The history of English: A student’s guide

The history of English: A student’s guide. By Ishtla Singh. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005. Pp. xiii, 226. ISBN 9780340806951. $29.95.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Simon’s Rock College

The story of the English language is one of the few areas in linguistics with popular appeal. As a result, various publications and documentaries have appeared under similar titles, and beginners may be inclined to believe that there is only one specific narrative for the history of our language, handed down from one generation to the next, with only a few updates. Singh’s book includes this kind of standard, orthodox material, but she also wants to draw the reader’s attention to recent scholarship and topics under debate in the academic community. Most likely, her reader already has some limited background knowledge of the conventional history, but wants to explore different, even controversial perspectives.

S starts by describing the major processes of change that have affected English over the centuries and stresses that virtually every kind of change can be observed for any time period. She then turns to the prehistory of the English language and gives an overview of the Indo-European language family; she includes a discussion of the Indo-European homeland and the controversies that surround this topic. She concludes with a discussion of April McMahon and Robert McMahon’s (2005) development of quantitative methods for language classification.

The following four chapters are structured around the traditional periodization of the history of the English language and provide a solid overview of the standard material that would be expected in a textbook with this title. Therefore, I highlight here only what is new and unusual. For Old English, there is a discussion of studies that have explored the constructions of Anglo-Saxon masculinity and femininity as manifested in Beowulf. The chapter on Middle English describes Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt’s (1977) creole hypothesis and the subsequent debate that widely discredited it. The Early Modern English chapter includes a treatment of the introduction of English in Barbados, one of the earliest landing points for English in the new world. The final chapter, on Modern English, presents two snapshots. For the eighteenth century, there is a detailed discussion of Jonathan Swift’s A modest proposal, where S demonstrates that its underlying ideology to this present day is ‘alive and well’ (188). For the nineteenth century, the spread of English as a result of the expansion of the British Empire is exemplified by focusing on Singapore. S concludes with an overview of predictions made at the end of the twentieth century for the future use of English.

This textbook successfully demonstrates that research in the history of the English language is ongoing and that there are still many unanswered questions and unexplored areas. In addition, it emphasizes that traditional views can be reexamined and updated, especially through interdisciplinary contributions and even through the application of new computer technology. It goes without saying that S was limited to only a few representative examples of current research. Her goal is to encourage further exploration through classroom discussions and student research papers. A great feature is the inclusion of study questions at the end of each chapter: they provide a basis for further research and encourage the student to include approaches from other disciplines.