Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Bloomington, IN
As the back cover of the book accurately explains, this book is a collection of essays ‘concerned with assessing fictional and non-fictional written texts as linguistic evidence for earlier forms of varieties of English’. Historical linguists frequently use literary texts, but the essays in this book look more closely at the important methodological and interpretive issues involved in using literary texts than most books on historical linguistics or the history of English.
The book opens with two essays that focus on Early Modern English. Raymond Hickey examines the question of Standard English in regard to studying earlier English and the representation of dialect in writing. Standard English is a product of the eighteenth century, yet it is often—and misleadingly—used to evaluate forms encountered in earlier English. Claudia Claridge and Merja Kytö examine standard and non-standard forms of English in Early Modern English. They observe that ‘finding evidence of non-standard…is…not an easy undertaking’ (35). This essay is better read, however, as a study of the emerging standard and its relationship to other forms of English.
Philip Durkin’s essay, ‘Assessing non-standard writing,’ looks at ‘the treatment of non-standard and regional varieties of English in historical dictionaries, especially the OED’ (43). His essay is a very useful description of ‘the OED’s policy decision in dealing with written evidence for non-standard varieties [of English]’ (57).
The essays that follow each concentrate on a different regional variety of English, beginning with a group of essays that describe forms of English found in the British Isles. Katie Wales covers Northern English in writing between 1500 and 1900, and Gunnel Melchers describes Southern English in writing during the same period. J. Derrick McClure’s essay addresses attitudes towards early modern and modern Scots. Raymond Hickey then examines Irish English in early modern drama in his second contribution to the book. The final contribution on British Isles English is Kevin McCafferty’s essay, ‘[H]ushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled: Writing Ulster English’.
The book then shifts its focus to forms of English found outside the British Isles. Lisa Cohen Minnick studies dialect literature and English in the United States in her essay. Stefan Dollinger then examines written sources for Canadian English with special reference to “[p]honetic reconstruction and the low-back vowel merger’ (197). Bettina Migge and Susanne Mühleisen offer a survey of ‘research on early written texts in the Anglophone Caribbean and…a critical look at the theories and methods employed to study the texts’ (223) in their essay. Daniel Schreier and Laura Wright describe the sources for the earliest St Helenian English in writing. The following essay, ‘An abundant harvest to the philologer’, by Lucia Siebers, describes the sources, and problems with the sources, for early South African English. Kate Burridge then investigates sources for early Australian English in ‘”A peculiar language”: Linguistic evidence for early Australian English’. In the book’s final essay Elizabeth Gordon examines sources for early New Zealand English.
This book holds an excellent collection of essays on the problems and methods in using literary and other written works as historical evidence of dialect and non-standard forms in English.