Tongue twisting and yod-dropping

The Cambridge History of the English Language

April 14, 1995

Celebrating the arrival of English as the new world language is not the done thing nowadays, at least not for Britons - it is thought to be rather like singing Rule, Britannia! in Buenos Aires on Argentine national day. Even the general editor of The Cambridge History of the English Language is squeamish about declaring that English is more widely spoken than any single rival. The contents of volume 5, however, confirm an important aspect of that truth, dealing mainly with the development of mother-tongue varieties of English around the world, apart from North America.

Four other volumes will ultimately bring the history of mainstream British English down from Anglo-Saxon to the present day, and a sixth will deal with America and Canada. Robert Burchfield lends his authority as a famous modern editor of the Oxford English Dictionary to this book, and has assembled a distinguished team of contributors covering English in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, plus regional forms in England itself. Two editorial decisions demand comment: first, the exclusion of the Englishes of West and East Africa and the Pacific (for example, Singapore, Fiji), because of the supposed "notable lack of professional scholarship" on these varieties when the book was planned in 1984. This misconception was disproved by Jenny Cheshire's 1991 volume from the same publisher, English Around the World; and indeed John Holm's skilful treatment in this new book of those smaller Caribbean islands whose linguistic history is not extensively documented also makes Burchfield's self-denying ordinance seem perverse. Second, there is no systematic discussion of the implications of the use, or the learning, of English as a second language by two-fifths of the world's population today - this in a volume describing the spread of the language.

That said, there is much to admire. Derrick McClure's chapter makes an important distinction between Scots (which England's Elizabeth I learned to speak fluently) and Scottish English, showing that past confusions between them devalued 19th-century surveys of language use. But he does not explain when and why the once universal term Scotch became a taboo word. He shows us canny Scots gambling on the spoils of James VI's future accession to the English throne by learning English, just as ambitious Welshmen had done after the Acts of Union from the 1530s on; and he shows, too, that the development of Scotland into a European nation-state in that period was closely linked to the use of English.

As Alan Thomas shows, Welsh English is fast becoming little more than a regional accent of varying degrees of salience, plus forms such as: "There's glad I am to see you." In Scotland the Reformation, and especially the Authorised Version of the Bible, served to accelerate the use of English, whereas the Welsh Bible and liturgy sustained Nonconformity which in turn went on to become the champion of the Welsh language. Around this time, Shakespeare's Henry V and Merry Wives included early attempts at representing the Welsh accent in English.

Amazingly (to modern prejudices), observers in the 1880s attested the "purity" of Australian speech, but George Turner, in a massively documented chapter, confirms that Australian English had already developed its distinctive identity by around that date, its roots being convict Cockney rather than immigrant Irish. Laurie Bauer, in a fascinating section of his chapter, develops his argument that "the most likely origin of New Zealand English is as an exported variety of Australian English", though he does also find a possible trace of Irish influence.

The fact that William Branford's superb account of South African English went to press before the historic political changes of 1994 does not seriously detract from its value: there will surely be room for updating in later editions. The inevitable emphasis, in his pronunciation section, on white mother-tongue speakers will need to be complemented by a description of the accents of Black speakers, especially now that English seems set to become, in practice, the main common language of the new South Africa.

What used to be known by the generic term "Indian English" is more appropriately called "South Asian English", and Braj Kachru provides an expert account of its development. His luxuriant bibliography alone would justify the purchase of this book - I spotted only one noteworthy omission, Jindal's demonstration of the progressive, but limited, deviations of Indian speakers who learned English from locals.

Tracing the development of non-standard local forms in England since 1776 was entrusted to Ossi Ihalainen, a Finnish scholar. Ihalainen's revelation that, even today, there may still be speakers in Somerset who use the centuries-old (and once widespread) forms "itch" or "itchy" for the first-person I will surprise many. He describes the main configurations of the distinctive grammar, vocabulary and phonology of the chief dialects of England as they developed over that period, but with some gaps nearer the present day. He emphasises the persistent influence of the speech of London and the south-east of England, for example, but without reference to David Rosewarne's concept of Estuary English, a term that has now passed into Edspeak, by way of a recent directive from the secretary of state for education discouraging its use by pupils. Nor does his chapter give much help in identifying John Major's famous verb "want" (rhyming with "hunt").

The influence of J. C. Wells, successor to Daniel Jones and A. C. Gimson as the high priest of British phonetics, pervades this volume, and use of his lexical sets mitigates a serious problem. Forty years of neglect of the linguistic study of English in British schools and by most university English graduates have deprived the common reader of the metalanguage that is unavoidable in many places in this book. More than a slight knowledge of phonetics is needed to understand the treatment of phonology by these various authors: Jeffrey Kallen's excellent chapter on Ireland, for example, has to use symbols outside standard English and the editor has not provided an International Phonetic Alphabet table. The book abounds in such terms as homorganic nasal, paragogic, irrealis, voiced initial fricatives, yod-dropping - some of which, but not all, figure in the useful glossary (I once had a student who thought yod-dropping was fertiliser).

Burchfield's introduction gives a useful overview of the field, though I think he misinterprets one of Branford's statistics. But these are quibbles: all in all, this handsome volume is an indispensable work of reference that will find its way into every respectable library.

John Honey is professor of English, Osaka International University, Japan.

The Cambridge History of the English Language: Volume Five, English in Britain and Overseas: Origins and Development

Editor - Robert Burchfield
ISBN - 0 521 26478 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 656

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