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A history of the English language, and: A history of the English language, and: The Oxford history of English (review)

From: Language
Volume 85, Number 4, December 2009
pp. 893-907 | 10.1353/lan.0.0180

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
A history of the English language. By Elly van Gelderen. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2006. Pp. xviii, 334. ISBN 9027232369. $49.95.
A history of the English language. Ed. by Richard Hogg and David Denison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 495. ISBN 0521662273. $45.
The Oxford history of English. Ed. by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 485. ISBN 0199249318. $75 (Hb).

2006 was a bumper-crop year for books on the history of English.1 While in the twenty-first century a B.A., M.A., and even a Ph.D. degree in English can be obtained without any exposure to philology or linguistics, at least in the US, it is encouraging that big commercial publishers are willing to support new pedagogically oriented volumes in a field that is no longer considered central to the training of the next generation of cultural and literary historians. Not surprisingly, the way the history of English itself is presented to the publishers and the consumers reflects changes in the research and teaching environment: the shift toward socialization of the humanities, the digital revolution in research, the computerization of instruction and learning.

Bundling together three books in one review calls for a state-of-the-art overview; it should be said from the start that the study of the history of English is healthy, diversified, and intellectually energizing. All three volumes make valuable information available to scholars, instructors, students, and the general public. Although the umbrella subject matter is the same for the three volumes, the goals and the approaches of the authors and editors are different: van Gelderen’s History of the English language (HEL) is the only book in the reviewed set written by a single author and targeted specifically to an undergraduate audience. Hogg and Dennison’s (Cambridge) History of the English language (CHEL)—informally known as ‘baby-CHEL’ to distinguish it from the monumental six-volume Cambridge history of the English language (1992–2001)—is for advanced students, scholars, and teachers, while Mugglestone’s Oxford history of English (OHE) is ‘for everyone interested in the English language’ (blurb).

1. The scholarly heritage

The scholarly shoulders on which the twenty-first-century histories of English stand are truly solid and imposing. Driven initially by ecclesiastical, political, legal, antiquarian, and purely linguistic interest in the Anglo-Saxon heritage, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholars made the bulk of the pre-1066 texts available to the reading public. The first Old English–Latin–English dictionary appeared in 1659, and the first Old English grammar in 1689.2 Only two generations later, in 1749, John Free put together the first book-length history of the language.3 In [End Page 893] the nineteenth century the diachronic study of English blossomed within the more general context of scientific discovery on the one hand and the construction, maintenance, and glorification of national identity in the English-speaking countries on the other. Detailed philological descriptions of early English texts were commissioned and executed with great care by scholars trained in comparative philology. The Early English Text Society was founded in 1864 by Frederick Furnivall and has now published 475 volumes, which lay the empirical foundation of both literary and linguistic studies of Old and Middle English texts and set the standard for all other historical editorial work. The majestic Oxford English Dictionary, conceived in 1857 and started in 1879, added even more luster to what was already a highly prestigious academic enterprise. The importance of language history was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1825 Thomas Jefferson wrote:

And, more than all things, we want a dictionary . . . in which the Saxon root, placed alphabetically, shall be followed by all its cognate modifications of nouns, verbs, &c., whether Anglo-Saxon, or found in the dialects of subsequent ages. We want, too, an elaborate history of the English language.4

During the twentieth century the history of English continued to be a preeminent research area; it also became a core curricular requirement for university degrees in English both in English-speaking countries and across the world. In Britain the grammars and Anglo-Saxon primers of Henry Sweet, the ‘founding...