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Review of  The Handbook of the History of English

Reviewer: Marc Pierce
Book Title: The Handbook of the History of English
Book Author: Ans Van Kemenade Bettelou Los
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 18.778

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EDITORS: van Kemenade, Ans and Bettelou Los
TITLE: The Handbook of the History of English
SERIES: Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Blackwell
YEAR: 2006

Marc Pierce, University of Michigan

The book reviewed here is another entry in the _Blackwell Handbooks in
Linguistics_ series, and in many ways is a companion volume to Aarts and
McMahon (2006), reviewed by Andrew McIntyre in Linguist 18.362, as it
presents the diachronic counterpoint to the largely synchronically-oriented
articles collected there. This book contains 23 chapters divided into 6
sections, an introduction by the editors, notes on the contributors, an
appendix, and an index. In some respects it is not a traditional handbook
(as the editors observe in the preface); it does not begin by describing
the Indo-European and Germanic roots of English, then progress
chronologically through the various stages of English before concluding
with a discussion of present-day English (along the lines of works like
Fennell 2001). Instead, it is intended to provide 'shortcuts to current
thinking for readers who want to become familiar with subjects that are
outside their own areas of interest' and to give 'a ''state of the art''
overview of current research' (vii).


The first section of the book, 'Approaches and Issues', contains four
papers concentrating on (relatively) new approaches to language change.
The first article, 'Change for the Better? Optimality Theory versus
History' (3-23), by April McMahon, critically assesses the use of
Optimality Theory (OT) in the analysis of sound change, with a focus on OT
analyses of the Great Vowel Shift. (See McMahon 2000, among other works,
for earlier discussions along similar lines.) McMahon concentrates on two
major issues: developments in OT approaches to sound change and what she
sees as 'some of the areas of inclarity in the current formulation of OT'
and their 'relevance and concern for analyses of change' (4). David
Lightfoot discusses 'Cuing a New Grammar' (24-44). Lightfoot briefly
reviews E-language approaches to language change, contrasts them with
I-language approaches, and then looks at the emergence of new grammars,
grounding his arguments on studies of development of auxiliary verbs in
English and the syntactic effects of case loss in English. The next paper,
'Variation and the Interpretation of Change in Periphrastic do' (45-67), is
by Anthony Warner, and has two main intentions: to demonstrate 'how an
understanding of variation can contribute to our understanding of earlier
grammars and of linguistic change' (45), and to clarify some issues
regarding the sociolinguistics of dead languages. These issues are then
discussed as they pertain to the history of auxiliaries in English,
especially the emergence and development of the 'periphrastic do'
construction. The section concludes with a chapter titled 'Evolutionary
Models and Functional-Typological Theories of Language Change' (68-91), by
William Croft (see also Croft 2000), which outlines 'an evolutionary
framework for analyzing language change ... that integrates
functional-typological and variationist sociolinguistic approaches to
historical linguistics' (68). Issues discussed in this chapter include the
definition of 'functionalism' and the role of convention in
functional-typological approaches to language change.

The second section, 'Words: Derivation and Prosody,' contains four papers.
Donka Minkova discusses 'Old and Middle English Prosody' (95-124), first
outlining the facts of main stress assignment in Old English and presenting
an OT analysis of them, then treating Old English secondary stress in a
similar matter before turning to Middle English. Minkova also examines the
evidence for 'the Romance Stress Rule' (RSR) in Middle English (Halle and
Keyser 1971), and argues that 'dating the RSR to Middle English is
premature' (116), since its effects can generally be modeled without
special constraints. The next paper is titled 'Prosodic Preferences: From
Old English to Early Modern English' (125-150), and is by Paula Fikkert, B.
Elan Dresher, and Aditi Lahiri. (In one of the few substantial typos found
in the book, Dresher's name is consistently given as 'Elan B. Dresher' in
this chapter.) This chapter focuses on prosodic change, including changes
from West Germanic to Old English (e.g. Sievers' Law and High Vowel
Deletion), changes from Old English to Middle English (e.g. the elimination
of quantity distinctions in nominal paradigms), and changes from Middle
English to Early Modern English (specifically changes in stress patterns;
like Minkova in the preceding chapter, they argue that these changes
occurred later than Halle and Keyser 1971 claim). The scene then shifts to
morphology for Dieter Kastovsky's contribution, 'Typological Changes in
Derivational Morphology' (151-176). The paper begins with some preliminary
commentary on issues like word formation and morphological typology, before
sketching the Modern English situation and its development. The final
paper in this section is 'Competition in English Word Formation' (177-198),
by Laurie Bauer, which focuses on the emergence of word formation patterns
in the history of English, with special attention paid to competing
patterns (e.g. -ster vs. -ess as a feminine gender marker, as in 'spinster'
vs. 'seamstress').

