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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of the History of English

Reviewer: Corey J. Zwikstra
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of the History of English
Book Author: Terttu Nevalainen Elizabeth Closs Traugott
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.955

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This edited collection is something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a book: a daunting assembly of parts that becomes more endearing as one gets to know it. A big, diverse collection, the book achieves coherence in describing and demonstrating the state of the art in English historical linguistics. It comes in at nearly 1000 pages, in 4 Parts each containing 2 complementary sections coordinated by different specialists, with a total of 68 chapters by 86 authors (many are co-written) representing nearly 20 countries. The book also includes a general introduction, introductory guides to the Parts, a glossary (a more extensive version of which is available on an associated website), and several useful indices.

Chapters range in length from 3 pages (“Coins as evidence”) to 30 pages (“Cycles and continua: On unidirectionality and gradualness in language change”), with most about 10 pages long including bibliography. Chapters tend to be specialized and technical. Authors make their points through select examples that demonstrate the specific (but often also more general) point they are making. They show rather than tell. They also situate their essays in the context of previous scholarship, placing the chapters into ongoing disciplinary conversations and trends. This helps indicate gaps or areas where further work needs to and could be done using the techniques they exemplify. Moreover, the authors sometimes engage one another in relevant conversation within the book itself. The book, then, is current in its concerns and approaches yet also well informed by previous and developing scholarly trends in the various topics covered.

Part I “Rethinking Evidence” concerns the ever-broadening empirical evidence for the history of English and how research into that history is conducted and evaluated in view of that evidence, especially using electronic corpora. The coordinators of the first part of the book, Susan Fitzmaurice and Jeremy Smith (“Evidence for the history of English: Introduction”), remind us that linguistic data are problematic and cannot be accepted at face-value. We must approach them critically, as well as diachronically, to make full and proper sense of them. Hough (“Evidence from sources prior to 1500”) adds that the interpretation of linguistic data is cumulative, depending on the weight of all relevant evidence, not on individual witnesses, and must be continuously revisited in light of new discoveries and methodologies. Beal (“Evidence from sources after 1500”) too notes that one kind of evidence can often corroborate another, resulting in a more complete linguistic picture. Nearly all authors in the first section of Part I emphasize the careful, cautious, integrated study of primary witnesses to the history of English. Their work finds a complement in the essays of section two, coordinated by Mark Davies, which explore how linguists can profitably use various kinds of corpora. These corpora -- small and large, synchronic and diachronic, online and offline -- can help us compile and interrogate linguistic data, past and present, both productively and reliably. Davies (“Some methodological issues related to corpus-based investigations of recent syntactic changes in English”) cautions, however, that corpora must be properly designed and implemented for their results to be valid.

Part II “Issues in Culture and Society” investigates sociocultural issues and processes bearing on language change, including the changing role of media and other forms of mass communication in the history of English, along with the political aspects of the commodification of English. The first section coordinators, Thomas Kohnen and Christian Mair (“Technologies of communication”), explain how media have helped English text types to proliferate and kinds of English to develop, change, and expand, resulting in a heterogeneity of English language. Authors in the first section of Part II treat technological issues of orality, print literacy, electronic communication, news and religious discourse, among other areas of interest. The second section of Part II, coordinated by Jonathan Culpeper and Minna Nevala, focuses on the social rather than the technological aspects of language change, among them democratization, political correctness, identity politics, politeness, standardization, globalization, and colonialism. Tony Crowley (“English in Ireland: A complex case study”) ends this part appropriately by reminding us how language change and social change are often the same thing and how language change therefore impacts economic, cultural, and political issues. Many authors in Part II foreground the importance of studying English as a complex interaction of language and various often inter-connected socio-cultural concerns.

Part III “Approaches from Contact and Typology” concentrates on English compared to and in contact with other languages around the world, and on typological changes resulting from that contact across time and place. Raymond Hickey, coordinator of section one of Part III (“Assessing the role of contact in the history of English”), notes how while varying in speed and degree language contact always results in language change, even though sometimes that contact-change is hard to prove (“Early English and the Celtic hypothesis”). Hickey further implies that while language contact has long been a field of interest within linguistics its study might be on the rise due to the increased number of languages with which English continues to come into contact. Languages investigated as contacting with English include early Celtic and Scandinavian languages, but also later North American languages and dialects of English, as well as a rich, diverse variety of African and Asian languages. This section also looks at identity-related issues surrounding New Englishes, especially as a second language, and pidgins and creoles around the world. In the second section of Part III, which he coordinated and which primarily treats morphology and syntax, Bernd Kortmann (“Typology and typological change in English historical linguistics”) advocates interdisciplinarity in the study of language change and stresses how the study of non-standard language varieties, especially spoken, can increase understanding of language change generally. Essays here examine topics such as differences in variability of word order in English and German, drifts in English pronoun gender and use, and the nature and development of analyticity in English.

