The English Language: A Historical Introduction

by Charles Laurence BarberJoan C. BealPhilip A. Shaw


Christopher‘s review

Sep 01, 11
Read in September, 2011
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: A Historical Introduction aims to cover the development of our speech over as wide a span as possible, from the murky past of the ancestral Indo-European language to the present day. Charles Barber was responsible for the first edition of 1993, but for this second edition Joan C. Beal and Philip A. Shaw have made some revisions and added an entire new chapter on Late Modern English. The book is targeted towards speakers of UK English, as many of the examples and the description of sound changes assumes a knowledge of that variant particularly.

This book is a mess. The authors want to tell a story in a friendly manner, but first they spend over 50 pages of a 300-page book describing the basics of linguistics (phonology, syntax, language change). This will scare away readers wanting a friendly introduction, and for readers wanting a more meaty text these linguistic concepts are presented in far too sketchy a fashion to really prepare them for serious study. After that introductory chapter, the actual description of English over time is little more than the authors throwing out trivia without forming a coherent, smoothly flowing text. It feels like something cobbled together.

The chapter on Late Modern English is interesting. While anyone can notice that e.g. Jane Austen was writing from a different time due to her quaint vocabulary, I had never noticed some syntactic changes that had occurred in English only after her time. Still, there must be better historical introductions to English out there.


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