13.988, Review: Historical Ling: Algeo, ed. (2001)
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Subject: 13.988, Review: Historical Ling: Algeo, ed. (2001)
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Date: Tue, 9 Apr 2002 21:53:50 -0700 (PDT)
From: David Cahill <ishamcook at yahoo.com>
Subject: The Cambridge History of the English Language
-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------
Date: Tue, 9 Apr 2002 21:53:50 -0700 (PDT)
From: David Cahill <ishamcook at yahoo.com>
Subject: The Cambridge History of the English Language
Algeo, John, ed. (2001) The Cambridge History of the English
Language, Vol. 6: English in North America. Cambridge University
Press, xxxii+625pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-26479-0, $120.00
David Cahill, University of Illinois at Chicago
Chapter 1, "External History," John Algeo
Chapter 2, "British and American, Continuity and Divergence,"
John Hurt Fisher
Chapter 3, "British and Irish Antecedents," Michael Montgomery
Chapter 4, "Contact with Other Languages," Suzanne Romaine
Chapter 5, "Americanisms," Frederic G. Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall
Chapter 6, "Slang," Jonathan E. Lighter
Chapter 7, "Dialects," Lee Pederson
Chapter 8, "African-American English," Salikoko S. Mufwene
Chapter 9, "Grammatical Structure," Ronald R. Butters
Chapter 10, "Spelling," Richard L. Venezky
Chapter 11, "Usage," Edward Finegan
Chapter 12, "Canadian English," Laurel J. Brinton and Margery Fee
Chapter 13, "Newfoundland English," William J. Kirwin
Chapter 14, "American English Abroad," Richard W. Bailey
John Algeo opens the volume with an overview of the external
history of English in the United States, dividing American
English into three periods: the Colonial period (1607-1776), the
national period (1776-1898), and the international period (1898-
present). For his account of the Colonial period, Algeo is
indebted to David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed: Four British
Folkways in America" (1989), whose history of early American
society and language, "the most ambitious theory of American
cultural history ever put forward" (p. 7), has had a profound
influence on historians of American English, and factors into
the discussion of several other authors in this volume (Cassidy
and Hall; Fisher; Montgomery). Fischer's four major waves of
immigration from England are (1) "Puritans from eastern England
to Massachusetts Bay, 1629-41"; (2) "Gentry and their servants
from southern England to Virginia, 1642-75"; (3) "Quakers from
the North Midlands and Wales to the Delaware Valley, 1675-1725";
and (4) "Common people from northern England, northern Ireland,
and Scotland to the Appalachians, 1717-75" (pp. 7-8). In
discussing the national and international periods, Algeo focuses
on the key historical events and watersheds impacting on the
external history of the language up through the present, such as
the spread of American English around the world through
In chapter 2, "British and American, Continuity and Divergence,"
John Hurt Fisher assesses the nature and extent of differences
between British and American English. As late as the early
1800s, the two national varieties were still so close that
Americans traveling in England could pass as Englishmen, and
even Noah Webster late into his career continued to regard
British and American English as the same language despite
numerous variations in spelling and vocabulary; the differences
among regional dialects within each country were greater than
any differences between British and American English. Meanwhile
American regional dialects continued to develop in new
directions the dialects brought over by immigrants from England,
with however much mixing and leveling among the dialects in the
colonies. The most significant divergence that developed
between the two national tongues arose in England with the
spread of Received Pronunciation (RP) from the late 1700s, the
"polite" alternative to London cockney and other local dialects
of England, which continued to resemble their descendant
dialects in America. Economically privileged Americans from the
coastal cities who traveled to England imitated RP and in turn
planted new prestige forms in the dialects of New England and
the southern states, such as the [r]-dropping (nonrhotacism)
that still defines these dialects today. After the Civil War,
prestige shifted to the northern and mid-western rhotic dialects
and away from regions associated with the British elite, forming
the basis of Standard American English in the 20th century. The
question of whether American English should be viewed as
fundamentally distinct or not from British English, preoccupying
scholars to this day, may finally be irresolvable.
In chapter 3, "British and Irish Antecedents," Michael
Montgomery notes that populations emigrating from the British
Isles were often due to previous and ongoing internal migration
in England already considerably heterogeneous, multilingual and
multidialectal, and this complicates the straightforward linking
of American regional dialects to corresponding English regional
dialects. This caution has led some scholars to doubt that
"regional British English had any significant role in producing
varieties of American English as we know them today" (p. 88).
