Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Review of:

Richard M. Hogg and David Denison (eds.) (2006), A History of the English Language.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pb edition 2006.

Received April 2009, published April 2009 (HSL/SHL 9)

The present volume is a paperback edition of A History of the English Language (HEL), first published in hardback in 2006. In line with modern times, this work is now also available in eBook format. These formats considerably lower the price of the book, from £80.00 for a hardback copy to £23.99 for a paperback edition and $39.00 USD for the eBook, thus making it more accessible to its intended readership: senior undergraduates. The purpose of the volume is twofold: (i) to present a complex and updated picture of where English stands today and (ii) to explain how English has developed over the centuries. Unlike other preceding manuals on the history of the English language (e.g. Mugglestone 2006, Van Gelderen 2006), the present volume lays emphasis on recent periods and on language variation.

HEL, like its “big brother”, The Cambridge History of the English Language (CHEL, Hogg 1992-2001), is a co-edited work published by Cambridge University Press to which an international board of leading scholars in different fields has contributed - in some cases to both volumes. However, there are two key differences. On the one hand, the disparity in their length and depth is obvious; whereas CHEL provides a multi-volume work with a full scholarly account of the history of English, HEL conveys an authoritative though much more summarised and selective account. On the other hand, whilst the volumes in CHEL are chronologically organised, the chapters in HEL unfold a topical discussion of a specific aspect of the language, although there is a diachronic development of the topic.

The book is organised in nine chapters, followed by a useful section with further reading per chapter, the reference and index sections. David Denison and Richard Hogg introduce the subsequent chapters in their “Overview”, and they also set forth the theoretical framework by explaining the effect that external influences, such as war, migration movements or Christianity, had on the development of the English language. An insightful section, “The form of historical evidence” (pp. 29-35), deals with the nature and limitations of source texts used in the study of the history of English. This is a relevant issue since an immense range of documentary evidence including letters, diaries and private records is extensively incorporated in the ensuing chapters to illustrate and support theoretical explanations.

Chapter 2, by Roger Lass, oozes wisdom and experience on each page. Throughout, Lass shows a clear understanding of the development of phonology and morphology and provides a unique analysis of it. Take, for instance, his account of the Great Vowel Shift (pp. 81-83). After providing the traditional explanation which holds that a transformation of all the long vowels in the system took place at a more or less specific time, Lass argues that this language phenomenon is the result of two processes extended in time: on the one hand, the early raising of the high mid vowels with diphthongisation of the high ones and, on the other, the raising of the low mid and low vowels (p. 83, cf. Lass 1988, 1997, 1999).

In Chapter 3, “Syntax”, Olga Fischer and Wim van der Wurff masterly integrate a scholarly discussion with a coherent story of the development of syntactic features, like the position of determiners or clitic pronouns, over time. They supply a table with the main changes, a useful aid which guides the reader through the highlights of the chapter. “The story of modals” (pp. 146-52) is particularly interesting. These authors prove that the pre-modals did not fully develop uniformly into a new category, the auxiliary, in Old and Middle English as has been widely accepted after Lightfoot’s (1974, 1979) theory, since modal verbs, the authors claim, have gradually and diversely continued to change in some varieties of English well into the Late Modern English period (p. 151).

In Chapter 4, Dieter Kastovsky outlines and illustrates the close interrelationship between external and internal history as regards vocabulary through the analysis of borrowings and word formation from Old English to Modern English. The examination shows how vocabulary is a key tool “to the understanding of the culture and civilisation of a speech community” (p. 201). Despite the limitations imposed by the sparse source material in the earlier periods, Kastovsky manages to deal sensibly with the stratification of vocabulary in Old English not only in terms of diatopic variation but also diaphasic variation. This chapter together with chapters 2 and 3 make up the main substance of the book, amounting up to 227 pages out of the total 420.  

Chapter 5, “Standardisation”, by Terttu Nevalainen and Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, is divided into two major parts. In the first part, the authors extensively document and illustrate each of the stages of the standardisation process of English as developed by the Milroys (1991) – selection, acceptance, diffusion, maintenance, elaboration of function, codification and prescription – showing that the process was conscious and took place from above. In the second part, the authors examine how spelling, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation show different degrees of focus and supralocalisation in the process of standardisation, the spelling system being the most focused (a minimum of variation) and pronunciation the least.

In the next chapter, Richard Coates deals with the linguistic origin of personal and place names, the historical significance of their distribution and their use as a tool of genealogy (p. 317). The author follows the philological tradition by considering the referential status of proper and place names. His account is intimately connected to external factors that determined which languages co-existed in each historical period, for instance the Norman Conquest, and how each language exerted influence in the different social groups.

“English in Britain” by Richard Hogg is the seventh chapter, and the first one that specifically considers historical dialectology. The author explains the difficulties of working with early texts to determine genuine dialectal differences within the British Isles, arguing for an alternative classification of major texts by diocesan boundaries on the grounds that “almost all our texts come from monks working in one or other monastery” (p. 358, cf. Hogg 1992). Hogg calls Middle English “the age of dialects” and Modern English “the period of dialectology” (p. 370). Although the chapter focuses on the regional dialects of England, there is a final section with brief references to Scottish, Welsh, Irish and also British Black English.

The penultimate chapter, “English in North America”, is written by Edward Finegan, who discusses American English since the seventeenth century, in the context of the first settlements, to the present day. When the colonial period started, English in North America was an extraordinary melting pot as regards the wide range of languages transported from Europe as well as the great number of languages of the native Indians; however, “colonial English was strikingly homogeneous” (p. 390). A turning point in the development of American English was the declaration of independence, an event which coincided with the spread of a prescriptive spirit in North America, which aimed at regulating the emerging American English language.  The American linguist Noah Webster came to be the codifier of the American dictionary and settled some spelling practices that are still valid today. There are also some notes on ethnic dialects (African American English, Latino English) as well as on English in Canada.

The last chapter in this volume takes “English worldwide” into consideration, and it was written by David Crystal. In a book so devoted to recent times, no better chapter could conclude it, as it analyses the factors leading to its global spread, its present state as “New Englishes” and a more speculative section dealing with future trends. It is striking to see that it is still generally assumed today that English shows “properties in the language which make it specially attractive or easy to learn” (p. 426), arguments which were already used by eighteenth-century grammar-writers to promote the teaching of English at the expense of Latin. However, Crystal clearly shows that the global spread of English does not have anything to do with intrinsic language features but rather with a wide range of extrinsic reasons such as politics, the media, films and music.

We have to credit the editors of this volume for its originality in terms of content organisation, as it does not show a diachronic development of the English language but involves a topical discussion of several aspects of the language. In HEL changes are treated as a continuous process accounted for by both internal, intralinguistic reasons and external, socio-historical forces. The fresh discussions in each chapter follow a narrative line which, together with the different writing styles of the contributors, result in a dynamic, engaging and pleasant reading experience. Limitations of space have constrained the authors to the selection of some major changes and events concerning each topic, which results in a true but simplified picture of the themes under discussion. It is precisely this simplified picture that validates this work as an indispensable reference tool not only for senior undergraduates, but also, and mainly, for postgraduate students and young scholars, who will thus gain a grasp of specific areas as well as of up-to-date specialised literature.

Maria E. Rodriguez Gil, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (contact the reviewer)


Gelderen, Elly van (2006). A History of the English Language. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Hogg, Richard M. (main ed.). (1992-2001). The Cambridge History of the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mugglestone, Lynda (2006). The Oxford History of the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.