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  • This Language, A River: A History of English by K. Aaron Smith and Susan M. Kim
  • Peter Fields
K. Aaron Smith and Susan M. Kim. This Language, A River: A History of English. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2018. 350 p.

The acknowledgements in This Language, A River remind us of the significance of this book. Susan Kim thanks previous collaborators, implying that this collaboration with Aaron Smith, her colleague at Illinois State, is of a special caliber—perhaps something more challenging than either Smith or Kim had previously attempted. Smith and Kim do have a chapter together on colonialism and linguistics in MLA's forthcoming Teaching the History of the English Language, but Smith seems to be the driver as evidenced by two articles, one in 2009 on "be fixing to" and another in 2011 on post-1600 standardization, followed in 2015 by a chapter on "Ain't-Periphrases" for Ain'thology: The History and Life of a Taboo Word, titles referenced in This Language, A River in the chapter on dialect and Creole English. However, Smith makes it clear how much this book depended on the support of so many. Everyone in their English program seems to have thrown in to help the authors, as if all concerned realized how ambitious this book was and sensed intuitively how important it might turn out to be. They would be right.

If Smith and Kim had not written this book and Broadview not published it, the stones would cry out. What we need today at the undergraduate college level is a book that can span a classroom of both sophomore and upper level students (including non-majors and duallisted graduate students), whose preparedness runs the gamut, including faulty or nonexistent knowledge of grammar. However, the book's grammar overview must be more than just brush-up and catch-up. This overview must provide a meaningful scaffold of concepts and terms that would help elucidate historical shifts in pronunciation and morphology among Indo-European and Germanic languages, Old, Middle, and Modern English, and dialects of English spoken around the world. This book must also instill the International Phonetic Alphabet. Such would be its conceit: that it could stand on the shoulders of Baugh and Cable and a host of other scholars, distill the most important elements of the history of English, and present them in a way that was feasible without being condescending—such is the achievement of This Language, A River. [End Page 232]

Smith and Kim do not spend enormous time on each topic. They offer their best explanation of an idea and then return and pick up the thread as often as necessary to deliver the whole model or arc of development. The book builds through overlapping topics, connecting ideas of subordination, for instance, to Old English syntax, which falls short of real subordination the way we thought about it earlier in the book, but excels at parataxis, hypotaxis, and the appositive style. By the time the reader arrives at the shift between Old and Middle English, we have a working knowledge of principles and origins that allows us to appreciate and understand what is happening to the language. The phrasing of Smith and Kim is clear, purposeful, and thrives on a kind of recurring metaphor: the slow dismantling of a case-oriented English as a kind of dying. The process of decay is by analogy as nouns and adjectives seem to watch each other and imitate the loss of inflected endings as if under peer pressure. Weak nouns fall in line with strong nouns, and parts of speech follow each other's example except for the possessive: "the pressure was high for the dative plural to move in line with the nominative and accusative plurals; in other words, the dative collapsed in the plural (as it had in the singular) with the rest of the noun forms—except the genitive, which has its own story to tell" (190). Concerning pronouns, the diction is equally climatic: "One change that does occur, however, is the collapse or conflation of the accusative and dative cases into a single case that we call simply the objective case" (195).

What some will...


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pp. 232-233
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