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The English languages. (Reviews).

The English languages by Tom McArthur. Cambridge: CUP, 1998. Pp. 247.

Recent years have witnessed the growing unpopularity of traditional and conservative approaches towards language study, which used to treat languages as distinct and clear-cut phenomena, with neat grammars, phonologies and vocabulary stocks. Modern linguists acknowledge, and very often appreciate, diversity within language, the variety of its functions, styles, uses or backgrounds. Language contact within different aspects of linguistic usage has become a key-concept in explaining and/or describing the form of language as we know it (and use it).

English is a recognized medium for communication worldwide, operating on all continents in various areas of human activity and coming into contact with local languages on different levels. English remains, at the same time, the vernacular language of a particular group of people. However, one should bear in mind that sometimes the people who claim to speak English may have serious problems with understanding each other or may even fail to communicate at all, although they allegedly speak "the same language".

McArthur's book, The English languages, presents the pluralistic character of the phenomenon called "English". He provides the reader with a detailed analysis of the variety that is characteristic of the language and makes it possible to grasp all its subtleties and complexities. The contribution of modern linguistics is widely taken into account, quoted and referred to. Moreover, the reader has an opportunity to follow the historical development of ideas on the plurality of English as the author reproduces original text samples in chronological order. Such a practice, rather unique among scholarly publications, invites the reader to interpret the sources on his or her own. The question prevailing in the book is whether English can still be considered one language or is it diversified enough to be recognized as a new family of English languages. The book does not offer an immediate answer but takes the reader through the maze of the complex system and functions of English to finally suggest a revolutionary so lution.

The author, a Scot educated at Edinburgh and Glasgow, admits his personal involvement in the matter of language contact and the linguistic status of varieties of English and of English itself. In the introduction, McArthur advocates a range of Englishes with their own history and subvarieties instead of a monolithic construct called "English". The introductory chapter contains a brief presentation of useful but very often problematic terminology to be used in the book (language, dialect, acrolect, basilect, mesolect, creole, etc.). The English languages is the outcome of several years of scholarly involvement and discussion. Therefore, in the introduction the author provides a detailed list of his publications, conference papers and lectures on this issue.

The book under review is organized into nine chapters, each beginning with dictionary definitions of crucial terms, approached from various angles. This practice makes the reader aware of the complexity of a particular problem. Direct quotations, vocabulary lists and samples, graphs, charts, lists of territories and linguistic varieties as well as selected bibliography to some chapters, have been compiled in panels closing each chapter. Quotations appear in the body of the text as well, in order to introduce or illustrate the author's point. There is, however, no reference list (detailed nor selected) of the sources used for chapters and there is no bibliography at the end of the book.

Chapter One draws a parallel between the biblical metaphor of the Tower of Babel and contemporary English usage. In support of his point, the author discusses normative standards of the language versus basi-, meso- and acrolects. He also notices that an equation mark cannot be put between the chronological stages of the language (Anglo-Saxon is markedly different from Chaucerian English -- still it is considered to be the same language). The chapter ends with an illustration of how English is employed to enhance feelings of modernity and internationality (gairaigo and "decorative English" in Japan).

In the next chapter, the author pursues the idea of English being a universal resource for other languages. He focuses on speakers' need to continue their own varieties and vernaculars, and at the same time to be able to speak some kind of a world language -- usually English. The growth of English in such power and stability has been stimulated by British institutions of linguistic, educational and normative character (dictionaries, the BBC, the British Council, etc.) McArthur justly notices that there must be much linguistic tension between the metropoly and new large speaker-groups outside it, as well as some degree of influence going both ways. The author continues with a presentation of a tri-partite division of functions and usages of English into ENL, ESL and EFL (all the territories are listed in panels). The picture of English triumphant is undermined in Chapter Three. As the mid-80s have brought about a state of creative ferment in the perceptions of the language and witnessed the birth of the journa l World Englishes, McArthur considers the plural term "Englishes", its semantics and history in publications. The final panel of this chapter gives direct quotations and perceptions of the term "English languages" since 1858 (sic!).

The well-known truism has it that it is impossible to describe or collect all the usages and registers of English. Only models of this diversity can be attempted, which constitutes the topic of the subsequent chapter. First, the author considers various chronological models, discounting the implication that languages posses qualities such as growth, progress/decline, evolution or drift. These are just useful metaphors and not phenomena inherent in language. McArthur goes on to undermine the biological model-making (the classical tree- and the Darwinian family-metaphor). The third, more modem model-making is based on the geo-political situation of English, presented, for instance, in Crystal's Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language (1995). Other possible models rendered by current linguistics are drawn in panels.

Chapter Five deals extensively with the question of standardness. The etymology of the word "standard" is thoroughly explained, along with its semantic changes in history. In this chapter the reader can learn what led to the emergence and prominence of "high" varieties of Western languages: politics, communication, vernacular literature and genres, religion, technology and industrialization. Standard English has been described and encoded by scholars in grammar books and even now, in an era of a recognized plurality of the English language, non-standard varieties are spoken of in the standard, because it is generally understood and useful for writing and print. The author draws our attention to traditional versus progressive perceptions of Standard English (accompanied by original quotations of the word "standard" with reference to language, since 1709). The question of Standard English and American English is presented in the closing panel.

