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The continental backgrounds of English and its insular development until 1154.

The continental backgrounds of English and its insular development until 1154. By Hans F. Nielsen. Odense: Odense University Press, 1998. Pp. 235.

The book under review is part of a large-scale project, intended to consist of three volumes in total and to cover the overall history of the English language. The three-volume venture is to be known under the title A journey through the history of the English language in England and America and is planned as a detailed survey of the history of the English language. The first volume, of interest here, spans the period from the early emergence of the Germanic group of languages up to the year 1154, the date introducing the Plantagenet era in England. Although the internal history of English remains the focus of interest of the present work, it is masterly supplemented with an extensive treatment of non-structural factors exerting influence on the development of the language. Huge as the amount of scholarship in this field is, the present volume is certainly a further significant contribution, offering yet another valuable and certainly attractive account of both linguistic and non-linguistic facts. Designed, as the author has it in the Preface, for the history of the English courses at university level, the book is by no means an entirely introductory study.

The volume is organised into seven chapters (Introduction, The importance of English language history: A practical demonstration, The continental backgrounds of English, The Anglo-Saxon colonisation of Britain, The Old English period, The Latin element in Old English, The Scandinavian settlement in Britain and its linguistic effects, The Norman conquest and the demise of English), subdivided into a number of sections and followed by a detailed reference list (pp. 213-224) and a useful thematic index (pp. 225-234). There is a list of abbreviations attached (pp. xviii-ix) which along with the Preface (pp. xi-xii) precede the main body of the book.

Since the topic has been comprehensively explored, the amount of writing in this field being impressive, the introductory part (Introduction) is devoted solely to an overview of publications on the history of the English language. Interestingly, the author s intention was what he calls a quest for a title" (pp. 1-4), rather than a synopsis of the previous research. All the titles mentioned here are provided with valuable bibliographical information, which is an evident asset of this section. Needless to say, the presented publications cannot be considered to constitute a complete list of studies in this area, the author's "quest" being restricted to publications in English exclusively.

Chapter One opens with some introductory remarks on the evolution of language seen in the context of such factors as inheritance, borrowing and innovation. A specimen of a contemporary text serves as illustrative material for a closer analysis of the different aspects of the development of English (pp. 9-10). Having posited the question of relevance of studying English language history in the first section of this chapter, the author proceeds with a presentation of some widely recognised arguments, supporting the call for this type of research.

The early sections of Chapter Two deal extensively with the continental background of English and provide an informative overview of the Indo-European dialects, as well as some general information on the Indo-European comparative and historical linguistics, including their history and some theoretical assumptions. The focus of interest is gradually narrowed down towards the end of the chapter to the Germanic subbranch of the Indo-European family. The following section is devoted to an insightful survey of the earliest attested Germanic languages and makes an attempt to determine the relative position of Germanic within Indo-European, as well as investigates affinities between particular dialects within Germanic. Accordingly, subsequent section entitled "Germanic diagnostic features" explores a number of linguistic characteristics shared by all Germanic languages, testifying to their genetic relatedness. It is followed by a synthesis of possible classifications of Germanic dialects, including the three alternative models for the grouping, namely the Gotho-Nordic hypothesis, the North-West Germanic theory and the theory of simultaneous three-fold subdivision. Finally, the theory of an early runic language (Gallehus), based on a detailed analysis of the Gallehus inscription and postulating a common ancestor for both North and West Germanic dialects, is presented as a likely alternative (p. 54).

