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External Influences on English

From its Beginnings to the Renaissance


D. Gary Miller


Oxford Linguistics Series

Oxford: University Press, 2012

Hardcover. xxxi+317 p. ISBN 978-0199654260. £65.00


Reviewed by Jeremy Smith

University of Glasgow



Contact between languages, and between varieties of the same language, has always been at the heart of the study of linguistic evolution – and unsurprisingly, since it seems to be, alongside variation and systemic regulation, one of the three principal mechanisms of the process (see, for a classic account, Samuels 1972 – not included in the set of references for the book under review). However, the historical study of contact between languages places considerable demands upon scholars which comparatively few are qualified to satisfy: the ability to move easily between large numbers of languages; openness to engagement not only with philological study of complex texts which have survived often by chance but also – and this demand has become more salient over the last three decades – to developments in linguistic theory, especially the considerable strides made in sociolinguistics; and a good grasp of cultural history and demography.

It is no surprise therefore that standard accounts of language contact on the history of English, as offered in undergraduate or even postgraduate courses, tend to engage with a fairly restricted set of examples (I consider myself to be an offender!) One of the most valuable features of the book under review is that the author, an emeritus professor of linguistics and classics, is able to draw upon a lifetime of experience in synthesising a huge amount of scholarship on the topic, with special reference to the history of English. The book falls into eight chapters. After an introduction ‘placing’ English in relation to other varieties of Indo-European, and two chapters of background, the bulk of the book offers a hugely valuable and learned survey of early loanwords from Latin and Greek (chapter 4), the Scandinavian (sic) heritage of English (chapter 5), and the effects of French on English, notably in vocabulary and word-formation (chapter 6). A chapter on ‘the continuity and revival of classical learning’ (chapter 7) is followed by a comparatively brief summary (chapter 8). The book ends with an outline of the special phonetic symbols used, and a full bibliography. There are indices of words, including a handy onomastic list, but no index of topics covered.

I enjoyed this book, which does an immensely valuable job of synthesis. The author is hugely learned and experienced, both as a researcher and a teacher, and these qualities display themselves throughout. He is demonstrably very qualified to undertake the task he has set himself, and he offers judicious and wide-ranging discussion on every page, often masterpieces of concision which bring together a great breadth of learning. For instance, the impact of Celtic on English has often been underplayed because the investigation has been restricted to the study of vocabulary; the author, aware of the extensive theoretical literature on processes of language contact, offers a good survey of the impact of Celtic on grammatical structures as well, putting a wide range of reading into one handy location. (I might add Benskin 2011 on the Northern Personal Pronoun Rule; although this work is cited in the bibliography I would have liked a judicious engagement with the issue, perhaps alongside other discussions on pp. 35-39.) There is also a very attractive, perhaps slightly quirky side to the book but entirely valid in context: the author regularly refers to modern demographic work on DNA-distribution which assists him in his arguments about substrate processes.

I do have a few reservations. Some are what might be termed ‘technical’. The author, for reasons which he states explicitly at the end of the book, adopts ‘US-style’ phonetic symbols rather than those of the International Phonetic Association, claiming that the former are ‘more systematic’; I think the authorities involved in the IPA would have something to say about that! More seriously, a book of this kind would have derived much benefit from a thematic index in addition to lists of words cited; although that would have lengthened the book it would have been valuable and I found myself attempting to create one for myself as I read the book for this review. The chapter on ‘the continuity and revival of classical learning’, although very interesting, sat rather oddly to my taste in the structure of the book, and could perhaps have been better integrated.

More generally, I did sense a lack of engagement with semantic issues. When words are ‘borrowed’ into a language they meet words which are already there, and there is reorganisation within semantic fields as a result. The famous anecdote, which dates back to at least John Wallis in the seventeenth century and was subsequently popularised by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe, about the disambiguation in meaning between beef from French and native cow, is a classic illustration, but there are others; for instance, engagement with Carole Biggam’s work on colour-terms would have been a valuable addition (see most recently Biggam 2012, but this publication refers to a fair body of earlier work). And I do myself have some issues with the word ‘influence’, which although widely adopted does require unpacking. A chapter – perhaps in place of the chapter on classical learning – which addressed what this slippery term really means would have been a valuable addition.

These are comparatively minor reservations. In my view, this is an exciting and important book which lives up thoroughly to the publishers’ blurb: ‘scholarly, readable, and always fascinating’. I can recommend it wholeheartedly to teachers and advanced postgraduates, and also for researchers looking for a handy authoritative account of early language-contact in English.



Benskin, M. ‘Present Indicative Plural Concord in Brittonic and Early English’. Transactions of the Philological Society 109 (2011) : 158-185.

Biggam, C. The Semantics of Colour (Cambridge: University Press, 2012).

Samuels, M.L. Linguistic Evolution (Cambridge: University Press, 1972).


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