A Lingustic Introduction to the History of English
This general text for students in linguistics, and perhaps English majors, is ingeniously designed. After a couple of chapters on the nature of language and modern English phonetics, it begins a broad chronological account of English through the centuries, stopping at convenient stations—Old English in the time of Alfred, Middle English 1350, English of the King James Bible, and so on up to recent Americanisms. The ingenious device is that, at each station along the way, the authors treat the particular subject with a different method, chosen partly for its peculiar relevance but mainly to illustrate for the student the range of philological thinking. The place of English in the Indo-European languages is, necessarily, handled by the comparative philology that climaxed in the first half of the nineteenth century. After some necessary political history, Old English is treated morphologically, reasonably enough because of its inflexions, and this gives opportunity to try out the structural linguistics of the first decades of the twentieth century. Middle English is the occasion, not unreasonably, for illustrating linguistic maps. Early Modern English is picked on, rather arbitrarily and not too happily, to expound and apply full-blown structural linguistics, the grammar of kernel sentences and transformation—rules that are associated with the work of Noam Chomsky. The eighteenth century and Victorian times are used, inevitably but boringly, for a sensible but uninspired critique of “correct usage” and the theory of dictionaries. And the last chapter is a repository for vocabulary counts, etymologies, borrowings and coinings, slang, and other events that occur as relics in the contemporary lexicon.
It is a useful framework. It allows for the inclusion of a lot of intellectual and scientific thinking and general history, plenty for teacher and students to talk about. It avoids premature specialism and repeating material, yet it is not confusing and it is all about English. And the whole is fairly inclusive. The only surprising total omission—especially surprising since the authors are of the school of Sapir—is any discussion of English as world language, Basic English, etc.
The other weaknesses and omissions are endemic in the “linguistic” school itself, whether in its anthropological or logical-positivist tradition, and they will be the main subject of this review. It is the procedure of this school to abstract so rigorously to its one subject of “Language,” leaving out all nonsense about anything else, that finally one judges that its principles do not spring from anything, they are largely fiat and calculus. In this book, the “fundamental” functions of language, communication, and expression, are ritually touched in Chapter I and heard of no more; what they can possibly mean is not discussed, and nothing whatever is made to follow from their fundamentality. “Meaning” is what lexical units (“chair,” “swim,” or “yellow”) “have in a more usual sense,” but grammatical units (tense, pause, or dependent clause) “have only in a vague, subjective, and circular sense”; but the student is not notified that there are problems of semantics, and have been theorists, whether epistemologists,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.