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A History of the English Language
Richard Hogg & David Denison eds.

London: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
£75, 495 pp. ISBN 0-521-66227-3. Hardback


Reviewed by Megan O'Neill



In any study of the English language, the specific use of a grammatical article in the title reveals some sort of perspective. In the present case, the editors have chosen to suggest that theirs is simply “a” history, not, as Oxford’s recent similar volume claims, “the” history. The distinction is important: there are multiple histories of English. In this one, Hogg and Denison cover the well-trodden territory of syntax, morphology, and vocabulary, telling a history most scholars of language know well. They venture further, however, when they explore the history of naming, standardization, and of English as a global language, and it is this newer territory that seems exciting and, perhaps, equipped with dragons.

It’s expected, I think, that any history cover the familiar, and Roger Lass’s chapter on phonology and morphology is erudite while recognizing the inherent problems of putting sound and meaning into intelligible lines of genealogy. As he points out early in the chapter, the relatively boring title should more appropriately be “great moments in the history of English phonology and morphology” [44], since it hits only the highlights of change, from vowel and consonant inventories through to what he alliteratively calls “monophthongisation and merger” [86]. Only a linguist will be able to follow much of this discussion, although the truth of his final section, “the persistence of disorder,” is clear. “It becomes apparent,” he says, “after a long engagement with the history of our language that the quality and quantity of our database shifts massively over time” [104].  Indeed. Our references should probably be more consistent, however; when discussing the shape of what we are generally comfortable calling “modern English,” the editors and their authors waver between “ModE” and “PDE” for Present Day English.” Variety in Englishes, variety in reference. We go on.

Similarly to Lass’s chapter, the chapters on syntax and vocabulary cover standard territory, related engagingly for a story we know pretty well already. There seems no way, despite generations of attempts, to make a linguistic discussion of adjectives, tense, and voice sexy. We do get some novelty, however, when Fischer and Van Der Wurff start to get into the positioning of particles and adverbs, and although not strictly speaking sexy, the density of their material is more interesting when it ventures into this new territory. Particle verbs, for instance, have become considerably more frequent in Modern English, as a result (they suggest) of our increasing numbers of metaphorical expressions such as “let somebody down” and “take up a hobby” [192]. While the authors do not go into much detail on the consequences and implications of such changes, what they do mention is significant: new patterns can only arise when old ones have begun to break down. We go on.

In any work purporting to cover a history of English, the following questions must inevitably arise: what is “proper,” and what is the place of prescriptivism? As most good histories do, this volume makes the point that prescribing one’s use of language is both pointless and annoying; it’s far more interesting, then, to see what people actually do in language. The chapter on standardization offers quite a bit of excellent research (including the fine team Lesley and James Milroy, who reiterate the fact that “a standard language may be described as the consequence of a need for uniformity that is felt by influential portions of society at a given time” [273]); but it is jarring, nonetheless, that the very chapter in which this case is fully borne out should begin with a double conditional: “If William the Conqueror had not invaded England in the year 1066, standard English would have looked completely different today” [271], a statement high in truth value but still, inexorably, drawing protest from an astute grammarian. Luddite it may be to prefer that we adhere to certain forms of speech and writing and not others; inspired it must therefore be to argue that the equivalent of the double negative has come full circle into acceptance. This unfortunate first impression aside, the seesawing effect between the two primary determiners of what we deem “acceptable”—maximum application (generality) and minimum variation (focusing)—is well-handled; the discussion of register variation and RP is particularly good.

By far the most satisfying chapters are the newest divergences from the path of linguistic history: for instance, the lengthy and fascinating discussion of conventions, meanings, provenances, and uses of proper names, a field of study known as onomastics. It’s a rare volume that tackles this subject in depth, and I haven’t read anything to compete with this discussion; the key point, and the most interesting to my eye, is the statement that

Since linguistic change may have the effect of making structured names opaque, and therefore of allowing any synchronically opaque string of sounds or letters to function as a proper name, it is possible to exploit this characteristic by inventing names consisting of arbitrary material […] This important point […] has been refined into the Onymic Default Principle, which states that the default interpretation of any string of linguistic units is a proper name. [313]

Names and meaning are, as author Richard Coates explains, weirdly entwined: if he had named his daughter Charity, like a Puritan in 17th-century England, he would have done so by “appropriating” the word charity, so that upon her baptism, any sense of the term would be uncompromised by the nature of the daughter. That is, Charity as a proper name means no less and no more than a string of sounds when bestowed on a person, even if the person in question turned out to be less than charitable.

