LINGUIST List 28.3803

Fri Sep 15 2017

Review: English; History of Linguistics: Nevalainen, Traugott (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 08-Apr-2017
From: Matteo Tarsi <>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of the History of English
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Terttu Nevalainen
EDITOR: Elizabeth Closs Traugott
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of the History of English
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Handbooks
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Matteo Tarsi, University of Iceland

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


“The Oxford Handbook of the History of English”, edited by Terttu Nevalainen and Elizabeth Cross Traugott, was published in 2012 by the Oxford University Press, and has come out as a paperback edition in 2016. The handbook consists of an introduction and 69 chapters organized into four parts (I-IV), plus a glossary and indices. The parts are as follows: “Rethinking the Evidence” (I); “Issues in Culture and Society” (II); “Approaches from Contact and Typology” (III); and “Rethinking Categories and Models” (IV). Moreover, each part is subdivided into two subsections, which then contain the single chapters. Each part is preceded by a one-page description titled “Guide to Part ...”, where the single chapters are outlined. These “guides”, alongside the first chapter of each part, serve as a key-note for the single parts.

Part I, “Rethinking the Evidence”, is subdivided into the following subsections: “Evidence” and “Observing Recent Change through Electronic Corpora”. The first subsection’s main objective is that of giving an overview of the different typologies of evidence which may be found along the history of the English language (manuscripts, personal names, coins, inscriptions, written and printed texts, etc.). Already in this subsection one can see the main trend of this part, and moreover of the entire handbook, namely the use of corpora as data repositories for advances in research. In this subsection in fact numerous case-studies are presented, whose methodology rests upon the use of corpora (e.g. ch. 6 “Examples of Evidence from Phonology”). This trend will be the main focus in the second subsection of Part I “Observing Recent Change through Electronic Corpora”. In this subsection a methodology which heavily rests upon the use of corpora is outlined, alongside a thorough description of numerous corpora and their use in research.

Part II, “Issues in Culture and Society”, is subdivided into the following subsections: “Mass Communication and Technology” and “Sociocultural Processes”. In the first subsection, the issue of English as a language for mass communication is addressed, both for what concerns older stages of the language, as well as Present-Day English(es). This subsection is concerned both with phonological as well as sociolinguistic issues, and serves well as an introduction for the next subsection, “Sociocultural Processes”. Here, the social factors involved in language change are addressed, namely culture, ideology, and power. Moreover, the processes entailing the aforementioned factors are outlined: stratification, standardization, colonialization, globalization, industrialization and urbanization, democratization, and cultural assimilation. A specific chapter (29) is dedicated to the issue of democratization. The other chapters in this subsection are concerned with pragmatic and sociolinguistic issues such as politeness, prescriptivism, and standardization. A special case-study chapter (36) is dedicated to English in Ireland.

Part III, “Approaches from Contact and Typology”, is concerned with advances in research on the English language from contact linguistics and typology, and it is thus divided into two subsections mirroring, and named after, these two fields of linguistics: “Language Contact” and “Typology and Typological Change”. In the former subsection, approaches from language contact studies are applied to English in different times and places, notably Old, Middle, and Modern English on one side, and North America, Asia, and Africa on the other. The most important language contact processes during the history of English are addressed, namely Celtic, and Scandinavian for what concerns British English, and local contact varieties e.g. in Asia and Africa. Moreover, issues related to code-switching, SL acquisition, and pidginization/creolization are also addressed. In the following subsection, dedicated to typological approaches to language change, a wealth of different areas in typological linguistics are explored. Among these are: lexicon, syntax, morphosyntax, and grammaticalization.

Part IV, “Rethinking Categories and Modules”, is dedicated to issues concerning cycles and continua, thence the title of the first subsection, and information structure and its interrelations with syntax. In the first subsection, a wide overview of cycles and continua is given, both from a general point of view (e.g. ch. 57 “The Syntax-Lexicon Continuum”), as well as from case studies (e.g. ch. 59 “(Non)-rhoticity: Lessons from New Zealand English”). In the second subsection the main focus is on syntax and Information Structure. Analyses are given of phenomena such as V2, word order (OV/VO) in Old English, and local anchoring.

