LINGUIST List 32.1703

Fri May 14 2021

Review: English; Historical Linguistics: Kytö, Smitterberg (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 16-Nov-2020
From: Christine Wallis <>
Subject: Late Modern English
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Merja Kytö
EDITOR: Erik Smitterberg
TITLE: Late Modern English
SUBTITLE: Novel encounters
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 214
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Christine Wallis, University of Manchester


This volume is an edited collection of essays dealing with various aspects of Late Modern English (LModE), most of which are based on papers given at the 6th International Conference on Late Modern English in Uppsala in 2017. The individual papers cover a wide range of topics in current LModE research, utilising a variety of text types and evidence, and employing both qualitative and quantitative methods. The volume is arranged in four main sections, each containing 2-5 chapters: 1. phonology, 2. morphosyntax, 3. orthography, vocabulary and semantics, 4. pragmatics and discourse.

The first section contains two chapters, each dealing with different aspects of phonology. Joan Beal’s contribution, ‘ “A received pronunciation”: Eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionaries and the precursors of RP’ uses the Eighteenth Century English Phonology database and other sources to investigate the emergence of RP. Although a standard pronunciation had not been selected or accepted by the middle of the eighteenth century, the subsequent rise of pronouncing dictionaries indicates a beginning of such a codification of English. Beal exemplifies this with a case study showing the treatment by authors of pronouncing dictionaries of two groups of words which had varying pronunciations during the period (words in the FACE and CHOICE lexical sets (Wells: 1982)). In addition to recording these variants, authors also used a range of criteria such as analogy, or the social status of speakers, to select which variant should be fixed as the standard. She concludes that codification in spoken language occurred later than in the written language, only coming to fruition in the late-nineteenth century because the circumstances were right; eighteenth-century writers lacked the institutional machinery required to implement the standard from above, whereas efforts to promote RP in state schools and its adoption by the BBC brought about its establishment as a standard in early-twentieth century Britain.

Raymond Hickey’s chapter, ‘The interplay of internal and external factors in varieties of English’ considers a variety of language changes in order to question whether the internal/ external change dichotomy is a valid one. A number of differences can be observed in the two types of change; internal change often aims to establish or maintain morphological regularity, and is most evident in the structure of the language, whereas external change is concerned with the role of language in society (for instance changes introduced by one group of speakers to align themselves with or distance themselves from another group), and is most visible at the phonetic and phonological level. Hickey surveys a range of features from the history of English, grouping those which are primarily the result of speaker-internal motivation (e.g. TH-fronting, grammaticalisation of verbs such as want to > wanna or going to > gonna, regularisation of possessive pronouns such as hisself, theirselves) with those which are motivated by external factors (e.g. the foot-strut split, prescriptivism, and the complicated case of mergers). Hickey’s answer to the question posed at the beginning of his chapter is ‘it depends’ – while on the one hand change in early childhood is ‘internal and system-driven and free of external motivation’ (59), on the other, the dichotomy is a valid and helpful one, especially when discussing the actuation and propagation of changes in adolescence and adulthood: ‘social factors determine whether variation, inherent in all languages, is carried over a threshold after which it becomes change in the community in question’ (59).

Lieselotte Anderwald opens the second section on morphosyntax with ‘The myth of American English gotten as a historical retention’. In this chapter Anderwald draws on a range of evidence to investigate the origins of gotten as a form indexing American English (AmE). In doing so she tackles the longstanding myth of AmE as a more conservative variety preserving forms which have subsequently fallen out of use in British English. Anderwald’s careful analysis demonstrates that, rather than being a preserved relic of earlier English, gotten had actually fallen out of use in AmE in the early nineteenth century. The feature’s revival is charted not only through corpus data, but also through an examination of the lists of irregular verb forms found in prescriptive grammars, commentary found in glossaries of Americanisms, and newspaper reports and letters to the editor, all reflecting fluctuating attitudes and an uncertainty among Americans as to the status of gotten. This wealth of information combines to paint to a picture of ‘a clear case of myth building’ (84), which capitalised on a feature already rising in salience, which ‘serve[d] writers in the twentieth century to revalorize American English as a conservative, good, legitimate variety’ (85).