Part IV “Rethinking Categories and Modules” concerns internal developments in the history of English mostly ignored by other handbooks and textbooks: cycles, continua, and interfaces, and how these interact productively in different domains. Section one coordinators Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero and Graeme Trousdale (“Cycles and continua: On unidirectionality and gradualness in language change”) note that the scholarship in this section (often highly specialized) explores how advances in our understanding of diachronic pathways can stimulate rethinking of the history of English in ways not limited by standard models of periodization. Such work, they say, may be able to solve longstanding problems in English historical linguistics. Section two of Part IV, coordinated by Roland Hinterhölzl and Ans van Kemenade, continues Bermúdez-Otero and Trousdale’s emphasis on “rethinking” and combining aspects of the history of English, particularly word order, information structure, and prosody.

The essays are exceptionally well organized and surprisingly easy to read, with clear signposting and summaries, and including plenty of helpful diagrams.

The editors and contributors should be commended for the body of scholarship they have assembled, often in non-traditional ways, and for how the book conveys the depth and excitement of current English linguistics in a time of changing emphases and methodologies. The collection takes stock of past and present work in English historical linguistics, but also looks forward, spotlighting variety and change in the English language and the study of the English language. Much here will be read profitably and help to continue the movement of English linguistics forward toward understanding.

The book differs noticeably from another I reviewed recently for LINGUIST, Momma and Matto (2008), being more practical and linguistics-oriented than that volume and similar books on the market. This book is a proper guide to understanding the history of the English language, not just another history of the English language. Helpfully for students, authors concentrate as often on method as on description, transparently explaining and modeling successful linguistic analysis. Readers learn not only about the English language but also how to understand and do linguistics, especially English linguistics. Essays from later sections demonstrate uses of corpora (e.g., the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts) promoted by Part I, giving the volume added coherence. This emphasis on methodology makes the book a useful complement to other available handbooks and companions which usually privilege description over methodology.

There is pronounced attention throughout to nonstandard and World Englishes, also frequently on spontaneous spoken English, both of which are particularly welcome in a book dealing with the entire history of English. The book threads motifs of “rethinking” and “interconnectedness,” variously arguing that linguistic scholarship is a work in progress addressing constantly changing problems, and serving as a reminder that scholars must keep in mind the linguistic forest with all of its trees.

One minor criticism: the last section, “Interfaces with Information Structure,” becomes redundant. Its seven chapters do not read as sufficiently different to have all warranted extended individual treatment as separate chapters. Treatment of verbs and specifically the loss in English of verb-second (V2) word order might have been more economical, presented in only one or two chapters, allowing for a more varied and general treatment of material in this concluding section more consonant with the rest of the book.

As a material object, the book is sturdily (if also expensively) bound, sitting open easily, and remarkably free of typographical errors. In a time of sloppy editing and proofreading, this fact is (unfortunately) noteworthy, especially in a book so long and technical and with so many diagrams. Once in a while a typographical error creeps in, such as the transposition “cycle sermons” (p. 296) for intended “sermon cycles” -- I do not think the author is writing about bikes -- but these do not detract from the overall readability of the book.

While probably not for most people a book to be read straight through, it can be (especially Parts II and III) and I found myself learning a lot and enjoying the book more as I went on. The book is most suitable for advanced students and academics.

One hopes the size and seams of the book do not scare people off and it won’t languish on a shelf or in a database, alone like Frankenstein’s monster.

Momma, Haruko, and Michael Matto (eds). 2008. A Companion to the History of the English Language (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Corey J. Zwikstra left Canada to pursue graduate studies and received a PhD in English at the University of Notre Dame. His primary interests lie in the language and style of medieval English poetry, and he has published on the concept of wisdom in Old English poetry. He now teaches language, literature, and writing courses at Washburn University, where he is Assistant Professor of English.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199922765
Pages: 984
Prices: U.S. $ 175