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American Speech 79.1 (2004) 101-104

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New Stories of English

Mohammed Albakry
Northern Arizona University

Alternative Histories of English. Edited by Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xiii + 280.

This collection of selected papers about the history of English standardization represents a first step toward more balanced and representative historical accounts of English. In addition to the editors' introduction, the book is divided into 12 chapters. The introductory one by Jim Milroy acts as a prologue, and the final one by David Crystal as an epilogue. The remaining 10 chapters are organized into two narratives: (1) the history of non-standard varieties of English, and (2) the history of communicative and pragmatic aspects of English.

In their introduction, "In the Year 2525," Watts and Trudgill lay out the main themes of the book and provide the justification for alternative [End Page 101] histories of English. They ask readers to imagine that we are "historical linguists of the 'English' (?) language in the year 2525 looking back at the year 2000" (1). No doubt, they argue, the emerging picture would be a mosaic of dialects with a rich diversity of regional forms. If the past and the present are any indications, however, this future richness might get ignored by the orthodox histories of English, which tend to focus on the "present-day standard variety" and glorify its achievement. This typical neglect of nonstandard varieties, what the editors call the "tunnel vision" version of the history of English, is the first major limitation of conventional histories. A second limitation is their almost exclusive focus on phonology, lexis, and grammar at the expense of the sociolinguistic, pragmatic, and discourse aspects of the language's development.

The six essays of the first part of the collection address the first limitation through examining a number of nonstandard varieties. By tackling some communicative and pragmatic aspects of English, the four essays in the second part attempt to redress the balance with regard to the second limitation.

To contextualize the book's project, Milroy reviews what he calls the conventional accounts of the English language. These accounts, he argues, are selective and for ideological reasons tend to legitimate certain evidence from the past while excluding other evidence. He calls this perspective here and elsewhere (Milroy and Milroy 1999) the "ideology of standard language." The chapter is mainly concerned with language historicization, that is, giving the English language a history to legitimize it. To achieve this purpose, Milroy reviews the writings of influential language scholars such as Henry Sweet, H. C. Wyld, Otto Jespersen, and E. J. Dobson and their efforts to historicize standard English. Milroy carefully shows that a number of ideological positions are at the heart of these efforts. Some are reflected in the inherited notions that some language forms are not valued forms and that some linguistic changes are "corruptions" as well the belief that proper or "legitimate" language belongs only to a selective few of its native speakers. The conventional history of language, Milroy concludes, has been narrowly linear and ideological and, thus, presents a gross simplification of language development. What is needed is a more realistic and more accurate historical description: an alternative history.

In chapter 2, Trudgill examines some of the many lesser-known English varieties or "new Englishes" that have been traditionally neglected in histories of the language even though they are spoken by more people than standard Englishes. Among the examined "alternative" places where nonstandard varieties of English developed are Newfoundland, Bermuda, Central [End Page 102] America, Saint Helena, India, and the Bonin Islands. In a similar vein, Katie Wales in her chapter on Northern British English from 1700 onward challenges what she calls the "austrocentric" (i.e., in favor of the south) disregard of English varieties other than the standard and the marginalization of dialects and urban varieties.

Like Trudgill and Wales, Elizabeth Gordon and Andrea Sunbury widen the scope of scholarly investigation to include less-studied Southern Hemisphere Englishes of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Rajend Mesthrie's later chapter (6) also deals with the Southern Hemisphere but is restricted...


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pp. 101-104
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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