Ideological baggage still on the carousel

A History of English - Language Change
February 15, 2002

Jean Aitchison has produced a third updated edition of her deservedly successful book on language change, and brings together work from many different sources into a generally coherent sociolinguistic account.

A new chapter on change of meaning and new sections on recent sound changes in English fit well into the existing fabric. However, a new chapter on grammaticalisation fits in less well and unfortunately merges change in grammar with phonological reduction.

As a linguistics textbook this can be used at undergraduate level for courses dealing directly with language change or to provide a background for sociolinguistics. It is written in such a way that people who study language for a hobby (possibly having a particular interest in change) can read it with profit and enjoyment.

Barbara Fennell writes within the long-established tradition of histories of the English language and for the most part tells the familiar story from Grimm's Law to the Great Vowel Shift. The "sociolinguistic approach" of the subtitle really applies to the last three chapters, in which she gives an excellent account of the global spread of modern English. This is clearly an undergraduate textbook for English language rather than for linguistics study, and is appropriate for a course in an English department that tries to get away from the old Beowulf-Chaucer-Shakespeare recipe and link up with what has been going on in linguistics.

A problem for both writers is that the study of language change enjoyed its golden age in the 19th century and has been in slow decline since about 1914. Philologists took a view of language that we would now regard as Eurocentric, incorporating crude notions of nation and race, and treating language not as something spoken by people but as an impersonal evolving organism. The ideology of modern socio-linguistics could scarcely be more different.

It is therefore disturbing to find old ideas breaking through as though they were timeless truths. For example, a strength of both books is their treatment of modern creoles and their role in language formation. In both books, creoles sit uneasily alongside philological language families in which mother languages give way to daughter languages. Fennell traces English to a single source in the West Germanic family tree, an idea based on Bede's account of the arrival in 449 of a tribal trinity of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. However, it has been known for decades that this view of the origin of English is flawed. A sociolinguist might also be expected to observe that Bede tells us that in his time there was not one English language but two. She also considers and rejects the idea (fashionable some years ago) that Middle English might have been a creole. Early English is a better candidate, but she does not consider it at all.

Language change is a politically sensitive issue, and it is time to remove 19th-century ideological baggage from textbooks designed for the 21st century. After all, there is enough ideological baggage to contend with from the late 20th century as English changed from the language of the British empire into the language of the globe.

Gerry Knowles is senior lecturer in English language and linguistics, University of Lancaster.

A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach

Author - Barbara A. Fennell
ISBN - 0 631 20072 X and 20073 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 284

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