The next section, 'Inflectional Morphology and Syntax', opens with Cynthia
L. Allen's 'Case Syncretism and Word Order Change' (201-223). Allen
addresses the traditional argument that case loss in the history of English
resulted in fixed word order, and ultimately proposes that fixed word order
in English is not solely the result of case loss, but that pragmatic
considerations also played a role. This claim is supported by case studies
of ditransitive verbs and the genitive case. Next, Ans van Kemenade and
Bettelou Los discuss 'Discourse Adjectives and Clausal Syntax in Old and
Middle English' (224-248), focusing on þat and þonne, two words meaning
'then'. They contend that these adverbs can 'reveal a good deal about the
changing organization of clause structure and discourse during the Old
English period and the transition to Middle English' (224), and therefore
discuss the use of these adverbs in various syntactic contexts. They
conclude that clauses in Old English are significantly more closely
connected to discourse patterns than has generally been thought and that in
Middle English this connection has been somewhat abandoned in favor of a
'more strictly syntactic organization of the clause' (224). Susan Pintzuk
and Ann Taylor then address one of the classic questions of historical
English syntax, the change from Object-Verb (OV) order in Old English to
Verb-Object (VO) order in Modern English, in 'The Loss of OV Order in the
History of English' (249-278). Pintzuk and Taylor argue that the loss of
OV order was not a sudden change during the Middle English period, but
instead link it to various long-term changes from the Old English period
onwards, especially developments in the postposing and preposing of
objects. The final paper in this section is 'Category Change and Gradience
in the Determiner System' (279-304), by David Denison, which examines the
determiner/adjective distinction. Denison contends that the line dividing
determiners from adjectives is substantially fuzzier than has generally
been assumed. He also suggests that one can argue against the existence of
a separate category Determiner in Old English, since determiners can
possibly be lumped together with pronouns. By the end of the Middle
English period, though, this claim can no longer be supported.

The fourth section, 'Pragmatics', begins with 'Pathways in the Development
of Pragmatic Markers in English' (307-334), by Laurel Brinton, which
concentrates on 'a number of syntactic clines, or pathways, of
grammaticalization that arise, either explicitly or implicitly, in the
study of individual discourse markers' (309). Brinton argues that 'there
exist at least three distinct syntactic trajectories for pragmatic markers'
(328), namely adverb/preposition > conjunction > pragmatic marker,
predicate adverb > sentence adverb > pragmatic marker, and matrix clause >
matrix clause/parenthetical disjunct > pragmatic marker (other possible
sources and clines, e.g. imperatives and relative clauses, are discussed in
somewhat less detail), and explicates these clines in terms of the
development of forms like 'so'/'now', 'only', and 'I think', respectively.
Elizabeth Closs Traugott then discusses a group of adverbials like 'very',
'purely', and 'rather', apparently first investigated in detail by Stoffel
(1901), in 'The Semantic Development of Scalar Focus Modifiers' (335-359).
Traugott first examines the distinctions between various types of
adverbials (e.g. degree modifiers like 'so' vs. focus modifiers like
'also') and then offers some general remarks on their historical
development before offering more detailed sketches of the history of two
English scalar focus modifiers, 'even' and 'barely'. The chapter concludes
with an outline of some issues that require further research. The last
chapter in this section is 'Information Structure and Word Order Change:
The Passive as an Information-rearranging Strategy in the History of
English' (360-391), by Elena Seoane. Seoane contends that changes in word
order can be traced to a combination of syntactic and pragmatic factors,
and supports this proposal with an investigation of the diachronic
development of English passive constructions. Seoane first debunks claims
that word order change is purely syntactically motivated and then reviews
some pragmatic considerations relevant to English word order, and then
turns to the passive, which she views as 'an argument-reversing strategy'
(370), as it backgrounds the subject and foregrounds the object.

