Discourse to defy dialects

English Language and Linguistics
February 12, 1999

English Language and Linguistics is a biannual journal that first appeared in May 1997. It aims to publish linguistic research that furthers our knowledge of the structure or the history of the English language. A huge amount of published research in theoretical linguistics is based on English-language data, but there has not previously been an international journal that focuses on the language, rather than on general linguistic theories to which data from many languages are potentially relevant. Journals such as English Studies, or the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, are concerned with literary matters as much, or more, than with linguistics.

The journal is edited from the University of Manchester and University College London. It has made a very good start at attracting contributions from a worldwide research community. The 23 full articles published in the four issues that have appeared to date (apart from short "squibs" and book reviews) are divided, in terms of the institutional affiliation of their authors, almost exactly equally between the English-speaking and non-English-speaking world. More precisely, the figures break down as: Britain four, North America five, Australasia three, Continental Europe ten and Israel one. The institutions represented are often of the highest prestige. Again, about half the articles are chiefly historical, and half concerned with some aspect of the analysis of the present-day English language. Two or three articles are on phonological topics, but by far the majority deal with various aspects of grammar.

The fashionable concept of World Englishes is not much in evidence here. Reading the various contributions, one forms a picture of a language that exhibited important regional differences within England in the Old and Middle English periods, but which has matured in modern times into a single, highly standardised global language whose unity is more significant than such dialect differences as continue to exist. An article by Robert Sigley analyses factors influencing choice between relative pronouns in "New Zealand English", but his paper is about a national variety only in the sense that the data are drawn from corpora compiled from New Zealand sources. Sigley makes no claim that relative pronoun choice works differently in other English-speaking countries - my impression is that his findings would very likely apply equally to the English of England.

Some contributors are more concerned than others to relate their findings about English to general theoretical issues; but even the articles with theoretical implications usually avoid obscuring the points made about English with abstruse notational apparatus. A few of the longer papers do contain a certain amount of this; one hopes that the editors will discourage it, for the sake of making the entire contents of the journal accessible to its whole intended readership. The longest contribution of all, by Andrew Garrett of the University of California, Berkeley, on the origin of auxiliary do , begins unpromisingly by stating grammatical assumptions in terms that are meaningless to readers unfamiliar with recent generative theorising. But, so far as I can see, little or nothing in the body of the article depends on these assumptions. Perhaps the ethos of linguistics in the United States in the 1990s enforces such ritual nods in the direction of generative theory.

The editors' note, which introduces the first issue, declares their belief that synchronic and diachronic studies of English language structure form a "natural class" of research interests meriting a journal of their own. My impression is that this domain may be a more natural class in Continental Europe, where Anglistics departments contain groupings of scholars linked by interest in this particular language, than it is within the English-speaking world, where patterns of academic organisation tend to yoke research on English linguistics with general linguistic theory, and with research on other languages. But the proof of the pudding will emerge as the journal continues, and already there are encouraging signs that it is beginning to create an intellectual community of its own, with several cases where authors of more recent contributions refer back to items in earlier issues of the journal. If English Language and Linguistics succeeds in drawing historical and synchronic linguists closer together, it will be a very worthwhile enterprise.

Geoffrey Sampson is reader in computer science and artificial intelligence, University of Sussex.

English Language and Linguistics: (twice a year)

Editor - Bas Aarts, David Denison and Richard Hogg
ISBN - ISSN 1360 6743
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £36.00 (individual); £62.00 (institutional)
Pages - -

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