Montgomery holds that antecedents can be hypothesized and
ultimately proven with improved methodology and data. He
proposes that the emigrant group which besides the English
exerted the most influence on American English were Protestant
Scotch-Irish from Ulster arriving between 1718 and 1776 in
Delaware and Pennsylvania and settling over the next two
generations mostly in the Upper South. This wave of Scots-Irish
immigration was succeeded by a much larger wave of Catholic
Irish immigrants in the 19th century who settled in New York
City, Boston, Philadelphia and other urban centers, but it was
the earlier wave that contributed most to American English due
to the fact that they were pioneers, while the later Irish found
themselves culturally subordinate to the English descendents in
the cities. Much of chapter three is devoted to an historical
overview of scholarly milestones in the history of American
English, notably by Carver (1987), Dillard (1992), Fischer
(1989), Krapp (1925), Kurath (1949), Kurath and McDavid (1961),
and Mencken (1963) in order to underscore the limitations as
well as achievements of much previously gathered linguistic
data. Some long-held misconceptions reviewed by Montgomery are
the "Colonial lag hypothesis" (Marckwardt, 1958; McKnight,
1925), which assumes American English to be a conservative
version of British English, and the "Elizabethan hypothesis,"
which prizes Appalachian English as a fossil of Shakespearean
English (Brown, 1889; Frost, 1899; Wilson, 1929). Too many
studies, Montgomery notes, have relied more on settlement
history than linguistic evidence. Also assessed are the
relative merits of Kurath's (1949) tripartite division of
American English into the Northern, Midland and Southern dialect
regions and Carver's (1987) binary division into the Upper and
Lower North and Upper and Lower South dialect regions, where the
Lower North and Upper South correspond to Kurath's Midland (a
separate "Western" dialect region is treated in Pederson, this
volume, below). Montgomery concludes that an exact
understanding of how early American English derived from which
British regional dialects "remains elusive because of early
settlers, the uncertain social dynamics of colonial settlements,
and the intrinsic difficulties of proving dissemination of a
linguistic feature" (p. 152).
The next three chapters provide a detailed account of many of
the best-known American coinages and expressions. In chapter 4,
"Contact with Other Languages," Suzanne Romaine surveys the
numerous and often over-looked instances of language contact on
the North American continent not only over the centuries of
colonization but also in the pre-settlement era among the
estimated 350-500 languages of the American Indians, who in
order to communicate developed an array of lingua francas. As
contact between Indians and Europeans increased, various
Spanish, French, and English-based pidgins developed. In the
19th century, attempts by White settlers to domesticate Indian
children resulted in "boarding school English" (p. 159). Due to
this ongoing contact some 50 Indian nouns and well over 1,000
proper names (states, rivers, cities, etc.) in turn permanently
entered American English. Further discussed are the
contributions to American English (both the standard and
regional varieties) from Dutch, French, German, Spanish,
Italian, Yiddish, Slavic, Chinese, Hawaiian, and various African
languages. In chapter 5, "Americanisms," Frederic G. Cassidy
and Joan Houston Hall review the contributions to a
descriptivist definition of "Americanism" (as opposed to
pejorative British accounts) by Craigie and Hulbert (1938-44),
Mathews (1951), and Algeo (1992); the latter's distinction
between "synchronic" Americanisms (existing differences between
American and British English not necessarily originating in the
U.S.) and "diachronic" Americanisms (coinages and expressions
originating in the U.S.) has gained acceptance. The bulk of the
chapter is a chronological account of the origins of the best-
known Americanisms, from the adoption of American Indian terms
as early as the 1620s to the subsequent development of dialectal
coinages hand-in-hand with the growing regional self-identity of
New England, Appalachia, the South, and elsewhere. The writings
of Mark Twain, the lexicography of Noah Webster, and key
historical events such as the Civil War, the settlement of the
West, urbanization, World War II, and the contributions of
African-American culture are also enlisted important sources of
Americanisms. In chapter 6, "Slang," Jonathan E. Lighter
distinguishes "slang" from "colloquial" discourse by its
subversive character, whose purpose is to "lower and disavow the
dignity of discourse" (p. 221). He highlights the figurative
character of slang, enabling classification through traditional
poetic terminology, for example, "son of a bitch" as antiphrasis
for "remarkable fellow," "bread" as metaphor for money, and
"piece of ass" as synecdoche for "act of copulation" (pp. 224-
25). Lighter traces the complex history of the word "slang"
itself and the proliferation of descriptive dictionaries of
slang in the 20th century once scholars were able to overcome the