Julia Bacskai-Atkari’s chapter, ‘Changes affecting relative clauses in Late Modern English’ is a corpus study of relative markers (relative complementisers and relative pronouns) in the Early Modern English King James Version of the Bible, as compared with the LModE of the New King James Version. Bacskai-Atkari investigates the emergence in LModE of the standard patterns for relative markers in areas such as reference to human/ non-human subjects, the proportion of that-relatives, alternatives to who/ whom, and the element as. The study reveals that the variation found in the Early Modern version is in Present-day English confined to dialectal usage, and that the patterns observed in Standard English have been driven by a combination of external factors (e.g. prescriptivist and normalising pressures led to which no longer being available for non-human subjects), and internal ones (the complementiser as failed to grammaticalise into a proper relative complementiser, in contrast to comparable cases in Early New High German).

‘Diffusion of do: The acquisition of do negation by have (to)’ by Tomoharu Hirota is a corpus study utilising the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) alongside a selection of British English corpora to chart the acquisition of do negation by have to in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While the corpus study confirms that do-less negation persisted longer in BrE, and that genre also has an effect, Hirota argues that previous accounts of the phenomenon, suggesting a link with analogical levelling and bondedness, fail to adequately explain why do was acquired at different rates in each variety. Instead he invokes a constructionist approach, suggesting that both have and have to are micro-constructions of a subschema have (to), and that do negation seizes the entire subschema, diffusing throughout the network.

Yasuaki Ishizaki’s ‘A diachronic constructional analysis of locative alternation in English, with particular attention to load and spray’ examines the historical development of these two locative alternation verbs from the perspective of diachronic construction grammar. Using data predominantly from ARCHER and the British Library’s Historical Texts database, Ishizaki shows their development from nouns, via past participles accompanying a with-phrase, to verbs which can occur in at least two syntactic frames, either location-as-object (e.g. John loaded the wagon with hay), or locatum-as-object (e.g. John loaded hay onto the wagon). While load developed its location-as-object variant first, followed by the less frequent locatum-as-object, verbal senses of spray developed simultaneously but much later, that is, not until the early twentieth century. Ishizaki argues that a lexical rule approach, whereby locatum-as-object is derived from location-as-object, does not fully explain the evidence; rather, the two variants are independently motivated, with the difference in timing accounted for by a difference in event structure for spray and load.

The third section, on orthography, vocabulary and semantics, begins with ‘In search of “the lexicographical stamp”: George Augustus Sala, slang and Late Modern English dictionaries’ by Rita Queiroz de Barros. This chapter uses methods from historical lexicography to explore the influence of the writing of the controversial journalist George Augustus Sala (1828-1895) on the study of slang in the period. Queiroz de Barros takes as her starting point Sala’s 1853 article ‘Slang’, which appeared in Dickens’s Household Words journal, and seeks to measure its influence in two ways; firstly, a sample of lexical items in ‘Slang’ is compared with entries from slang dictionaries and glossaries available at the time, in order to gauge how dependent Sala’s collection was on pre-existing sources; secondly, a comparison of Sala’s terms with those found in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is undertaken, to determine what impact, if any, he had on that publication. Sala made the case for slang terms to be included in dictionaries, pointing out that it was a feature not only of lower-class usage, but could also be found among in-groups in the upper echelons of society (e.g. among parliamentarians, lawyers and members of universities). The study confirms Sala’s observational skills, as many of his terms were recent coinings not attested in previous collections of slang. Nevertheless, his impact on the OED was limited, which Queiros de Barros attributes to ‘the literary bias of the dictionary, no doubt, but also to Sala’s notoriety, thus reflecting his status as a controversial figure in Victorian England’ (179).