All the remaining chapters of the present volume concentrate on Old English exclusively. The analysis is approached in a traditional manner in that the part on the internal history of Old English is preceded by quite an extensive presentation of external characteristics. Although the analysis focuses essentially on the West-Saxon standard, it does not totally neglect dialectal diversification, being supplemented with frequent references to non-West-Saxon dialects (in fact a separate extensive section deals at length with Old English dialectal characteristics (see below)), Chapter Three then traces the external history of Old English, covering not only the period of the very early Germanic settlement on the island but goes back to the pre-Germanic colonisation era. A large section of this chapter is devoted to an overview of the evidence for the Germanic settlement in Britain (pp, 62-77), including onomastic evidence, written sources, archaeological data as well as valuable, strictly linguistic evidence. An illustrative table on pp. 73-74 presents a complete set of characteristics (diagnostic features), shared by particular Germanic languages, including phonological, morphological and lexical parallels. The summary of these features, aimed at establishing the exact dialectal position of Old English within Germanic, draws largely on Nielsen's (1985) close and detailed investigation of intra-Germanic affinities (cf. Old English and the continental Germanic languages). The section which follows is meant as an outline of the linguistic conditions in Britain, just after the Germanic settlement, stressing dialectal diversity among the early Anglo-Saxon settlers. A brief methodological discussion on emigrant languages and their interrelations completes the subject of linguistic situation in Anglo-Saxon England. Attention is drawn to the problem of linguistic selection process in emigrant, mixed dialects which the Anglo-Saxon idiom originally was, the conclusion being that the selection of forms can be determined in a two-fold manner: partly by sociolinguistic factors and partly by the principle of functional utility (p. 82), which the author instatiated with an example of Australian and Irish English. The chapter closes with a presentation of the Old English runic alphabet and an analysis of its provenance.

The investigation of the structure of Old English is the focus of interest of the subsequent chapter. The analysis proper is preceded with a section on periodisation within Old English, which remains largely in keeping with the traditional stance, where a distinction between early and late Old English is made, the former used synonymously with early West-Saxon, the latter associated with the emergence of the West-Saxon standard. Pointing to runic writing from the 5th century AD, the author considers the pre-Old English period to have been not entirely deprived of textual material. Apart from information on the political situation in England and the emergence of the Old English standard, brief as the latter is, the reader will find an overview of textual evidence for different dialects together with several sample texts. The selected specimens include a passage from Lindisfarne Gospels, representing late 10th century Northumbrian, Vespasian Psalter, identified as the 9th century Mercian, a passage from a Kentish charter ('Abba') and a West-Saxon fragment from Alfred's Preface to the Cura Pastoralis (pp. 95-96). The presentation of specimens of the four dialects is followed by a discussion of their divergent features. Although the book cannot be considered an introductory reading, all the texts are provided with translations. In fact this practice concerns not just this particular subchapter but all the Old English illustrative material included in this volume. The remaining part of this chapter is devoted to a detailed presentation of the "linguistic profile" of Old English, i.e. a survey of phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, viewed in both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. It starts with a structural interpretation of the development of the Old English sound system as rooted in Proto-Indo-European. The author, following largely Hogg's (1992) and Krupatkin's (1970) accounts, provides a sketchy description of some early diachronic processes, including breaking, i-mutation and back mutation (pp. 100-101). The discussion is supplemented by a concise table summarising all relevant vowel changes and presenting their relative chronology. The section on morphology opens with an examination of the Old English nominal system. The author adopted a diachronic perspective as the basis for the classification of nouns, namely the Proto-Germanic model of nominal inflections, which does not seem to be a common practice in the more recent publications. Accordingly, the nouns are classified formally rather than functionally, depending on the original thematic element they contained in Proto-Germanic. The diachronic perspective prevails also in the presentation of the Old English cardinal numbers, where, among other things, the intricate origin of the numbers 11 (endleofan) and 12 (twelf) (p. 119) is investigated. The discussion of the other grammatical categories is committed to the traditional framework. The subsequent section deals with an analysis of syntactic patterns of the early Old English and is preceded by an excursus on syntactic typology (Greenberg 1963). A short prose passage and an extract from the Northumbrian version of Coedmon "s Hymn are analysed in terms of their syntactic structure (esp. word order), the analysis revealing a considerable word-order variation in the early Old English. The examination of the lexicon completes the chapter on the internal structure of Old English. Apart from a brief discussion on word formation, it contains an overview of Old English lexical features, including both borrowed and inherited elements (pp. 135-136).