negative connotations of slang and recognize it as a valuable
object of study in its own right, noting key contributions by
Mencken (1963) and Wentworth and Flexner (1975). Lighter
finally characterizes slang "as a characteristically American
style of speech, recognized and often emulated around the world"
In chapter 7, "Dialects," Lee Pederson divides American English
into four major dialect areas: Northern (Maine and northern
Pennsylvania to the Dakotas), Midland (Pennsylvania and the Ohio
Valley to the Upper Midwest), Southern (the South Atlantic and
Gulf States to Texas), and Western (the Mississippi Valley and
the Midwest plains to the Pacific Coast). In their 19th-century
westward expansion from St. Louis, the Western dialects
preserved essentially Northern features as far as Idaho and
Utah, while southern Colorado, upper Texas, New Mexico and
Arizona retained Midland characteristics. This expansion did
not directly extend to Washington, Oregon, California, and
Nevada, but proceeded rather by "parachuting" (when distant
areas are settled before intermediate areas) to the Pacific
Coast (pp. 281, 286). Crisscrossing settlement patterns in this
region thus resulted in a "convoluted" mix of Midland and
predominantly Northern dialect features. Over time Northern
features began to dominate to the point where Pacific Coast
speech became virtually indistinguishable from that of general
Midwest Northern dialect as exists in, say, Chicago. In chapter
8, "African-American English," Salikoko S. Mufwene reviews the
major scholarship on African-American English (AAE) and African-
American Vernacular English (AAVE). One of the important and
oft-debated questions is that of the correlation between
"participation in street culture and the proportion and
frequency of features associated with AAVE" (p. 292);
recognizing the internal diversity of AAVE, Mufwene finds the
question justified. Next summarized is the scholarship on the
phonological, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic features of
AAE. The development and origins of AAE are then examined,
beginning with the Gullah-AAVE connection that led to various
creole hypotheses argued by Dillard (1972), Fasold (1981), Labov
(1982), Stewart (1974), and others. Mufwene favors an
alternative creole-connection hypothesis put forward by Winford
(1993), which views the convergence of modern AAVE toward
English as a rapid shift from a creole-like variety rather than
decreolization from a true creole.
In chapter 9, "Grammatical Structure," Ronald R. Butters
observes that many of the instances in which the grammar of
American English is assumed to have changed from the British
(e.g., American "gotten" from British "got") more likely
represent change in British English, with American English
retaining the older form. Other instances of apparent
divergence of American from British English in syntax and
inflectional morphology tend to be confined to nonstandard or
regional varieties of American English rather than standard
American English. American nonstandard grammatical features are
reviewed, e.g., invariant "be" of African-American Vernacular
English and the intensifier "done" found in both AAVE and
Southern dialects. Examples of independent changes in standard
American English grammar are "do"-support in "have" questions
(e.g., "Do you have any ...?"), never a feature of British English,
and the great number of intransitive verbs that have come to be
used transitively in American English (e.g. "fly the Atlantic"
versus "fly across the Atlantic"). In chapter 10, "Spelling,"
Richard L. Venezky notes that as a result of the aggressive
intervention of lexicographers and orthographers--of greater
influence than the printers in this regard--American spelling was
regularized and stabilized largely in its modern form by 1700,
despite the subsequent 18th-century preference among American
educators of the British over American dictionaries as arbiters
of spelling. Webster's 1828 Dictionary of American English
gained quick success not only as a result of his growing
influence and authority but because he astutely chose spellings
favored by native printers. Venezky reviews attempts by various
American academies, spelling reformers, and the Government
itself to regulate spelling and usage, generally to little
lasting consequence. While American spelling should be viewed
as a system unto itself rather than as a deviation from British
spelling, the differences between the two national varieties are
relatively few and both show a tendency toward consensus,
particularly in the age of electronic communication and
In chapter 11, "Usage," Edward Finegan observes that contrary to
the belief of linguists that we have surmounted the prejudice of
prescriptivism and the only valid criterion of usage is common
speech, prescriptivism continues to thrive in subtle forms, even
among some of the very linguists who condemn it (e.g., Fromkin
and Rodman, 1998; Linguistic Society of America, 1995; Pinker,
1994). Evolving attitudes towards English usage in both America
and Britain were bound up with the history of influential
grammar texts going back to the pre-Revolutionary era.
