‘voiceless’ respectively, but also in theabsence of information which was simply not known at the time of writing, suchas the existence of the Anatolian and Tocharian branches of Indo-European.This shortcoming is also evident in Morris’ discussion of sound changes inchapter 5. While the chapter is doubtless rich in providing examples ofvarious phonetic changes which have occurred in the history of English, it isstrikingly poor in not having apparently embraced the regularity of soundchange. The richness of the examples comes across as a random list ofunpredictable changes with borrowings being mixed together with inheritedroots. As an example, it is mentioned that ‘b’ changed to ‘v’ in ‘have’ fromOld English ‘habban’ but to ‘m’ in ‘summerset’ from French ‘soubresaut’ withno discussion of either the phonetic environments which conditioned bothchanges or of the oddities often accorded borrowed words (cf. Ito and Mester’s1995 work on the Chinese element in Japanese and its standing in a differentlayer of the synchronic phonology). The end of this same chapter, however,does classify some random sound changes by type, such as ‘aphaeresis’ and‘apocope’. While this still amounts to listing random sound changes withoutindicating their exact phonetic environments, the introduction of terms forsome of these changes does at least start to point in the right direction(e.g. that word-end plays a role in those cases classified as apocope).

Additional drawbacks are the oftentimes erroneous and arcane views onmorphological changes. Morris all too freely embraces, for instance, theemanation of verbal suffixes from post-verbal subject pronouns in hisdiscussion of the verb. This same tendency, which comes down to anover-indulgence in finding a source for every morpheme, leads him to tracethe passive ‘r’ of Latin (cf. ‘amor’) to a post-verbal reflexive pronoun,which is absolutely unprovable. One other defect which is a reflection of thetime of writing but which the author himself acknowledges in the preface, isthe lack of any section discussing syntax.

These defects, however, are more than compensated for by the sheer number ofexamples, both lexical and literary, for most points under discussion. Thesection on lexical borrowings into English, for example, is flooded withcopious examples from each language source. While a handful of these mayappear dubious in light of more recent scholarship and should be verified withmore recent grammars and etymological dictionaries, the book offers greatfodder for students and researchers alike. The richness of the literaryexamples really gets going in chapter 5. In discussing the transfer of ‘peas’to a plural from a singular, Morris cites 3 samples from Early English texts.‘Peas’ is not an exception; rather, this kind of meticulous care in findingrelevant textual examples that prove his point is strikingly present on nearlyevery page. What is even more valuable is that while plenty of examples comefrom the giants of English literature such as Shakespeare and Chaucer,countless more come from an array of sources ranging from texts on husbandryto lesser known chronicles.

In sum, Morris’ synchronic data, particularly at the Middle and Early Modernlevels, is by far the book’s strongest attribute. His delving into diachronicmatters, while sometimes harmless with respect to individual lexical matters,is dangerously out-of-date when it comes to many morphological matters. Ifeel that this book, which too often reads like a dictionary, could not beused as a course book, but could certainly be referred to when either lexicalor textual examples from Middle and Early Modern English are needed. Beyondthat, the reader should absolutely not take any diachronic developments fromit without consulting more recent and authoritative works, such as Hogg(1992).


Hogg, Richard. 1992. “A Grammar of Old English: Phonology, vol. I.”Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Ito, Junko & Armin Mester. 1995. Japanese Phonology, in “Handbook ofPhonological Theory” (ed. J. Goldsmith). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell: 817-838.


Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Latin at Minot State University engagedprimarily in the phonological development of Classical Armenian, Celtic andother branches of Indo-European, and secondly in the creation of pedagogicalmaterials for these languages.

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