This fact tends to render naming susceptible to normal linguistic processes rather earlier than other lexical items. Compound names, for instance, may be blurred or combined orthographically or verbally (“Worcestershire”), while some remnants of Old English like the nominal dative plural –um are absorbed by what surrounds them (“Newsham”). The implications of naming, then, for the study of a history of English, are tricky to trace. What do plurals mean in the context of mountains and towns? “Three Middletons,” the author points out, does not mean “three middle villages” but “three towns named Middleton.” The example is apt; the author spends far more time on place names than on other naming conventions, and he focuses his study primarily (understandably) in England, deriving linguistic origins and providing instances with merry abandon. The chapter ends with an unexpectedly dry recitation of opportunities for further research, citing the worthy journals Nomina and Journal of the English Place-Name Society but not doing much more in this particularly interesting branch of the language tree. We go on, however, because the best is yet to come: English in Britain and English in North America are, rightfully, separate chapters, followed by an excruciatingly brief discussion of English as a global language.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single language in possession of a vast territory must be in search of a historian. Such a chronicler has the worst of challenges; any linguist, writer, grammarian, or other student of language must be fascinated by the processes seen occurring around them, and yet because the phenomena are emergent, we do not have the data to truly understand the significance of the occurrences as they develop. We notice the developments of New Englishes all around the world, with concurrent political seesawing (the government of one country, for example, outlawing its people’s use of a creolized English for fear that English might take over the national language). Unfortunately, as David Crystal makes clear, “the chief reason for the lack of knowledge [of implications] is the recency of the phenomenon” [422]. Still, we can make some projections, given proper precautions.

First among these precautions is the widely held yet incorrect assumption that English is, indeed, a global language. Statistics show that in 2000, nearly one quarter of the world’s speakers used English; yet, Crystal reminds us, this still means that three quarters of the world’s speakers do not. We need perspective if the research is to be untainted. Second among the precautionary statements is this: research “suggests that the proportion of the world’s population who have English as a first language will decline to… less than 5 percent in 2050. The situation is without precedent for an international language” [425]. A third precaution is to debunk the popular notion that there’s something inherent to the linguistic structure of English that makes it so likely to lay its eggs in the nests of other birds; that notion largely relies on the idea that English is easy to learn because of its comparative lack of inflectional endings or the lack of grammatical gender. In reality, “global stature [of a language] has nothing to do with linguistic character” [426]. Rather, multiple factors combine and recombine to advance a language to worldwide domination. Among the influences are politics, the press, advertising, pop music, and education, and chief among these, naturally, is politics. Language is an “immensely democratizing institution”—once you learn a language, you are free to manipulate it at will, so that it is entirely possible for second-, third-, or fourth-language speakers to start a linguistic “fashion” that could catch enough fire to begin to appear in print…at which time, of course, the course of linguistic history might well need to be re-examined [432]. This happening is both the wheel on the historian’s path and the path itself: at what point shall we say that a language’s standardization has been disturbed? And is it truly a minor disturbance in the waters or a bubble signifying something breathing beneath the surface? If the grammar of rap, for instance, takes hold of the present state of African-American English and begins to foment change in written English, at what point shall we say that a dialect has become a new language? And at what point past that shall we say that a family of Englishes has arisen in a qualitative change? It’s one thing to say that English has dozens of dialects; when those dialects diverge enough to be separate paths, will we then have not multidialectism but multilingualism? What would that look like?

Frustratingly, there can be no answer at the present moment. Language changes as we use it. My own use of ‘shall’ in this review is probably outdated according to some lights and outright incorrect according to others. The entire text is geared toward the essential truth of language’s development. Globally, the phenomenon is the same: since we cannot say that one English is superior to another, we must grant them all legitimacy; we can only continue to watch and listen and read as we move the English language forward—or as it moves forward without us. Ultimately, the distinctions between “first” and “second” languages will become indistinguishable; the notion of “standard” or “common usage” will wither away. In that future written by ourselves and our language, the historian will have multiple paths to trace—and fittingly, we will no longer be willing (or, perhaps, able) to title works like this “the” history of English. Until that time, this text is strikingly useful for the scholar, and although too dense in spots for the lay reader, still fascinating to read.


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