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Review of  Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar Containing Accidence and Word-Formation

Reviewer: Jean-François R. Mondon
Book Title: Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar Containing Accidence and Word-Formation
Book Author: Richard E. Morris
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.551

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

The first seven chapters serve both to place English into its historical and geographical position as well as to provide background linguistic knowledge to the reader. Chapter 1 (pp. 1-5) offers a very brief overview of the place of English among the Indo-European family and the Germanic branch more specifically. Chapter 2 (pp. 6-30) offers an outline of the various lexical and morphological influences on English, ranging from a Celtic element through a Scandinavian one through to the four individual stages of Latin borrowings. Chapter 3 (pp. 31-34) presents the typical periods of Old, Middle, and Modern English together with a very brief and general discussion of dialect differences in Middle English. Chapter 4 (pp. 35-41) serves as a basic introduction to phonetics. It closes with a short discussion of the imperfections of English orthography. Chapter 5 (pp. 42-52) moves away from the synchronic description of English phonetics into a listing of various diachronic ‘permutations’ which have occurred throughout its history. Ample room is unsurprisingly dedicated to Grimm’s Law, still a major discovery at the time of Morris’ writing. Chapter 6 (pp. 53-60) effectively serves as an introduction to morphology and morphosyntax, defining compounds and inflection on the one hand, while presenting the parts of speech on the other and a sampling 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 various noun-forming suffixes, both inherited from Proto-Germanic and borrowed from Romance, moves onto a discussion of plural formation, and concludes with an overview of how every Old English nominal class developed into Middle English and finally into Early Modern English. Chapters 8 (pp. 87-100) and 9 (pp. 101-128) deal with adjectives and pronouns respectively. Every aspect of adjectives, from their comparison to apparent traces of original comparatives and superlatives in individual lexical items is discussed. Likewise, every type of pronoun is covered, from personal to indefinite, with individual forms often 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 dealing with the development of strong verbs from Old to Modern English. The text is organized according to the seven classes of Old English strong verbs. The Old English forms are listed alongside their later descendants, with clarifications of those verbs which have become regular or have jumped to other strong classes. Chapters 11 (pp. 187-194), 12 (pp. 195-199), 13 (pp. 200-202), and 14 (p. 203) deal with adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections respectively. Finally, chapter 15 (pp. 204-246) extends the small discussions of derivational morphology scattered throughout earlier chapters and brings them together into one coherent chapter. This chapter is particularly rich in its exemplification of affixes of Romance and Latin origin.


The book’s primary shortcoming is its simply being out-of-date, which is certainly understandable since it is over 125 years old. This defect is noticeable in both the terminology used, such as ‘Teutonic’ for ‘Germanic’ and ‘flat’ and ‘sharp’ for ‘voiced’ and ‘voiceless’ respectively, but also in the absence of information which was simply not known at the time of writing, such as the existence of the Anatolian and Tocharian branches of Indo-European. This shortcoming is also evident in Morris’ discussion of sound changes in chapter 5. While the chapter is doubtless rich in providing examples of various phonetic changes which have occurred in the history of English, it is strikingly poor in not having apparently embraced the regularity of sound change. The richness of the examples comes across as a random list of unpredictable changes with borrowings being mixed together with inherited roots. As an example, it is mentioned that ‘b’ changed to ‘v’ in ‘have’ from Old English ‘habban’ but to ‘m’ in ‘summerset’ from French ‘soubresaut’ with no discussion of either the phonetic environments which conditioned both changes or of the oddities often accorded borrowed words (cf. Ito and Mester’s 1995 work on the Chinese element in Japanese and its standing in a different layer 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 without indicating their exact phonetic environments, the introduction of terms for some 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 on morphological changes. Morris all too freely embraces, for instance, the emanation of verbal suffixes from post-verbal subject pronouns in his discussion of the verb. This same tendency, which comes down to an over-indulgence in finding a source for every morpheme, leads him to trace the passive ‘r’ of Latin (cf. ‘amor’) to a post-verbal reflexive pronoun, which is absolutely unprovable. One other defect which is a reflection of the time of writing but which the author himself acknowledges in the preface, is the lack of any section discussing syntax.

These defects, however, are more than compensated for by the sheer number of examples, both lexical and literary, for most points under discussion. The section on lexical borrowings into English, for example, is flooded with copious examples from each language source. While a handful of these may appear dubious in light of more recent scholarship and should be verified with more recent grammars and etymological dictionaries, the book offers great fodder for students and researchers alike. The richness of the literary examples 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 finding relevant textual examples that prove his point is strikingly present on nearly every page. What is even more valuable is that while plenty of examples come from the giants of English literature such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, countless more come from an array of sources ranging from texts on husbandry to lesser known chronicles.

In sum, Morris’ synchronic data, particularly at the Middle and Early Modern levels, is by far the book’s strongest attribute. His delving into diachronic matters, while sometimes harmless with respect to individual lexical matters, is dangerously out-of-date when it comes to many morphological matters. I feel that this book, which too often reads like a dictionary, could not be used as a course book, but could certainly be referred to when either lexical or textual examples from Middle and Early Modern English are needed. Beyond that, the reader should absolutely not take any diachronic developments from it 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 of Phonological Theory” (ed. J. Goldsmith). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell: 817-838.
Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Latin at Minot State University engaged primarily in the phonological development of Classical Armenian, Celtic and other branches of Indo-European, and secondly in the creation of pedagogical materials for these languages.