English in modern times: 1700–1945

English in modern times: 1700–1945. By Joan C. Beal. London: Arnold, 2004. Pp. xvi, 264. ISBN 0340761172. $35.

Reviewed by Alexander Onysko, University of Innsbruck

The period when the face of modern English acquired its characteristics constitutes the focus of Beal’s book. This phase, classified as Later Modern English (LME), roughly coincides with the period of the late eighteenth (marked by the date of the British Restoration in 1660) and nineteenth centuries, through the end of World War II. From the very beginning of the book, B emphasizes that changes arising with the constitutional monarchy, enlightenment, industrialization and plutocracy, urbanization, increased travel and communication (e.g. the Penny Post), and imperialism shaped the nature of LME.

The book is divided into eight chapters covering the topics of vocabulary, lexicography, syntactic change, the role of grammars and grammarians, phonological change, the genesis of Received Pronunciation, and, briefly, varieties of English beyond the standard. While the various chapters provide a valid and comprehensive overview of LME, some issues are dealt with in more detail than others. For example, B notes a neglect of investigations into the phonological changes in LME so far, but goes on to fill this gap with a detailed analysis of phonological changes that covers vowel changes in lexical sets, yod-dropping, reduction of unstressed vowels, weakening and loss of /r/, h-dropping, the distribution of the velar nasal, and changes in the pronunciation of individual words. Another detailed view on linguistic features of LME is provided in the chapter on syntactic change, which deals with the usage of second-person pronouns (thou vs. you), the variable functions of do, the regulation of relativizers, the innovations of the be + -ing construction, phrasal verbs, and the decline of the subjunctive.

B’s discussion of the role of grammarians in influencing the usage of English is based on the observation that research so far has argued from the perspective of an undiversified dichotomy of prescriptive vs. descriptive grammars. However, as B appropriately argues, this has often led to unjust and biased criticism of certain grammarians (e.g. Robert Lowth), who, despite following a doctrine of correctness, also show descriptive tendencies in their grammars.

While B’s analysis of the development of the vocabulary of LME remains largely restricted to data from the CED (Corpus of English Dialogues 1560–1760) and generally falls short of portraying lexicological changes, her account of the rise of lexicography in the period of LME is conclusively drawn. The only shortcoming is the mere passing mention of Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, which stands as an impressive compendium of English dialects from 1700 to 1900. This lack of treatment is indicative of B’s generally restricted focus on the development of Standard English.

Despite this limitation, as addressed by B herself in the last chapter, the book succeeds in providing a sound overview of LME by giving essential information about the linguistic characteristics of English during this period and by showing how the English language developed as a consequence of sociopolitical, technological, and ideological changes. Its high readability renders the book a very valuable resource for introductory courses and, in some parts, for higher-level courses on the history of English.