In ‘ “Divided by a common language”? The treatment of Americanism(s) in Late Modern English dictionaries and usage guides on both sides of the Atlantic’, Ulrich Busse looks at British and American reference works from the 19th and early 20th centuries to investigate the label Americanism. Usage guides and dictionaries of Americanisms form the evidence-base which Busse uses to conduct his socio-lexicographic and meta-pragmatic study, revealing that the two types of work differ in numerous ways, including their objective, methodology, stance and target group, and leading him to conclude that they ‘represent two different communities of practice and discourse’ (199). While British writers of usage guides show, on the whole, a more negative stance to Americanisms, viewing them as corruptions of proper English, data from the dictionaries shows a gradual growth in self confidence among American writers as these works move from glossaries and lists of terms uniquely found in America, to more professionally-produced dictionaries representing American language as a legitimate variety.

Nuria Calvo Cortés’s contribution, ‘Women writers in the 18th century: The semantics of motion in their choice of perfect auxiliaries’ examines a corpus of eight eighteenth-century novels by four women writers, Burney, Inchbald, Radcliffe and Wollstonecraft, in order to analyse the choice of perfect auxiliary (have or be) used with a select group of motion verbs (e.g. arrive, become, grow). Calvo Cortés investigates whether the choice of auxiliary is influenced by the semantics of motion situation components such as MOTION, FIGURe, GROUND, and PATH. She concludes that ‘the more abstract a context is, the more likely it is for the structure with have to be present’ (215), pointing to have’s higher frequency when the FIGURE is non-human or where the grounds are metaphorical. There also seems to be a difference as to whether the auxiliary occurs in dialogue or narration within the same novel; be is more frequent in dialogue, which Calvo Cortés tentatively attributes to characterisation through varying speech/ dialect patterns on the part of the authors. However, auxiliary use does vary between the writers she surveys, and Wollstonecraft’s status as somewhat of an outlier is intriguing in this respect, given her low use of be (a conservative, largely female variant at the time).

In ‘Eighteenth-century French cuisine terms and their semantic integration in English’, Julia Landmann examines the semantic integration of French-derived culinary terms in English. Using data from the OED Online Landmann seeks to answer two main questions, firstly whether ‘a particular sense a borrowing adopts after being introduced into English has its origins in French’ (219) and secondly, whether the change in meaning is due to internal factors in English. Landmann shows that a substantial number of culinary terms continued to develop their sense after their borrowing; while some of these changes are based on shifts in the terms’ meanings in French, others indicate an independent change of meaning in English, such as originally savoury dishes, whose names came to be attached to desserts (e.g. casserole). A comparison of the OED examples with more recent corpus data reveals that a number of the borrowings have developed new senses which are yet to be updated in the OED record.

Gerold Schneider’s ‘Spelling normalisation of Late Modern English: Comparison and combination of VARD and character-based statistical machine translation’ is an investigation of two different approaches to spelling normalisation. As natural language processing (NLP) tools rely on a normalised text in order to perform tasks such as tokenisation, part-of-speech tagging and parsing, spelling normalisation is an important first step. Schneider’s investigation applied two systems, VARiant Detector2 (VARD), and a character-based statistical machine translation approach (SMT), to the ARCHER corpus of historical English and American texts, to see which would perform better in standardising variant spellings. The systems are substantially different: ‘SMT is a probabilistic, language-independent approach, whereas VARD combines lexicon-lookup with rules and non-probabilistic though trainable weights’ (244). As predicted, each one yielded different results and was prone to different error types. The best results were obtained by combining both approaches in an ensemble system and using majority voting, while adding a language sequence model using collocation strength overcame errors arising from the fact that both approaches normalise isolated words rather than considering the text at phrase level. Improved results were also obtained by re-training VARD on specific time periods. Schneider concludes the chapter with two brief case studies demonstrating the benefits of normalisation for the retrieval of accurate historical language data.