Webster's A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783-
85) was the first American-authored grammar to achieve wide
circulation. His goal, however, was contradictorily descriptive
and prescriptive: "'to find what the English language is, and
not, how it might have been made'" (1789), and at the same time
to "campaign ... for a distinct American language" (Webster cited in
Finegan, p. 367). As Finegan remarks, "Despite a professed
faith in democratic ideals, Webster ... anointed himself as the
standard of propriety and elegance and judged nonconformists
vulgar and ignorant" (p. 368). In the subsequent history of
grammar wars since Webster's time, the descriptivist and
relativistic view of linguistic correctness gained
respectability and eventually won out, aided by the support of
the Modern Language Association, the publication of the Oxford
English Dictionary, the phonologically based linguistics of
Bloomfield, the progressive educational theory of Dewey, and
writings by Matthews (1901), Krapp (1909), and Fries (1927).
The publication of The English Language Arts by the National
Council of Teachers of English (1952) and the colloquially
weighted Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961
saw the triumph of descriptivism, only to experience a backlash
by conservative defenders of style, taste and "grammatical
correctness" such as Barzun (1959) and Morris (1969). Nunberg
(1982) presents a more balanced statement in support of
traditional standards: "if the idea that good usage has a
rational justification is abandoned, people will return to the
doctrine that the correctness of usage is based entirely on the
social prestige of the speaker" (cited in Finegan, p. 420).
In chapter 12, "Canadian English," Laurel J. Brinton and Margery
Fee offer two competing views of Canadian English, that it is,
on the one hand, a mere blend of British and northern American
English with little identity of its own, or on the other, in the
words of Bailey (1982), "a true national language" (cited in
Brinton and Fee, p. 422). In the latter view, the
distinctiveness of Canadian English derives not from any unique
features but from its unique distribution of features also found
in British and American English. For example, an oft-noted
Canadian feature, diphthong raising, also occurs in Scots
English and in the Virginia-Carolina region in the U.S., but not
in the same phonological environments. It is further noted that
Canadians are increasingly adopting American spellings and
pronunciations. In chapter 13, "Newfoundland English," William
J. Kirwin recounts the significance of settlement history along
the Newfoundland coast to an understanding of early North
American English. These original settlers included thousands of
transient fishermen from southwestern England as far back as the
16th century, joined by numerous settlers from Ireland in the 18th
century, resulting in the peculiar Anglo-Irish character of
Newfoundland English. In chapter 14, "American English Abroad,"
Richard W. Bailey recounts the history of the spread and impact
of American English abroad from the earliest Indian terms
brought back to Europe from the New World in the 16th century
down to the "triumph" of American English around the world in
the present day (p. 493). A turning point occurred during the
early 19th century, when the increasingly distinctive American
speech engendered anxiety in England over rightful ownership of
the language. The dominance of American English was finally
conceded by Burchfield (1989), editor emeritus of the Oxford
Following upon other volumes in the series, volume six of the
Cambridge History of the English Language aims to bring together
an authoritative collection of articles by leading scholars in
the field. As an edited volume, the inevitable result is
isolated perspectives on the language rather than the sort of
thematically organized narrative or unified chronological
account one expects in standard monographs on the history of
English. And while the specialties of the experts selected for
inclusion tend to give greater attention to the origins and
earlier phases of American English rather than to more
contemporary developments, a criticism to be returned to below,
on balance the volume achieves its objective in putting on
display the achievements of so many illustrious scholarly
Two main reservations follow. First, readers seeking an answer
to the question, What exactly is American English?, or likewise,
At what historical juncture does "American English" merit the
term?, will find upon finishing the volume that they are no
nearer to an answer than at the start. Two opposing views are
possible. In one view--what might be called the "nationalist
history" of English (Leith, 1997)--Algeo in the opening chapter
locates the starting point of "American English" at the
Jamestown settlement of 1607, despite the fact that the identity
of the settlers' native British tongue would in no way have
altered in the passage across the Atlantic, nor would any
significant changes in their way of speaking have occurred for
several generations. But it is in the interest of nationalist
historians, as Milroy (1992) reminds us, to project such an
unwarranted "unilinear" conception of the language backwards in
