The English language

The English language: A historical introduction. 2nd edn. By Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw. (Cambridge approaches to linguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 306. ISBN 9780521670012. $30.99.

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

This is a revised and updated edition of a book originally published in 1993 and reprinted several times. Over the course of eleven chapters it presents the history of English in a form suitable for use in undergraduate courses. There are also some electronic resources (exercises and sound files) available at <>.

The first two chapters, ‘What is language’ (1–30) and ‘The flux of language’ (31–56), set the stage for the rest of the book by introducing the basic concepts of general and historical linguistics, respectively. They are followed by chapters on ‘The Indo-European languages’ (57–84), which covers issues like the Indo-European homeland, the vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European, and the classification of the Indo-European languages, and on ‘The Germanic languages’ (85–104), which focuses largely on the classification of the Germanic languages and the structure of Proto-Germanic.

The next chapter, ‘Old English’ (105–36), outlines the structure and vocabulary of Old English as well as sound changes in Old English, and discusses issues like the preservation of Old English. This is followed by ‘Norsemen and Normans’ (137–60), which deals with the impact of Scandinavian and French on English. The book then offers chapters on ‘Middle English’ (161–84), ‘Early Modern English’ (185–210), and ‘Late Modern English’ (211–38). These three chapters all follow the same general structure as the chapter on Old English, addressing a number of issues relevant to the structure of and linguistic developments within these stages of English.

The final two chapters of the book are ‘English as a world language’ (239–64), and ‘English today and tomorrow’ (265–81). These chapters offer discussions of English around the world and of some ongoing and possible additional changes in current English, respectively. The volume concludes with suggestions for further reading, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

I must confess to mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it contains a great deal of useful information and is very readable, and the accompanying electronic resources certainly enhance its value. On the other hand, there are some slips in the earlier sections of the book that should have been caught in editing: e.g. a common alternative term for ‘Grimm’s Law’ is ‘the first sound shift’, not ‘the first sound shifting’ (97, 100), and some phenomena should probably have been treated in more detail (e.g. the classification of the Germanic languages). Some of the works cited are no longer the most current or valuable studies available, and there are some odd gaps in the bibliography (e.g. J.P. Mallory’s work on the Indo-European homeland should have been cited in that connection). These issues aside, the book remains a useful and handy resource on the history of English.