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Review of Studies in the history of the English language V

posted February 1st, 2012

Studies in the history of the English language V: Variation and change in English grammar and lexicon: Contemporary approaches. Ed. by Robert A. Cloutier, Anne Marie Hamilton-Brehm, and William Kretzschmar, Jr. (Topics in English linguistics.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2010. Pp. vii, 329.

Reviewed by Elly van Gelderen, Arizona State University

This book contains six articles on English grammar and six on the English lexicon. Each article is followed by a commentary from one of the other authors in the volume and accompanied by a response by the original author. These twelve chapters are thus ‘conversations’ that ‘demonstrate the state of the art’ in the history of English.

The first part, on English grammar, contains contributions by Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Joanna Nykiel, Olga Thomason, Sherrylyn Branshaw, Akiko Nagano, and Don Chapman. The second part, on the English Lexicon, contains articles by Anatoly Liberman, Ann-Marie Svensson and Jürgen Hering, Markku Filppula, and Juhani Klemola, Elizabeth Tacho, Emily Runde, and Stefanie Kuzmack. The topics vary from dialogic contexts, sluicing, strong verb inflection, compounding, Celtic influence, the use of the word fence, and changes in the verb arrive, to name a few. I will concentrate on two, namely Joanna Nykiel’s article on sluicing and Markku Filppula and Juhani Klemola’s article on Celtic influence.

Nykiel’s study is the first I know on sluicing in the history of English. She provides examples and statistics, distinguishing between merger and sprouting. A sluice is a stranded wh-element, as in I want to read something but I don’t know what. If the deleted words after the wh-element correspond exactly to previous, overt material, as they do in the example, Nykiel calls it a merger; if they do not, it is called sprouting and the sluice builds on the argument structure of the overt predicate, as in Tell me! What? In Old English, the structural identity between the deleted and overt material is high (i.e. over 80%). An example is butan nettum huntian ic mæg. Hu? ‘Without a net I can hunt. How?’, but this changes dramatically in Middle English in favor of sprouting. Nykiel makes use of The dictionary of Old English corpus and the Middle English Compendium and various later corpora, although it is not clear how she found the sluices.

Filppula and Klemola’s work on the influence of Celtic is well-known by now, and it is hoped that all histories of English acknowledge the unlikelihood that the Celtic-speaking population was completely replaced by a Germanic-speaking one. The authors review archeological, demographic, historical, and genetic background as well as contact-linguistic and areal-typological evidence for the hypothesis that Celtic had a significant influence on English, and they provide a case study on the dummy do. The do used in questions and negatives has been claimed to arise from the use of a causative light verb. The problem with this analysis is that causative do was more prevalent in the Southeast and the dummy do was introduced in the Southwest. This argument confirms work by Walther Preusler in the late 1930s, who made a similar claim that was discarded by Alvar Ellegård in the 1950s and by subsequent researchers because the appearance in Middle English would have been too late to show earlier Celtic influence. The authors here make clear that delayed appearance is no longer a problem, using sociolinguistic insights, and is actually expected.

In conclusion, this book, with its emphasis on empirical studies, contains engaging articles that use a variety of frameworks and methodologies for people interested in the history of English.