Analysing older English

Analysing older English. Ed by David Denison, Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, Chris McCully, and Emma Moore. (Studies in English language.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 335. ISBN 9780521112468. $99 (Hb).

Reviewed by Jean-François Mondon, Minot State University

This book contains thirteen articles organized into five sections: metrics/onomastics, writing practices, dialects, phonology, and syntax. No stage of English is left untouched. Each of the five sections is introduced by one of the editors, and each introduction effectively serves as a detailed abstract for the following articles, some taking the tone of critical reviews.

Geoffrey Russom, in ‘What explanatory metrics has to say about the history of English function words’, argues that Old English metrical principles evolved into Middle English, arguing that the need for function words was curtailed by strict restrictions on placement in a line. Richard Coates studies in detail the process of onymization in his contribution, ‘To þære fulan flóde óf þære fulan flóde: On becoming a name in Easton and Winchester, Hampshire’. He concludes that it is more cost-effective for a name to be void of semantic content. Peter Kitson’s ‘Notes on some interfaces between place-name material and linguistic theory’ samples a variety of topics, ranging from the debate over the Celtic element in English place- and river-names to alleged syncope in herepaþ.

R. D. Fulk’s interesting article, ‘Anglian features in late West Saxon prose’, thoroughly reviews the different accounts for Anglian features in certain unplaced West Saxon texts, concluding that there was a one-way street, with original Anglian features being expunged. Roger Lass and Margaret Laing’s ‘ea in early Middle English: From diphthong to digraph’ provides a textually rich study of the fate of ea. Due to different phonological developments between its original long and short counterparts, ea came to be reinterpreted as a digraph capable of representing any front non-high vowel.

Joan Beal, in ‘Levelling and enregisterment in northern dialects of late Modern English’, studies dialect contact and formation in late–nineteenth-century Britain. April McMahon and Warren Maguire discuss the development of analytic methods for comparing languages and dialects as holistic entities in ‘Quantitative historical dialectology’. Terrtu Nevalainen, in ‘Reconstructing syntactic continuity and change in early modern English regional dialects: The case of who’, uncovers distinct systems of relativization between East Anglia and London, contradicting change from above.

Three articles deal specifically with phonological developments. Donka Minkova’s ‘Syllable weight and the weak-verb paradigms in Old English’ proposes that syncope was too opaque synchronically to serve as a determiner for the behavior of class 1 weak verbs. Nikolaus Ritt, in ‘How to weaken one’s consonants, strengthen one’s vowels, and remain English at the same time’, discusses the consistent yet distinct tendencies of consonant weakening and vocalic strengthening in English, which he colors with a discussion of how such tendencies are non-teleological. Derek Britton’s ‘Degemination in English, with special reference to the Middle English period’ deals with consonantal length becoming non-contrastive.

With respect to syntax, Olga Fischer, in ‘The status of the postposed “and-adjective” construction in Old English: Attributive or predicative?’, discusses the interpretation of postnominal adjectives, differentiating between those accompanied by a determiner and those without. Finally, Anthony Warner’s article, ‘DO with weak verbs in early modern English’, uses William Labov’s work on misperception to account for the rise of do in third-person singular negative declaratives of regular verbs.