The four parts are followed by a short glossary, a list of corpora and databases, and three indices (subject matter, corpora, and databases; languages and varieties of English; and authors). The material printed in this handbook may be further integrated with extras retrievable from the handbook’s homepage (


Overall, “The Oxford Handbook of the History of English” is a well-organized reference book for advanced students and researchers who deal with a wide variety of approaches to the history of the English language. Far from being conventional, this handbook is by no means a beginners’ book, for it lacks the foundations of the linguistic-historical study of the English language, viz. an overview e.g. on the sound changes from PIE to Old English via Proto-Germanic. This is, however, not a weakness since the purposes of the handbook are clearly stated by the editors in the introduction (p. 2 and passim).

The use of corpora for diachronic as well as synchronic linguistic research is a main tenet of the book. As possibly the most extensively studied language in the world, English is paradigmatically well fit to be further studied with the aid of the most recent technologies and data repositories available. Moreover, English as a world-wide language of communication offers an extensive variety of phenomena as well as amount of data, thus constituting an extremely stimulating laboratory also for further studies of other languages. In relation to this, the scholarly community interested in recent linguistic change will find Part I, 2 of special interest. Davies’ chapter (12) in fact, sets out the main methodological issues related to the use of big as well as small corpora. Moreover, he comprises in his overview, corpora of contemporary language such as Google, which undoubtedly constitutes a major linguistic resource when used cum grano salis.

The strength of Part II resides instead in its approach to (socio)linguistic issues. Particular emphasis is put on recent history of English, thus leaving stages of the language for which we have less well balanced and/or quantitatively smaller data not equally well represented. This is of course quite understandable given the overall approach of the book, the most recent lines of research, and, last but not least, the nature of data for older stages of English.

Specifically devoted to language contact, Part III,1 also puts major stress on more recent phenomena in the history of English. Given its major focus on contact phenomena, this part is almost entirely devoted to pidgins and creoles. At any rate, older stages of English are represented by Chapters 38 to 41. Hickey’s chapter (38) on the so-called Celtic hypothesis is illuminating and well represents a general trend of this handbook, namely that of revising old problems with new eyes. In his analysis, Hickey lists and discusses different linguistic elements (e.g. internal possessor construction, twofold paradigm of to be, the periphrastic do) which possibly point at Celtic influence in English. Hickey’s analysis however, does not propose a solution but rather hints at the fact that an interplay between internal and external factors might have been at work in early English. Of peculiar interest is also Pahta’s chapter (41) on code-switching in medieval English. Unfortunately, the discussion offered by the author could have been more articulated, especially for what concerns the relationship between code-switching and the introduction of new elements in the lexicon (loanwords, lexical (semantically polarized) doublets etc.). Part III, 2 is somewhat better balanced for it consistently approaches the history of the English language from a diachronic typological point of view, therefore comprising in its analysis both old and new(er) stages of the English language.

Part IV, 1 proposes an analysis of different cycles and continua in the history of the English language. The part is well balanced in that it both comprises contributions on older and newer stages of the English language. Finally, in Part IV, 2 the interface with information structure is discussed. Of particular interest is van Kemenade’s chapter (63) on the loss of V2. In fact, this issue is still being discussed in the scholarly community and van Kemenade proposes an explanation based on Information Stucture, thus substantially contributing to the discussion on the matter.

My evaluation of the present book cannot be negative, for it undoubtedly constitutes a milestone in recent scholarship on both the history of the English language and corpus analysis. However, it should be noted that the major weakness of the handbook is to my eyes its title. In fact, as the editors explicitly state in the introduction (p. 2): “Our aim in the current volume is to take stock of some of the recent advances in the work on the history of English and varieties of English world-wide”. This objective is thoroughly pursued in the handbook. However, such a general title, i.e. “Handbook of the History of English”, surprises me, for it is a title that would actually be more suitable for the kind of handbook the editors are admittedly not aiming at. Since the objective of “The Oxford Handbook of the History of English” is that of presenting the state-of-the-art and further advances in the research on the history of the English language with special focus on the use of corpora, a title which mirrored this more directly would have been more suitable.


I am a Ph.D­​ student in Icelandic Linguistics at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík. My research focuses on the interplay between loanwords and native words in Old and Middle Icelandic. Among my other research interests are: history of linguistics (especially in the 18th century), etymology, loanword studies, and language planning and policy studies).

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