How Damgudthyng conquered the world

The Earliest English - The History of English - English in Modern Times 1700-1945. First edition - Varieties of Modern English
December 2, 2005

Amid all the debate about the decline of language and the lack of respect for proper spelling conventions (let alone good manners), it is refreshing to see how interested people are in English as a phenomenon in its own right.

Television and radio programmes have popularised the subject, newspapers have short items on the more curious aspects of the origins of words, and writers such as Bill Bryson have added their own light-hearted touch. The need has clearly emerged in universities and colleges for textbooks that are readable and that will not only demystify the subject but also provide students with a useful background to the context in which versions of English have emerged across the world.

These four titles are a good example of the books that adorn an increasing number of publishers' lists. They are produced in a workmanlike fashion, nicely bound, well presented and with earnest claims on the back cover to provide students with everything they could possibly need to become expert in the subject. There are translation exercises, end-of-chapter activities and textual examples galore to explain where English has come from, how it has blended and diverged, and where it will probably go in the future. The Earliest English and The History of English cover Old English (as it should properly be called nowadays - not Anglo-Saxon).

The Earliest English is closer to being a language textbook, but it is also designed to give students sufficient access to OE for them to appreciate the literature that has ensured its survival in written form. The history and cultural aspects of the period are covered to help students understand internal references and appreciate the context in which the language was evolving, and there are links to the development of related languages today such as Frisian and Dutch.

Additional sources abound, with useful lists of websites. There is even an interlude that explains how to make full use of the Oxford English Dictionary when searching for etymologies. The style is very student-centred and even light-hearted in places ("we bet you never thought we would get round to recommending that"), which contrasts rather oddly with some very formal specimen exam questions: "The regular dative plural inflection on nouns in many varieties of OE was - um. Such an ending seems entirely distinctive, in that it ends with a bilabial, nasal consonant.

What was the history, and what the eventual fate, of this inflectional ending?" Such a question almost deserves the 1066 and All That treatment ("Have you the faintest recollection of Thruthelthrolth?" or "Was Outfangthief a Damgudthyng"?) Ishtla Singh in The History of English produces a student's guide that looks at the prehistory of English before plunging into both Old and Middle English, eventually resurfacing with "Where will English boldly go?" It is a very thorough and erudite work but packs in an awful lot of information and can be quite hard to digest. However, particular sections, such as English in Barbados and the case of Singlish in Singapore, will repay careful reading.

English in Modern Times and Varieties of Modern English are clearly more focused in scope, though they do not quite coincide in their definition of "modern": Diane Davies inclines towards the broad date of 1700, with an Early phase starting in 1450; Joan Beal prefers the interesting concept of the "long" 18th century, running from the Restoration in 1660 to Waterloo.

Both coincide, however, with the need to define a further stage post-1945 (though post-1995 might be more like it) with the advent of globalisation and the emergence of English as a key mode of communication at world level.

"Late Modern English" sounds quite apocalyptic, so "World English" might be a more appropriate term, in which case more space could perhaps have been given to America and what at one time was known as Dominions English.

But overall both books cover a wide range and draw on some fascinating examples (Cawdrey's A Table Alphabetical of 1604, Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language , 1775, Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words , 1886).

Estuary English is there in depth, as is the glottal stop, but the grocer's apostrophe is missing. On the world stage it would have been useful to have gone more into pidgins and creole. The development of English in a multicultural society would also have been worth exploring, with the emergence of pidgin varieties among London schoolchildren as a way of communicating with other newcomers and the recognition of Jamaican as a language in its own right and not a hybrid.

The rapid process of change in the language today, not to mention fun items such as the latest list of additions to the Oxford English Dictionary , provides ample opportunity for ongoing study and comment (but did someone really come up with "advertisemental"?) The detailed study of English in academic programmes is also in part a pragmatic response to the fact that English-language teaching is now a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide.

Yet it is encouraging to see that the English language is increasingly viewed not just as part of our own national history, but something that can be shared worldwide and hence a common denominator with other nations that have an equal claim on it as part of their heritage and even identity.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University.

The Earliest English: An Introduction to Old English. First edition

Author - Chris McCully and Sharon Hilles
Publisher - Longman
Pages - 307
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 582 40474 6

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