The volume’s fourth section on pragmatics and discourse begins with Laurel J. Brinton and Tohru Inoue’s ‘A far from simple matter revised: The ongoing grammaticalization of far from’. The authors present a corpus-based account of the development of the construction from its original status as an adverbial construction to newer functions (as a downtoner, a degree modifier, and as a pragmatic marker) through an ongoing process of grammaticalisation. The chapter combines a synchronic analysis of the functions of far from in PDE with a diachronic analysis charting its development, from literal and metaphorical adverbial meanings with noun phrases in Old and Middle English, through its appearance with a gerund complement and subsequently as a downtoner and pragmatic marker in EModE, to uses as an adverbial modifier of adjectival heads, prepositional phrases and verbs in LModE. Based on this data Brinton and Inoue propose a five-stage development of far from, noting that it does not follow the trajectory taken by several other downtoners from adjunct to degree adjunct to degree modifier. Rather, it patterns more with sort of, where the degree adjunct follows the degree modifier, a change consistent with an increase in subjectivity from degree modifier to emphasiser.

Peter J. Grund’s contribution, ‘What it means to describe speech: Pragmatic variation and change in speech descriptors in Late Modern English’ draws on data from A Corpus of Late Modern English Texts (CLMET3.0) to explore the form, frequency and pragmatic function of speech descriptors (e.g. softly in ‘it matters little’, she said softly) in narrative fiction between 1710 and 1920. Speech descriptors can offer insights into how a reporter evaluates a speech event and, in turn, how they evaluate the speaker themselves; in this respect they are important markers of stance. There are a number of important methodological implications in Grund’s study; firstly, he explores the difficulties of retrieving instances of speech descriptors from larger corpora; secondly he considers the best way of measuring the frequency of speech descriptors, and suggests that counting tokens as a proportion of the number of slots where they could occur gives a more accurate picture than a normalisation according to the number of words: ‘the measurement of modified vs. unmodified usage instead gives us a sense of where language users didn’t but could have used a speech descriptor, that is, where they had a choice’ (303). Superficially, both methods of counting appear to indicate that across the period in question the use of speech descriptors rose substantially; however a more detailed examination shows that the proportion of modified uses varies with each text that makes up the corpus, and other factors, such as length of text, may also be at play.

‘Being Wilde: Social representation of the public image of Oscar Wilde’ by Minna Nevala and Arja Nurmi is a study of the newspaper reports of the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895, focussing on the positive and negative labelling associated with these reports in the metropolitan and provincial press. The authors use data collected from the British Library Newspapers database, comprising reports of varying lengths covering Wilde’s trial, related events, and gossip related to his health, dress or life in prison. The reports are split into three cycles for analysis, one for each trial, and Nevala and Nurmi demonstrate how Wilde’s initial positive labelling, based on his celebrity status and social standing, gave way to more negative labelling as the trials progressed. Alongside the kinds of labels used to describe common criminals, connected with contamination and non-human characteristics, the analysis shows that Wilde also received a degree of sympathy, often in the form of pity or disdain, reflecting not only Wilde’s new lowly status as a criminal, but also his fall from grace.

The final chapter, Matylda Włodarczyk’s ‘ “I am desired (...) to desire”: Routines of power in the British Colonial Office correspondence on the Cape Colony (1827-1830)’, is a historical pragmatic analysis of the speech acts found in a collection of official correspondence. Włodarczyk argues that speech acts in historical correspondence closely resemble speech events, interactional moves or speech actions. She focuses on macro speech acts (336), which reveal the exercise of power between writers of higher and lower status in routine institutional tasks such as requesting, recommending and regulating. Dyads are analysed, for example, for similarities and differences in their strategies, depending on whether the speech act comes from a participant higher or lower in the institutional hierarchy, or according to how routine the answer is. Włodarczyk’s analysis demonstrates that institutional correspondence in the LModE period employs a wider range of speech acts (including declarations and expressives) than hitherto realised. The study also identifies important differences between institutional correspondence and comparable sources of data such as contemporary familiar correspondence or letter writing manuals.


