An atomised history of the Great Vowel Shift

A History of the English Language
August 22, 1997

The production of yet another outline history of English may seem to be presumptuous and pointless", wrote an author some quarter of a century ago. Yet such outlines are still being produced, as with this new offering from the professor of English language at the University of Sheffield.

A new history might be written because an author wishes to present the existing data in new ways, to incorporate recent findings, or to extend coverage in novel directions. All of these are true of the current book, even though it is largely written in a traditional way.

N.F. Blake's data presentation is new in that he divides the historical period differently from the norm. Most books adopt the divisions proposed in 1873 by Henry Sweet into Old, Middle and Modern English. In theory, these correspond to periods of full, levelled and lost inflections. In practice, political dates are usually used, since inflections do not show sharp chronological boundaries: Old English is generally taken to be prior to 1066, Middle English is assumed to end in 1485 when the Tudors took power, and Modern English is divided into Early Modern and Late Modern with a transition in the late 17th century.

Instead, this book splits the history of English into episodes which, Blake suggests, more accurately reflect the development of the variety known as Standard English.

Consequently, he dates the beginning of English from the ninth century with the establishment of the West Saxon variety as the standard. After a brief interregnun in the 13th century, he identifies a single form of English as emerging around 1400, based on that used in the Chancery in London, and notes that a unified spelling system was mostly in place by the end of the 17th century. He characterises the period which followed as one seriously concerned with the regulation of the language, and the attempt to establish "correct English".

He regards the year 1798 as the symbolic end date of this era, with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poetry which attacked the idea of a prescriptive language.

Finally, he describes the decades following 1914 as ones of fragmentation and uncertainty.

This novel way of dividing up the language reflects the second new aspect of this book, the inclusion in particular of the work of John Fisher (1996), who has demonstrated the process by which the standard spread. It was not just general osmosis, as assumed by some earlier writers, but the conscious adoption of the English used by the Chancery clerks between 1500 and 1700. The language was therefore standardised primarily by business and government, though some influential political figures were prominent also in the literary world, as with Jonathan Swift.

Blake's coverage is innovative also in that he deals both with the language, and with attitudes towards the language, a currently trendy topic, as documented in, for example, Richard Bailey's Images of English (1991).

These new directions are welcome, and focus attention on aspects of the language often ignored by historical linguists. Yet much of the text is in a well-worn format.

Discussions of major topics such as the Great Vowel Shift are handled atomistically with little reference to modern linguistic findings on change. No diagrams are included, just the occasional table. In addition, chunks of earlier English are quoted, though not translated.

Overall, the book's plan is commendable, and the first chapter is admirably clear.

Also useful is the lucid distinction between a written standard, and the "standardised" language to which it leads. But the pedestrian account of changes is disappointing. Any student is recommended to use this book as an outline, but to get the details from some more user-friendly and more linguistically sophisticated source.

Jean Aitchison is professor of language and communication, University of Oxford.

A History of the English Language

Author - N. F. Blake
ISBN - 0 333 60983 2 and 60984 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 382

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