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Review of  English Historical Linguistics

Reviewer: Igor Igor Yanovich
Book Title: English Historical Linguistics
Book Author: Alexander Th. Bergs Laurel J. Brinton
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
English, Middle
English, Old
Issue Number: 24.1640

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''English Historical Linguistics'', edited by Alexander Bergs and Laurel Brinton, is the first 1100+ pages volume of a new handbook, covering in detail the development of English starting from the Old English up to the Late Modern English period, as well as the issues of language standardization in the history of English, and the language of the different kinds of media. The second volume will mostly cover the areas of English historical linguistics that have emerged more or less recently, such as language contact in the history of English or regional varieties. Many chapters of the handbook are authored by scholars whose groundbreaking work was crucial to the advances of English historical linguistics.

The first part of the present volume introduces the periodization of the history of English. Each period starting with Pre-Old English and ending with Present-Day English, is covered in a chapter discussing the major features of English at the time, issues of historical evidence, and where appropriate, the historical context of the language development.

The chapters of the second part each review a different linguistic level as they figure in English historical linguistics, from phonology and prosody to semantics and pragmatics. Orthography, idioms, onomastics and registers of the language are also discussed as separate levels of the linguistic system.

The next four parts are the core of the volume, and provide in-depth descriptions of each of the four major periods of the language, namely Old English, Middle English, Early Modern and Late Modern English. For each period, linguistic levels from phonology to semantics are discussed in separate chapters, as well as the dialectology of the period, the issues of literary language and standardization, and language contact and sociolinguistics. For later periods, special chapters are included on the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and on several important phenomena of historical change such as the Great Vowel Shift.

The seventh part covers issues of language standardization in several detailed chapters that deal with such issues as the English prescriptive tradition, the role of dictionaries in the standardization of English, the role of individuals who developed prescriptive resources for English, etc.

Finally, the last part discusses the use of English in different media: newspapers, television, radio and the internet.

The editors see the intended audience for the handbook as ''researchers in the field of (historical) linguistics generally'' and ''in allied fields''. The exposition, however, is largely self-contained, and does not presuppose particularly deep knowledge of either the history of English or theoretical linguistics, which makes the book an excellent resource for students. The presence of overview chapters discussing the general issues within each linguistic level should make it easy enough for such emerging scholars to use the book both independently and as supplementary material for particular classes. At the same time the accessibility of the material does not compromise the depth of presentation, so the book may indeed serve as a valuable resource for current practitioners in linguistics and allied fields, as the editors have intended.

One notable feature of the handbook is the conscious inclusion of information on modern technology and electronic sources of data that may be useful for a scholar of the history of English. While every handbook aims to provide the readers with a rich bibliographical apparatus to guide the reader to more advanced literature, the current handbook attempts to complement that by also guiding the reader to primary sources of data in a form that makes it easy to work with them, and providing a basic critical assessment of those.

To put it briefly, the present handbook is the kind of book that one is happy to keep on the shelf next to one's desk. It should allow a researcher with limited background in English historical linguistics to quickly gain command of the most necessary entry-level knowledge, and then, if needed, proceed further using the references in the relevant chapters.

The chosen format thanks to the inclusion of both specific material on particular periods and more general introductory chapters makes it easier for readers with very varied backgrounds to understand the logic of different parts of the field, and how that logic manifests itself in individual studies. For example, the chapters on historical prosody or historical syntax would explain to the reader just what kind of issues the corresponding discipline studies.

Many of the chapters, though not all, are written in a way that makes transparent not only the main conclusions reached in a particular subfield of English historical linguistics, but also helps the reader to become accustomed to forms of argument frequently used in it. For a researcher from a neighboring discipline that will likely prove of great value. As an example, Keith Williamson's chapter on Middle English dialects not simply describes the distributions of characteristic dialectal features, but also explains the methods used by historical dialectologists, and the limits and successes of the techniques used, including the very recent efforts to start establishing the dialect picture with regard to the lexicon, in addition to the dialect picture with regard to sound correspondences.