A lot of room in this volume is devoted to the presentation of the foreign element in the structure of Old English, the relevant material stretching over three chapters which investigate Latin (Chapter. 5), Scandinavian (Chapter 6) and Norman elements (Chapter 7) in the language of Anglo-Saxons. They demonstrate the impact these languages had on English, presenting the three major sources of foreign influence in chronological order. A brief introductory section on the Latin element in Old English is followed by a revision of different types of Latin loanwords. An attempt at classification of the borrowed material results in a quite transparent subdivision of the borrowed words, remaining largely in line with the traditional accounts. Yet, the conventional two-fold subdivision into continental and post-continental or insular borrowings, each discussed in separate sections, is refined here by the addition of a group of pre-Christian insular borrowings, comprising Latin loanwords which entered the Old English lexicon before 600 AD, yet after the Anglo-Saxon emigration from the Continent. A number of relevant examples of all types of Latin loanwords are provided to illustrate the borrowing process which was most conspicuous in such semantic fields as religion, scholarship, learning, household, etc. What follows in the next section of the chapter is a brief overview of dissenting opinions on the source and precise dating of Latin loanwords adopted in the very early borrowing period. Here the author cites the view of Serjeantson (1995), according to whom the extent of the early insular borrowing was much greater than commonly assumed, covering 14 different semantic fields. The view is quite controversial and does not tally with the traditional stance (espoused by Ekwall 1960; Baugh and Cable 1993 or Jackson 1953) not only as far as the extent of borrowing is concerned but also as far as the very character of the loanword transmission goes. Since the impact of the Latin lexicon was most permanent in the onomastic material, a large section which follows discusses Latin influence on place-name structure in England. The discussion of the spread of the Latin influence is neatly illustrated with maps presenting the spread of some exemplary Latin terms (within the Roman trade-zone) and the distribution of place-names. The chapter closes with an outline of the theory on the dating and transmission of the Latin place-name element, postulated by Margaret Gelling. The theory based largely on non-linguistic (archaeological) data posits a very early date of transmission (4th c.), attributing the introduction of the onomastic material to Germani remaining in Roman service during the Roman era in Britain. It should be noticed at this point that the presentation of facts is balanced and very detached in that the author does not explicitly disclose his opinion; the opposing standpoints are discussed, but none of them apparently favoured.

The chapter on Scandinavian influence on the language of Anglo-Saxons introduces some historical facts from the Viking Age (780-1070), including the early invasion and expansion, settlement and the political conquest. Prior to the discussion of the Scandinavian onomastic element in Britain, a brief critical overview of relevant historical evidence of the period is offered. The onomastic treatment concentrates largely on three types of place names of Scandinavian provenance: -by, -thorp compounds and the so called Grimstone hybrids (compounds with Scandinavian personal names and the English second element -tun 'town') (p. 173). What follows is a synthesis of potential interpretations of these data, including both traditional and more radical stances, the former represented by Ekwall (1936) and Stenton (1947), the latter by Sawyer and Davis (1950). The author distances himself evidently from any of the presented standpoints, which makes the presentation again very balanced and objective. He cites other contemporary researchers such as Land, Cameron or Fellows-Jansen (p. 176), providing a sketchy overview of research work in this field. Another type of evidence of the foreign influence, namely the lexical evidence is the focus of interest in the following section of this chapter. After a brief methodological discussion, the author proceeds to a presentation of the inventory of Scandinavian loans in Old English, easily categorised in terms of their semantics. Compiled largely after H. Peters (1971), the inventory includes such categories as seafaring terms, legal terms, ranks and war terms, measures and coins as well as a number of words from other semantic fields. This small Old English inventory has its Middle English and Modern English equivalent inventories in the two subsequent sections which are followed by a brief and superficial discussion of loanwords in Middle and Modern English respectively. Frequent references to Present Day English prove the author's apparent inclination to emphasise the links between Old English and PDE and to present the former within a broader perspective, i.e. its later evolution. Since the Scandinavian influence unquestionably extended to phonology and grammar, much room is devoted to a discussion of these issues in the next section. The chapter on Scandinavian linguistic impact closes with some brief remarks on the interpretation as well as the distribution of Scandinavian loanwords in Old English and Middle English.

The final chapter of the book explores the Norman influence and the gradual demise of Old English as a result. The first part of this chapter discusses some important political developments in England prior to the Norman era (c. 11th century). Quite detailed presentation of subsequent rulings is supplemented with a diagram illustrating the genealogical relations between the rulers of the period (p. 192). The overview of external history continues into the Norman conquest period up till the year 1154, which is, as mentioned before, the year of the introduction of the Plantagenet dynasty to the English throne. Both are quite detailed accounts, intended as the author suggests, to illustrate the potential influence of external history, political developments in particular, on the evolution of language. The second part of the chapter, still subdivided into smaller sections, is more of an internal history outline, devoted to a presentation of linguistic facts exclusively. The Peterborough Chronicle is the focus of interest of the immediate section, where details on its origin, internal organisation as well as linguistic sketch of its fragments are included. What follows and is the last section of the volume is a comparative analysis of two passages, extracts from the Peterborough Chronicle: the entry for the year 1137 and the entry for 1085. The parallel investigations, preceded by a presentation of relevant passages (p. 198) (both provided with PDE translations), take into account all levels of language, covering phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, discussed separately for each fragment. The final section of the chapter summarises the discrepancies between the two post-conquest texts in terms of the retention and loss of the Old English features, which is neatly illustrated in a diagram on p. 210.