This wide-ranging volume is especially helpful in providing a window into current research in LModE, as it covers a variety of topics and approaches to the study of a period in the history of English which has only recently come into its own; as the editors note in the introduction, ‘the volume of original research on LModE has exhibited dramatic growth since 1999’ (1). Despite the range of the chapters, care is taken by each author to introduce the approach and contextualise the data, making this a useful volume both for students and for specialists interested in new research. The methodologies are well-explained, and the use of colour makes for well-presented diagrams, meaning that individual chapters could usefully form the basis of teaching materials for more advanced students. A number of the volume’s contributions can be fruitfully linked. For example, Beal’s focus on standardisation in pronunciation is nicely complemented, both by Bacskai-Atkari’s concentration on the relationship between standard English and dialect, and also by the questions raised by Queiroz de Barros on the value placed on slang by nineteenth-century writers, dictionary compilers, and other linguistic gate-keepers. On the other hand, Schneider complicates this picture by discussing the benefits (and necessity) of normalising spelling for building a corpus. In other links, Busse and Anderwald both concentrate on the reification of American English, while Busse and Nevala & Nurmi share a focus on stance and labelling.

Throughout, the contributors demonstrate the excellent depth and range of evidence available to researchers of LModE. Because of the short distance between the present day and the period under scrutiny, LModE data can give the impression that syntactic and other change ‘has more often been statistical in nature’ (Denison, 1998: 93); as the editors note, ‘a wider time frame may be necessary to provide sufficient context to past developments’ (2). Nevertheless, the chapters presented here show how questions of language variation and change can be effectively tackled through an impressive range of methods and datasets. The introductory chapter argues that these factors enable us to view the period as far more nuanced than it was earlier credited for being and distinct from PDE, as researchers begin to work in ways that redress the imbalances brought about by an over-reliance on standardised texts for narrating the history of English. In bringing out these themes, the editors successfully draw together the disparate topical, theoretical and methodological threads to contextualise and unify the volume’s fifteen chapters, and to introduce the period as a whole.

The inclusion of a section on phonology (for a long time an overlooked area of LModE) is welcome. For this reader, the ordering of the chapters in the first section may have been more effective had they been reversed; while Beal’s contribution is more straightforwardly phonological, Hickey’s survey is wider-ranging in its scope. Given that Hickey’s paper directly engages with and responds to the themes of the original conference (‘Internal and External Factors in Linguistic Stability and Language Change’) – and, implicitly, with the main concerns of the volume --it might have perhaps functioned better as a gateway to the book as a whole, as many of his themes are picked up on, directly and indirectly, by the other contributors. Nevertheless these are small quibbles regarding a book which presents interesting new advances in the field and does a very good job of situating the contributions in relation to current research.


A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers (ARCHER). <>;

British Library’s Historical Texts. <>;

Davis, Mark. 2010-. The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009 (COHA). <>;

Denison, David. 1998. Syntax. In Cambridge History of the English Language Vol. IV: 1776-1997, Suzanne Romaine (ed.), 92-329. Cambridge: CUP.

Eighteenth-Century English Phonology database (ECEP). Sheffield: Digital Humanities Research Institute. <>;

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) <>;

The British Library Newspapers. <>;

Wells, John C. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: CUP


Christine Wallis is currently a postdoctoral researcher on the 'Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers' project at the University of Manchester, which aims to produce a digital edition and corpus of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century personal letters. Aside from work on Late Modern English, she also works on Old English; in both time periods she is interested in areas such as manuscripts and textual editing, scribal education, and linguistic norms and standardisation.

Page Updated: 14-May-2021