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The English Language

A Linguistic History


Laurel J. Brinton & Leslie K. Arnovick


Don Mills (Ontario): Oxford University Press, 2011. Second Edition (First: 2006)

Paperback. xxii + 602 p., ill., maps. ISBN 978-0195431575. CDN$ 115.95 / £70.00


Reviewed by Joan C. Beal

University of Sheffield



This is the second edition of a popular and successful textbook aimed at ‘all students interested in English’ [xvii] including those with no prior knowledge of linguistics. It aims to provide readers with an understanding of language change, knowledge of the origins of English and the major stages in its development and ‘an understanding of how the current state of the English language has resulted from historical change’[xvii]. The book was originally designed to support an online course and is organised as a course book. Each chapter begins with an overview and a set of objectives (‘After completing this chapter, you should be able to’ [1 and passim]), is illustrated with texts presented in shaded boxes, includes exercises with space for the student to write answers, further reading and recommended web links. For the teacher, or the self-taught student, an ‘exercise key’ is provided [523-564] and there is a companion website which includes sound files of readings in reconstructed historical pronunciation. Features new to the second edition include a timeline of historical, literary and linguistic events [498-522] and a ‘quick reference guide’ [485-497] with charts of vowels, consonants, morphological features, etc. for the major periods. A glossary of linguistic terms is also provided [565-581].

The content of The English Language likewise reflects its purpose as a ‘one-stop shop’ for teaching the history of English to a very broad range of students. The first three chapters are devoted to basic introductions to the structure of English and the nature of language change, such that students or readers who already have some background in linguistics might want to skip these. Chapter 4 and part of chapter 5 deal with the pre-history of English, including detailed accounts of Grimm’s and Verner’s laws [136-145], so that it is not until page 151 that we begin to encounter a historical period of English as such. At the other end of the chronological scale, a section on the effects of new media on English [423-431] is an innovation of this second edition, and ‘Varieties of English’, which was included in the chapter on Modern English in the first edition, has a chapter to itself. In between we have chapters on Old, Middle and Early Modern English in which full and clear accounts of the sounds, spelling, morphology and syntax of each period are provided, along with discussion of relevant socio-historical issues such as language contact and standardisation.

The second edition of The English Language is a well-designed, self-contained textbook which could be taken from the shelf and used as the basis of a course on the history of English. As such it should be a gift to any reader faced with the task of delivering such a course, but I have a few reservations. First, this book is published in Canada and, as the authors clearly state, ‘assumes the perspective of North American English’ [xvii]. As such, certain details would need to be glossed or explained for readers who are speakers or learners of non-American varieties. Often, phonological features are discussed from the point of view of a North American norm, which, without the intervention of a teacher, could be confusing for students outside this area. For instance, in the introductory chapter on ‘the sounds and writing of English’, syllabic consonants are explained with reference to ‘the second syllables of prism, button, bottle, and butter, where there is no vowel sound’ [38]. For the many speakers of non-rhotic varieties of English, the last of these words does end in a vowel, so the example could be confusing. Many years ago, as an undergraduate and a speaker of a northern English dialect, I took some time to decipher an account of British English phonology which provided separate phonemic symbols for the vowels in cup and put, which are identical in my variety, but not in RP. I can, therefore, empathise with any linguistically naive, non-rhotic reader of this text. Of course, some model of English must be used, and in a text primarily directed at a North American market, that model should be North American, but an explanatory note would be helpful in cases like this.

My second reservation concerns the tendency in some places for bold on-record statements to be made about issues which are the subject of debate. In their account of the Celtic language family [108-109], the authors state that both Cornish and Manx are extinct, and in their earlier account of ‘language death’, they claim that ‘attempts to bring back Cornish or Manx (extinct Celtic languages) have only proved anachronistic’ [61]. Given that over five hundred people self-identified as speakers of Cornish in the 2011 census, and Manx-medium education is offered on the Isle of Man, this is rather dismissive. Elsewhere, there is some confusion in the terminology used for the languages of Scotland. In the section devoted to Scottish Standard English, the authors rightly describe Scots as ‘a standardized form of the English language spoken in southern Scotland’ [461], but elsewhere [324] the term Scots appears in a list of Celtic languages contributing the loan-words ptarmigan and trousers to Early Modern English. In this latter case, the correct language name would be Gaelic or Scots Gaelic.

Lastly, I have more serious reservations about the treatment of Late Modern English, and the eighteenth century in particular. Here, I must declare an interest, as this is my research area, and I have published a text book devoted to the period (Beal 2004). Despite the inclusion in the references of both my book and Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade’s more recent (2009) introduction to the period, the authors have not taken the opportunity to update the monolithic view of this period as ‘the age of correctness’ going back to Leonard (1929). Beal et al. (2006) have challenged the view that all eighteenth-century grammarians ‘were people of privilege and power’ [381] and that ‘the drive to impose linguistic conformity’ went hand-in-hand with ‘the disapproval of political and religious non-conformity’ [380]. The list of ‘guardians of the language’ on page 381 erroneously includes amongst those who ‘could boast of literary achievements’, the playwright Richard Sheridan, when it was actually his father Thomas who taught elocution and published books on language. There are also inaccuracies in the account of the origins of prescriptive rules: the authors here state that ‘Lowth (1762) ... forbade... emphatic negatives because they seemed to add up to an affirmative’, but, as Tieken-Boon van Ostade points out [2010: 11], Lowth’s first mention of the double negative was in the second edition of his grammar (1763) and even here, what Lowth actually wrote was a description of its use in the Standard English of the time rather than a proscription. The list of ‘prescriptions and proscriptions’ associated with eighteenth-century grammarians on page 390 also includes ‘do not split an infinitive’, a rule not mentioned by any eighteenth-century grammarian and first commented on in 1834. These might seem trifling points, but they are symptomatic of a lack of attention to recent scholarship on Late Modern English which could have been rectified in the second edition.

In conclusion, the second edition of The English Language : A Linguistic History has much to commend it in terms of its design and the usefulness of its supporting material, but it is more suited to a North American market than a European or Antipodean one, and it is unfortunate that the authors missed the opportunity to improve what even at the time of the first edition was an outdated view of eighteenth-century grammars and grammarians.


Beal, Joan C. English in Modern Times, 1700-1945. London: Arnold, 2004

Beal, Joan C.; Hodson, Jane; Percy, Carol & Steadman-Jones, Richard. ‘Introduction’ in New Approaches to the Study of Late Modern English, Historiographia Linguistica 33-1 (2006) : 1-10.

Leonard, Stirling A. The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, 1700-1800. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. An Introduction to Late Modern English. Edinburgh: University Press, 2009.

_________________________  The Bishop’s Grammar. Oxford: University Press, 2010.




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