Although the book cannot be considered a revealing or innovative study, it definitely constitutes an important contribution to the research in the field, offering valuable insights into the history of the English language. It is certainly a reliable survey, providing a sound and coherent presentation of relevant, both linguistic and non-linguistic facts. As admitted unassumingly in the introduction, it relies to a considerable extent on the previous research, a common characteristic of any such synthetic presentations which the book under review certainly is. At the same time it is worth noticing that the treatment of particular issues, committed essentially to the traditional model is evidently characterised by a considerable degree of objectivism on the part of the author, be it an advantage in some respects, a shortcoming in others.

An evident virtue of the volume is its ordered, clear presentation, with quite straightforward and internally coherent exposition of ideas. Its transparent organisation into chapters, sections and subsections, all provided with self-explanatory titles, along with the lucidity of style employing little idiosyncratic terminology make the text easily accessible and highly readable. The orderly arrangement of data in form of summary tables, diagrams, and word lists, all facilitating reading, as well as numerous maps included are further features which add to the list of the book's assets.

Intended as a coursebook and addressed to students primarily, the book is short of being a traditional manual on the history of Old English. Some issues discussed and some analyses offered seem to extend beyond the scope of what can be considered a regular coursebook, much attention being devoted to a discussion of related issues other than merely the structure of Old English. Certainly, the placing of the Old English history into a larger Germanic and Indo-European context which the study does, as well as a comprehensive investigation of factors influencing the development of the language (e.g., the borrowing process) make the text even more dynamic and convincing. Apart from its interesting content, when taken as a whole, the book contains sections which in my opinion are especially valuable and worth recommending, such as the discussion of the Indo-European hydronymy pattern, Indo-European and Germanic homeland and the presentation of Germanic and Old English runic alphabets, all of them neatly broadening the perspective in which to view Old English.

The use of original textual material to illustrate the theoretical discussion, as mentioned before, is certainly a further merit of the work. Basically, all texts included are supplemented with translations, all lexical items glossed, which makes it accessible also to those who are not well-acquainted with Old English.

One critical remark concerns the final part of the volume which strangely lacks some kind of recapitulation, comments or conclusions. Although the book is just the first part of the three-volume venture, some general at least remarks or conclusions which could nicely prepare the ground for a further survey would be more than welcome.

A final comment is directed at the author's apparent bias in the treatment of some topics. The bias is actually not unexpected since hinted at by the author already in the introductory chapter, where he admits that due to his genuine and vivid interest in some fields, he cannot escape being subjective and avoid devoting more attention to subjects of particular interest to him. On the one hand, such inclination, seen, for instance, in the author's frequent references to the other Germanic languages, may prove beneficial, making the book even more valuable and attractive. On the other hand, one may have some reservations as to the length of the section discussing the foreign influence which, quite unexpectedly, takes almost the third part of the volume (at the expense, for example, of the presentation on the emergence of the West-Saxon standard which is just a cursory sketch, taking no more than a half-page long section) (pp. 94-95).

As regards the technical side, the book is executed with great care and the inconspicuous number of spelling mistakes which can be detected cannot be considered but a minor imperfection.

Finally, it is worth stressing that the book makes an impression of a very interesting reading and certainly deserves the attention of all those interested in the field, including both scholars and less advanced readers.


Hogg, Richard M.

"Phonology and morphology", in: Richard M. Hogg (ed.), 67-167.

Hogg, Richard M. (ed.)

1992 The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 1." The beginnings to 1066. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nielsen, Hans F.

1985 Old English and the continental Germanic languages. Innsbruck: Inst. fur Sprachwiss. d. Univ.

Nielsen, Hans F.

1989 Germanic languages: Origins and early dialectal interrelations. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Reviewed by Elzbieta Adamczyk, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan
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Author:Mickiewicz, Adam
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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