Varieties of English in writing

Varieties of English in writing: The written word as linguistic evidence. Ed. by Raymond Hickey. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. 378. ISBN 9789027249012. $135 (Hb).

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 of course use literary texts all of the time, 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. In ‘Linguistic evaluation of earlier texts’ Raymond Hickey examines, among other topics, 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’s ‘Non-standard language in earlier English’ examines 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, which follows, ‘Assessing non-standard writing in lexicography’ looks at ‘the treatment of non-standard and regional varieties of English in historical dictionaries, especially the OED.’ (43) His essay offers a useful description of ‘the OED’s policy decision in dealing with written evidence for non-standard varieties [of English].’ (57)

The essays that follow concentrate on different regional varieties of English, beginning with a group of essays on forms of English found in the British Isles. Katie Wales covers Northern English in writing between the years 1500–1900. Gunnel Melchers describes Southern English in writing during the same period. J. Derrick McClure’s essay describes attitudes towards early modern and modern Scots, followed by an essay called ‘Irish English in early modern drama: The birth of a linguistic stereotype’ by Raymond Hickey. An essay on British Isles English by Kevin McCafferty rounds out this regional grouping.

The following essays take on forms of English found outside of the British Isles, beginning with Lisa Cohen Minnick’s essay ‘Dialect literature and English in the USA: Standardization and national linguistic identity’. Stefan Dollinger then looks at 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 looks at the sources for early Australian English in her essay ‘A peculiar language: Linguistic evidence for early Australian English’. In the book’s final essay, Elizabeth Gordon examines the sources for early New Zealand English.

This is 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.