Chapter Six is devoted to Scots, its history, status and relation to English and Gaelic. There are three basic views on what Scots is: a dialect of English, a separate language, or an area of linguistic confusion. McArthur clarifies the picture of Scots by finding parallels in other parts of the world. For instance, he calls forth the Spanish analogy: English and Gaelic resemble Spanish and Basque, while English and Scots are similar to Spanish and Catalan. Such treatment of the topic allows a fresh perspective. Price in his book Languages of Britain (1984) frankly admits a general uncertainty about Scots but decides to give it a separate chapter in his book. McArthur calls it a "Price compromise" and agrees that this is perhaps the best solution to the problem. Panels included at the end of this chapter present brief lists of publications on Scots and quotations of linguistic approaches towards Scots since Noah Webster in 1789. These lists could not have been meant to be comprehensive because they ignore suc h important and recent works on Scots as Jones's Edinburgh history of the Scots language (1997).

The next chapter takes on the discussion of pidgins, creoles and hybrids, and their relation to superstratum languages. It comprises attempts to define problematic terms and establish their etymologies. The task is difficult mostly because there is no unified theory of the subject, and the varieties discussed carry the stigma of a low prestige. The author presents stages of a pidgin/creole's development. He agrees that these varieties form a continuum and what may be a pidgin on one territory may be at the same time a creole or an independent language in some other place. McArthur goes on to analyse historical aspects of language contact and the possibilities of hybridizing. As far as English is concerned, there have been three main sources of great foreign influence on the language: contact with Old Norse, later with Norman French, and massive absorption of Latin and Greek lexicon, cither directly or through French. Therefore, English could have produced hybrids in its history as well.

In the following chapter, English with its status and diversity is compared to Classical Latin. Standard English resembles Latin because it is also a global means of education, research and commerce. Educated and professional English in writing and speaking is mutually intelligible around the world (unlike other Englishes and, for that matter, Romance languages stemming from Latin). Since the mid-80s the linguistic circles have witnessed suggestions that varieties of English can develop into new languages, while Standard English will remain a world-wide lingua franca (e.g., Quirk 1985). McArthur agrees with these assumptions. This chapter also presents the history of Latin (which never really was or is dead), its variety of forms and impact on English. Latin served to "elevate" the vernacular (compare the modern English usage in Japan, presented in Chapter One), which one can easily see in different semantics of lexical sets, such as freedom-liberty, depth-profundity, etc. McArthur proposes a new term -- biso ciation -- to call this paradox of near-synonymous lexical pairs being so much apart morphologically, stylistically, and collocationally. English vocabulary stock is abundant in such pairs, or even tri-sets if the Greek heritage is considered too. Examples of those sets are given in the final panel of this chapter.

Chapter Nine completes the book by referring to the plurality of English studied in the first and subsequent chapters. To show that the problem of non-standard English-based varieties and their status is not purely scientific, McArthur discusses the commotion in the USA concerning Ebonics -- a black English variety recognized as a second language of black pupils at schools in Oakland, California. That situation demonstrates how the status of language is dependant on social and economic policies. McArthur postulates a new family of English languages: standards, dialects, creoles, nativized varieties, hybrids, etc. He draws arguments from parallels in Arabic or Romance languages and points to the unequalled vastness of English influence in the world.

The English languages by Tom McArthur is worth recommending to all interested in language contact as well as in current and historical developments in English. All the important approaches towards linguistic diversity are gathered in one book, not only for the sake of mere presentation, but mostly for genuine scholarly insight. The phenomena and terminology are traced back to their sources and supported with original quotations. By means of reference to previous stages of language the author stresses the fact that modern phenomena are not restricted to the twentieth century, but similar situations must have existed throughout history. The lack of a comprehensive (or at least selected) bibliography of the subject is perhaps one major shortcoming of this work. Some information on references can obviously be found in the body of the text, but this is not as helpful as a neat list at the end could be. Instead there is an index of topics discussed and names appearing in the book. Nevertheless, McArthur's ideas on how English functions today and what led to its modern diversity (comparison with Latin, the idea of a new family of languages) are valuable for contemporary linguistics. The wide scope of perception yields worthwhile information not only about English but also other languages and language contact in general.


Burchfield, Robert (ed.)

1994 The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 5. English in Britain and overseas: Origins and developments. Cambridge: CUP.

Crystal, David (ed.)

1995 The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge: CUP.

Jones, Charles (ed.)

1997 The Edinburgh history of the Scots language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McArthur, Tom

1998 The English languages. Cambridge: CUP.

Quirk, Randolph -- H.G. Widowson (eds.)

1985 English in the world. Cambridge: CUP.
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Author:Kopaczyk, Joanna
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Previous Article:Essentials of Early English. (Reviews).
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