The next section is on 'Pre- and Post-colonial Varieties' and contains five
papers, beginning with 'Old English Dialectology' (395-416) by Richard
Hogg. Hogg first provides a brief historiographical overview of Old
English dialectology and then discusses four case studies -- West Saxon
(viewed by some earlier scholars, e.g. Sweet 1885, as a form of 'Standard
Old English'; Hogg rejects this view), Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish
-- in order to 'consider the status of recent and current work in Old
English dialectology' (399). Syntactic features like negative contraction,
as well as dialect vocabulary, are also discussed. This chapter is
followed by 'Early Middle English Dialectology: Problems and Prospects'
(417-451), by Margaret Laing and Roger Lass. This chapter, much of which
is based on Laing and Lass (in preparation), begins with a discussion of
the goals of historical dialectology, followed by a review of the sources
of evidence for Early Middle English dialectology (local documents,
glosses, etc.). The methodology used in Laing and Lass (in preparation) is
then explicated, along with various questions involving interpretation of
the data, the corpus, and prospects for future research. In a chapter
based on an ongoing long-term research project (the source of works like
Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001, among others), Shana Poplack then discusses
'How English became African American English' (452-476). The origins of
African American English remain controversial: is it a dialect of English
or 'descended from a relexified West African language or a prior creole'
(452)? After utilizing methods from traditional historical linguistics and
variationist sociolinguistics to reconstruct an earlier stage of African
American English, Poplack 'situate[s] this [reconstructed] stage with
respect to Colonial (and on occasion, Middle) English, English-based
Creoles, and contemporary' African American English (453), and eventually
concludes that many of the features of current African American English can
in fact be traced to various source dialects. The next chapter is
'Historical Change in Synchronic Perspective: The Legacy of British
Dialects' (477-506), by Sali A. Tagliamonte. This article concentrates on
the following three topics: (1) 'the value of synchronic dialect study to
the study of ... language changes in English', (2) 'the utilization of
grammaticalization theory for the study of morpho-syntactic developments in
English', and (3) 'the utility of variationist sociolinguistic methods in
the analysis and interpretation of linguistic patterns and the critical
role it serves in their evaluation' (478-479). The section concludes with
a chapter on 'The Making of Hiberno-English and Other ''Celtic Englishes'''
(507-536), by Markku Filppula. In this paper, issues like the spread of
English to formerly Celtic-speaking areas like Ireland and Wales are
discussed, followed by a description of the linguistic characteristics of
the various Celtic Englishes, as well as areas where they diverge from each
other (e.g. the presence of the so-called 'after'-perfect in Ireland vs.
its absence in Wales). The last section of the chapter outlines some
directions for future research.

The final section of the book, 'Standardization and Globalization',
contains three papers, beginning with 'Eighteenth-century Prescriptivism
and the Norm of Correctness' (539-557), by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
This chapter concentrates generally on a 1762 grammar of English by Robert
Lowth and discusses Lowth's linguistic norm, his social networks, and his
actual usage, among other issues. The next chapter is 'Historical
Sociolinguistics and Language Change' (558-588), by Terttu Nevalainen, and
describes how historical sociolinguistics can contribute to historical
linguistics in general and to historical dialectology in particular. The
empirical foundations of historical sociolinguistics, its research scope,
and the question of time depth receive special attention. The final
thematic paper in the book, 'Global English: From Island Tongue to World
Language' (589-608), is by Suzanne Romaine. Romaine discusses the rise of
English to its current status as a world language, as well as certain
characteristics of international varieties of English, innovations in
international varieties of English, and raises the question of whether
English will remain a world language. The volume concludes with a brief
appendix listing 'corpora that are useful for research in English
historical linguistics' (609), e.g. the Toronto Corpus and the Helsinki
Corpus, and an extensive index.


This is a very good and useful book. The blurbs on the back cover set the
bar high (it is described as 'ground-breaking' and a 'wonderful
encapsulation of the field', among other things), and the book indeed
generally lives up to this standard. The individual chapters pack a good
deal of interesting data and analysis into a limited space, and the
attention paid to areas that are sometimes neglected in more traditional
works on the history of English (e.g. African American English) is also
laudable. It is particularly gratifying to see how many of the authors
synthesized current approaches to linguistics with more traditional ideas
about philology.

There are, however, a handful of changes I would like to see in any future
editions, including the following: as one who is more optimistic about OT
approaches to sound change than McMahon, I would have liked to have seen a
chapter defending OT analyses of sound change; I would prefer a unified
bibliography to individual bibliographies for each chapter, as that would
eliminate overlap and consequently save space, and footnotes to endnotes; a
few references are missing from the bibliographies and different editions
of the same work are occasionally cited; additional references should
sometimes be cited (as in the discussion of Sievers' Law on p. 131, where a
reference to Barrack 1998 would have been useful); and a handful of slips
like the missing Old English glosses (97) or statements like 'Gothic is not
exactly a direct ancestor of the West Germanic languages' (230; Gothic is
an East Germanic language, and therefore a sister language to the West
Germanic languages, not a parent) should be corrected.

Despite these objections, this is a very good book, and it will be a handy
and valuable resource for students and more experienced scholars alike.


Aarts, Bas and April McMahon. (eds.) 2006. The Handbook of English
Linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Barrack, Charles M. 1998. Sievers' Law in Germanic. Bern: Peter Lang.

Croft, William. 2000. Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary
Approach. Harlow: Longman.

Fennell, Barbara. 2001. A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach.
Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Halle, Morris and Samuel J. Keyser. 1971. English Stress: Its Form, Its
Growth, and Its Role in Verse. New York: Harper and Row.

Laing, Margaret and Roger Lass. in preparation. A Linguistic Atlas of
Early Middle English.

McMahon, April. 2000. Change, Chance, and Optimality. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Poplack, Shana and Sali A. Tagliamonte. 2001. African American English in
the Diaspora. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Stoffel, Cornelis. 1901. Intensives and Down-Toners: A Study in English
Adverbs. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Sweet, Henry. 1885. The Oldest English Texts. London: Oxford University

Marc Pierce is a lecturer in German and Classical Studies at the University
of Michigan. His research interests include historical linguistics,
Germanic linguistics, and phonology.

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