As another example of an effort to make the content accessible to a wide range of readers, Robert D. Fulk's chapter on the literary language of the Old English period not only describes the important features characteristic of different registers, as well as the likely dialectal origin of those and the amount of variation between different texts, but also makes a conscious effort to explicate the terms of the trade for linguists with no background in the tradition of Old English studies.

As a feature of overall design, the chapters covering the same linguistic level at different periods are not organized according to the same template. Depending on the needs of the reader and on the details of realization, this strategy may prove very useful to a particular user of the handbook, or it may prove otherwise.

In many cases the difference in the content of corresponding chapters is due to the fact that the state of the relevant research is different. For example, the study of historical pragmatics is relatively new, compared to such established areas as historical phonology. Consequently, Ursula Lenker's chapter on Old English pragmatics and Elizabeth Closs Traugott's chapter on the pragmatics of Middle English discuss a different range of topics. For instance, both discuss politeness strategies and types of speech acts, but only the latter surveys degree modifiers. It is not that Old English lacked them, but more can be said about Middle English on the topic. In part the difference in the volume of available research stems from a difference in the amount of existing evidence: for instance, Middle English texts represent a wider variety of registers and genres than surviving Old English ones, and that is also reflected in the composition of the two chapters.

In other cases, however, different choices do not follow directly from the state of scholarship or the evidence. For example, the syntax chapters on Old, Middle and Early Modern English are all structured differently. Rafal Molencki's chapter on Old English syntax presents all crucial information on the subject neatly organized into sections on, e.g., the noun phrase or complex sentences, so that a reader not acquainted with Old English could quickly learn the basic syntactic facts about the language. Elena Seoane's chapter on Early Modern English does not aim to be as comprehensive, explicitly referring the reader who needs a full overview to the Cambridge History of the English Language, and instead discusses in detail several important syntactic changes of the period.

In contrast to those two, Jeremy J. Smith's chapter on Middle English syntax attempts not so much to give an overview of the syntactic system, but rather to discuss the importance of using diplomatic editions and not imposing the modern grammatical notion of sentencehood onto medieval speakers. That aim is quite laudable, but the reader whose only goal is, for instance, to find out what the Middle English noun phrase looked like, would have a hard time finding the relevant information in the chapter. As the discussion presupposes a high level of familiarity with English historical linguistics, it may prove hard to follow for people outside the field. Finally, small mistakes also do not help (for instance, when discussing the modal auxiliaries, the author misanalyses CHULLE from Ancrene Wisse as a form of SCAL (> modern SHALL), while in fact it is a form of WULLE (> modern WILL) with the initial W assimilated to the CH at the end of the preceding word. As such assimilation is a familiar, automatic phonological feature of the so-called AB dialect in which Ancrene Wisse is written, the misanalysis is harmless for practitioners in the field, but for a person from the outside, small details like that might lead to some confusion. That said, there is definitely a value in illustrating the syntax of a period not with isolated sentences, but rather with large fragments of translated and commented text belonging to different temporal subperiods and different genres, so overall the chapter would prove interesting even for readers who are not quite able to follow all the details due to a lack of background.

As mentioned above, one of the goals of the handbook is to provide the reader with an apparatus of electronic, easily accessible resources that help one to study the history of English. With the rapid development of various historical corpora, the book will soon be far from exhaustive in that respect, but even so it should not become irrelevant. While it is the second volume that will feature chapters specifically devoted to textual resources, many chapters of the present volume provide an overview of the available corpora where appropriate. Perhaps naturally, such descriptions may be found more frequently in the chapters that concern subject areas where the use of massive data sources is widespread, such as those on English dialects, as well as in those that address the language in a particular type of media such as newspapers or radio. This apparatus of pointers towards various sources of empirical data will make it easier for a scholar entering into the field to quickly move from studying the existing knowledge to actively engaging the empirical data in addition to that. In that sense, the handbook truly creates a new standard.

To sum up, the first volume of Alexander Bergs and Laurel J. Brinton's Handbook is a well-rounded volume containing an enormous amount of relevant information in a generally well-organized and easy-to-use form. It is a valuable addition to the rich literature on the subject.
Igor Yanovich is a PhD student at MIT, specializing in formal semantics, phonology, and historical linguistics.