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Review of  A Companion to the History of the English Language

Reviewer: Corey J. Zwikstra
Book Title: A Companion to the History of the English Language
Book Author: Haruko Momma Michael Matto
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
History of Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.338

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AUTHORS: Haruko Momma and Michael Matto
TITLE: A Companion to the History of the English Language
SERIES TITLE: Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2008

Corey J. Zwikstra, Department of English, Washburn University, Topeka, KS

This book is aimed at a broad audience of students of English literature and culture who could benefit from increased understanding of the English language and how it has changed and been studied over time. Although English linguistics can be a challenging subject, most of these short, accessible chapters will be readily understood by readers with little background in linguistics. The book is especially sensitive to the social and political contexts of language use, with contributors frequently treating nationalism, political correctness, linguistic diversity, and historical contingencies. The editors offer their collection as a ‘companion’ rather than a comprehensive textbook.

An edited collection of almost 700 pages in 9 parts, some with sections, the book contains 59 chapters by 61 international and often distinguished authors, as well as ancillary headnotes, timelines, maps, figures, a glossary, and index. A few of the contributions have been published previously in some form. Part 1 (Chapters 1-3), the shortest, introduces the field of the History of the English Language (HEL) and its disciplinary history and teaches a few essential linguistic terms and concepts necessary for beginners to make sense of what follows. Part 2 (Chapters 4-8) surveys the traditional areas of linguistics--phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and prosody--while the brief Part 3 (Chapters 9-11) extends consideration to semantics and lexicography. Part 4 (Chapters 12-13) briefly considers the prehistory of English as both an Indo-European and Germanic language. Part 5 (Chapters 14-33), the longest, focuses at great length on the histories of English in England and America within various regional and political contexts. Part 6 (Chapters 34-41) extends that focus to places outside England and America, emphasizing along with Part 5 the diversity and proliferation of the English language across time and space, especially in post-colonial contexts. Part 7 (Chapters 42-49) studies English as a literary language via major authors and texts from all historical periods. Varieties of contemporary English, including dialects, creoles, and pidgins, are the focus of Part 8 (Chapters 50-55). Part 9 (Chapters 56-59), the last, complements the others with examples of approaches to language study. The book concludes with a refined glossary of linguistic terms and a thorough, useful index.

Since evaluation of all the contributions is impractical, I will focus on representative chapters that stand out or might especially benefit the intended audience of students of English literature and culture. Several of these chapters both teach about and exemplify a productive linguistic approach or context to literature.

Chapter 7, “A History of the English Lexicon” by Geoffrey Hughes, nicely explains how the lexis of English is distinctly mixed in its Germanic, French, and classical components, but is increasingly cosmopolitan, and how this mixed lexis, capable of different registers, reflects the diverse external history of English. Hughes also explores how words become “socially mobile” (p. 70) and further describes “the lexicon as an indicator of power relations” (p. 70). Given the intended audience, especially welcome are the sections on “literary words” and other types of words such as neologisms. Students need to know words change and lexical histories can productively inform literary analysis, as when Chaucer in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales uses Germanic words to characterize the lowly Miller and Romance words to characterize the churchly Prioress (p. 73).

Chapter 8, “History of English Prosody” by Geoffrey Russom, demonstrates insightfully how “English historical metrics and English historical linguistics have much to offer one another” (p. 87). The essay, though brief, is full of suggestive analyses and neat explanations, the clear products of decades working in this specialist field: for example, his historical and syntactic explanations of the decline of compounding in Middle English (p. 84) and the rise of English rhymed iambic poetry in the Early Modern period (p. 86). An understanding of metrical fashions brings increased knowledge of how language works, and comprehending meter and language together can result in more informed, nuanced, and historical understandings of English poetry. Prosody is a subject I wish literature students knew more about, and Russom’s chapter showcases how metrical considerations lead to insights about both language and literature.

