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History of English


Jonathan Culpeper


Language Workbooks Series

London: Routledge, 2015

Paperback. Third Edition (First, 1997). x+149 p. ISBN 978-1138891753. £19.99

(Hardback: 978-1138891746, £70)


Reviewed by Marc Fryd

Université de Poitiers



Ten years after the previous revision, Professor Jonathan Culpeper (Lancaster University) brings out a new expanded and revised edition (the third) of his introductory workbook History of English. Though modest in terms of size, the expansion (from 89 to 114 pages of main text, with another 29 pages of appendices), bears witness to the author’s ambition to stretch to the limit the accepted confines of this series. The aim of the Routledge Language Workbooks Series, as stated on the publisher’s website, is indeed:

to provide absolute beginners with practical introductions to core areas of language study. Books in the series provide comprehensive coverage of the area as well as a basis for further investigation. Each Language Workbook guides the reader through the subject using ‘hands-on’ language analysis, equipping them with the basic analytical skills needed to handle a wide range of data. Written in a clear and simple style, with all technical concepts fully explained, Language Workbooks can be used for independent study or as part of a taught class.

The objectives of the book are explicitly formulated. History of English thus:

• examines the history of the English language in order to explain the English that is used today

• introduces key linguistic concepts

• provides ‘discussion points’ to generate debate

• encourages readers to think critically about the subject

• involves readers in collecting and analysing their own data

• contains a ‘mini-corpus’ of texts, used for exercises and to illustrate points raised in the commentary

The book’s layout consists of twelve chapters, fairly even in terms of size, with tables and maps. With a comfortable 246 x 174 mm page formatting and a pleasantly rotund Galliard font for the main text, the book is ostensibly fashioned to dispel any apprehension liable to be generated by the subject matter in the targeted beginner audience.

Chapter 1 is adequately entitled The Birth of English. Expected considerations on populations, i.e. settlements and invasions, are here tackled via onomastic evidence, that is to say linguistic clues preserved in personal names and, more specificically in this book, placenames. Chapter 2, Investigating Change in English, is more programmatic than explicitly descriptive, and mostly aims to deliver the message that English is in ‘a continual state of change’, and that ‘change is not fully predictable’. Chapter 3, Marks on the Page – Letters and Punctuation, essentially paves the way for Chapter 4, Spellings and Speech Sounds, which presents an overview of English grapho-phonemics, and of one major sound change in the history of English, the Great Vowel Shift. Chapters 5, Borrowing Words, and 6, New Words from Old illustrate the key processes governing the evolution of the lexicon in any given language, i.e. expansion through external influence (borrowing) and through internal influence (morphological evolution, e.g. inflection, affixation, composition). Chapter 8, Changing Meanings, introduces the reader to the concepts of denotion and connotation, polysemy and metaphor. Chapters 8, Grammar I – Nouns, inflections and word order, and 9, Grammar II – Verbs, inflections and word order, illustrate the way in which grammatical information is conveyed via morphology and syntax, and show that these are areas where English has undergone important shifts in the course of its history (e.g. the demise of the –en nominal plural ending in favour of the –s ending, or the use of a do auxiliary in interrogative or negative contexts). Chapter 10, Dialects in England, provides some historical depth to various lexical and phonological regional differences which may be readily observed in today’s English. Chapter 11, Standardisation, shows how linguistic evolution between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries took place at the expense of variation, towards an ever greater degree of uniformity. Chapter 12, World Englishes, concludes with an evocation of varieties of English which ‘have developed out of their own unique set of circumstances and have their own identity’ [107], sometimes without any prior input from English English (i.e. British English), such as the variety spoken in the Philippines, which drew instead from American English.

To these twelve chapters are added seven appendices. Appendix I shows how to read an OED entry. Appendix II is a simplified representation of the Indo-European family tree. Appendix III illustrates the set of symbols used in phonetic transcriptions, with some evocation of regional variation. Appendix IV provides a ‘mini-corpus’ of eight short texts used as illustrations throughout the book. Appendix V lists the answers to the various exercises found in each of the twelve chapters, leaving out those that readers can find out by themselves ‘by using a reference work, (e.g. a dictionary)’, ‘that involve [them] working on [their] own data’, or ‘that ask [them] about [their] own language use’. Appendix VI is a list of web links to relevant sources, e.g. texts, dictionaries, etc. Appendix VII is a short list of general references complementing topical bibliographies given in individual chapters. Lastly, the book concludes with a six-page index of names and notions.

Culpeper’s History of English is not a reference book but a workbook, designed for first-year students: throughout, the author addresses readers in the second person, guiding them by the hand with repeated instructions and advice couched in a friendy informal style intermingled with comparisons to familiar, everyday situations. Indeed, the impression quickly surfaces of being in a face-to-face classroom situation with the teacher, in a freshman English class. In this respect, the continued success of the book must indisputably bear witness to its power of attraction and efficiency. Notwithstanding the paedagogical phrasing of contents elsewhere more aridly presented, one should not infer that the book can thus safely fall into the hands of all and any curious readers or dilettanti. Indeed, while these may find intellectual satisfaction in the painless acquisition of the overview therein presented, they will frustratingly come unstuck when, in the absence of teachers to assess their work, they are invited to write short essays on this or that specific discussion point.


It also becomes clear when perusing the book, that History of English is more specifically geared towards the British Higher Education market. Such a bias is nowhere more explicit than in Chapter 10, Dialects in England, where students are expected to show intimate knowledge with regional pronunciations for words such as house, face, money. Such prerequisites also, perforce, hinder unreserved recommendation of History of English for non-native students of English.


Culpeper’s History of English displays obvious mastery of the topics covered, and suggestions for further reading are always relevant and up-to-date and, quite crucially, adequately geared towards a learner audience.


Only a couple of typos let down an otherwise excellent editing job: p. 92 [ɒː] for bath (instead of [ɑː]); and p. 91 [ɒʊ] for house (instead of [aʊ]), also more worryingly given in the phonetics chart in Appendix III for words such as out, how, etc.


In short, there is every reason to recommend History of English for introductory-level courses, though more teacher assistance is likely to be required if the book is to be used in non-British and more crucially, non-native contexts.


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