Together Chapters 42-49 on literary language provide a solid introduction to literary uses of English, with chapters on Old English poetry, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Faulkner, Rushdie, and Morrison. English literary history is “multivalent” (p. 433) in its language use and wider connections to culture. “The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Tradition” (Fred C. Robinson) interestingly claims that unlike later classical- and French-influenced verse in English “the OE [Old English] verse patterns are a selection of natural speech patterns” (p. 438) and thus Old English poetry grows naturally and natively from the Germanic stress patterns of English. “Chaucer’s Literary Language” (John F. Plummer) rightly points out that Chaucer’s literary language might well have been French before moving on to describe how Chaucer’s English incorporates much from the foreign languages and authors whose works and styles inspired him. Chaucer in general has “a keen ear for diction and register” (p. 449) and often uses them to advantage. The original and stimulating “Shakespeare’s Literary Language” (Adam N. McKeown) paints Shakespeare’s poetry as “speaking pictures” (p. 462) that inhabit our mind’s eye and compel us to contemplate the social world and our place within it. “Joyce’s Literary Language” (Laurent Milesi) and “Faulkner’s Language” (Noel Polk) detail how in their own ways Joyce, who privileged “the linguistic in the literary” (p. 471), and Faulkner defamiliarized and destabilized language and in the process re-energized it. Theirs are virtuoso linguistic performances not for their own sake but also for the sake of meaning and purpose, even when meaning is being played with or slips away. These chapters on literary language, with their sensitive attention to language issues in English literature, exemplify and are complemented by many ideas in “Style and Stylistics” (David L. Hoover). Hoover notes that stylistic analysis of literature hibernated during the heyday of literary and cultural theory but has re-emerged in the electronic age hungry and refreshed in the electronic age . May stylistics find no more winters.

My criticisms of the book are few and mostly concern organization and balance of coverage.

There are too many chapters and sections, and the chapters are too short, averaging around 10 pages, including bibliographies, while the sections are sometimes too long. Certain chapters satisfy more like hors d'oeuvres than tapas. A comparison with other recent volumes in the Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture series shows Martiny 2011with 2 parts and 43 chapters and Saunders 2010 with 3 parts and 34 chapters. The chapters in both are on average longer than those in Momma and Matto. Comparable series Oxford Handbooks of Literature and Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics seem to average about 30-40 chapters. I suspect most such companions and handbooks are similar, making this book relatively high in its number and length of chapters. What might have been left out? Chapters 52 and 53 on teaching English might well have been omitted as outside the proper scope of the book. A case could be made that 8 chapters on literary language are too many. The bloated Part 5 seems the most obvious choice for reduction: Having multiple chapters on the different chronological stages and dialects of Old, Middle, Early Modern, and American English seems excessive in a book intended for non-specialists. Perhaps the editors tried to reach too many possible audiences, an understandable fault.

Once in a while an individual chapter reads more advanced than its intended audience, as with Chapter 54 “Creoles and Pidgins” (Salikoko S. Mufwene). The way it problematizes and theorizes definitions of key terms, while important, comes across as too specialized for a companion, though unevenness in degree of difficulty is probably inevitable in an edited collection with so many contributions. Some chapters, on the other hand, could have been more substantial; for instance, Chapter 3 “Essential Linguistics” (Mary Blockley) at 7 pages might have been more thorough in its overview of linguistic issues and methods necessary for non-linguists to understand the rest of the book.

The book weighs heavily on the side of the external rather than the internal history of English, though the editors suggest this “internal” vs. “external” perspective on the English language “may have run its course” (p. 8). Maybe so, but a balanced presentation is most useful for beginners.

Since the focus of the book is everywhere on variety and plurality, its title might have contained something signaling that plurality: Histories of the English Language or The History of English Languages or similar. Although such plurals can sound awkward or forced, they nonetheless would accurately describe the contents and emphases of the book.

I noticed a few typographical errors (persisting in the 2011 paperback reprint), none of which compromises content: for example, an ungrammatical comma between the subject and verb of a sentence (after “schools” p. 279), and more significantly repeated misspellings of the name of the comic playwright Terence as “Terrence” (p. 460 and again in the index on p. 686).

The market for companions and handbooks is crowded in most disciplines, and linguistics and literary studies are no exceptions. The book will receive competition from, among others, Nevalainen and Traugott 2012. However, the Oxford volume appears to be more empirical and specialist, less global in scope, and weighted more toward internal considerations, all indicating a different primary audience than for the Blackwell.

In conclusion, this book succeeds in doing what it intended, to provide linguistic grounding for readers primarily interested in the literature and culture of English past and present. It deserves a place in libraries and classrooms, to be read cover to cover or dipped into for specific topics. One would struggle to use the book as a textbook to teach a HEL or English Linguistics course, but the book would make a welcome, instructive companion in such a course, or in a literature survey course. Because it is readable and has good chapter bibliographies and a detailed index, it might also serve as a reference for students researching a topic within the history of English. Familiarity with the contents of this book would help students improve two common deficiencies: lack of knowledge about history and language.

Martiny, Erik (ed.). 2011. A Companion to Poetic Genre (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture). Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nevalainen, Terttu, and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (eds.). 2012. The Oxford Handbook of the History of English (Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saunders, Corinne (ed.). 2010. A Companion to Medieval Poetry (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 67). 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: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780470657935
Pages: 728
Prices: U.S. $ 49.95