time. In the other view, the notion of "the American language"
is challenged (by two American historians, one of them the very
same author) as a "misnomer," there being in our present day "no
essential difference between the English of America and that of
Great Britain," isolated differences aside (Pyles and Algeo,
1993, p. 212). While on the one hand John Witherspoon was
noticing "Americanisms" in 1781, his contemporaries Thomas
Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin idealized the British variety,
scarcely recognizing anything "American" about the English they
spoke (Fisher pp. 61-67 and Bailey p. 480, this volume). Noah
Webster, as we have seen, was ambivalent and contradictory on
regarding "American" English as essentially any different from
British English (Finegan, this volume, pp. 366ff). It was not
until the Revolutionary period and the birth of the nation
proper--close to two centuries after the first English settlers
arrived--that a self-conscious American style first began to be
propositioned, despite scarcely discernible differences in
speech and accent between Americans and Englishmen generally at
the time (Fisher, this volume, pp. 71-73). It is to the credit
of the authors in this volume that they invite future debate by
leaving these questions open-ended, yet one is left with the
impression that the Cambridge series favors an overly cautious
approach, leaving scholars such as Fischer (1989) to advance
more adventurous and over-arching, if controversial, theses that
are more interesting to read and may ultimately do more to shape
the historical trajectory of the scholarship.
The second reservation is the volume's bias toward coverage of
the earlier phases of the language. There is a great deal of
overlap on the earlier periods in the chapters by Algeo, Fisher,
Montgomery, and Pederson. We should be thankful for such
meticulous scholarship, but it begins to taper off in the 20th
century, as if American English were undergoing language death.
Algeo does provide an overview of key historical events up to
the present day for his external history of the language, but
these events are not linked in any systematic way to the
language itself. Lighter provides a thorough account of
American slang down through the early decades of the 20th century
yet scarcely a word on the proliferating youth subcultures that
are a vibrant and inexhaustible source of slang in our own time.
Bailey devotes only four pages to the worldwide dissemination of
American English in modern times. What trends are currently
discernible in American English? What about the oft-observed
role of women as initiators of linguistic change (consider for
example the intriguing question of the so-called "Valspeak" and
"mallspeak" phenomena); the power of political events to impact
the language in unforeseeable ways (Lakoff, 2000); the role of
technology, the Internet, commercialism, and the media generally
on U.S. English and therefore on English worldwide (Crystal,
2001)? We have Mufwene on African-American English, but nothing
on Chicano English, surely a worthy object of study, or the
English of numerous other minority groups whose demographics are
changing the composition of American society. That the
contemporary state of the language is less well understood than
the past should not discourage historians of English from
charting this territory. Expanding the volume with several more
articles by experts already working in these areas would have
been one solution, and if the resulting volume were larger and
more unwieldy than anticipated, it would deservingly be so,
given the comparative importance of North American English
A final issue is the mystifying absence of maps and illustrations.
The series editor evidently has a reason, but it is a disservice
to the reader, particularly with the emphasis on regional dialects
and varieties in so many of the chapters. Maps and figures serve
an important function in recent monographs on the subject (e.g.,
Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998); their function should be
hardly less important in an edited volume.
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New: Studies in Language and Linguistics in Honor of Frederic G.
Cassidy, ed. Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringler, 287-
304. New York: Garland.
Bailey, Richard W. (1982). "The English Language in Canada." In
English as a World Language, ed. Richard W. Bailey and Manfred
Goerlach, 134-76. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Barzun, Jacques. (1959). The House of Intellect. New York:
Harper and Row.
Brown, Calvin S. (1889). "Dialectal Survivals in Tennessee."
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Burchfield, Robert. (1989). Unlocking the English Language.
London: Faber and Faber.
Carver, Craig M. (1987). American Regional Dialects: A Word
Geography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Craigie, William A., and James R. Hulbert. (1938-44). Dictionary
of American English. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Crystal, David. (2001). Language and the Internet. Cambridge:
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Dillard, Joey L. (1972). Black English: Its History and Usage in
the United States. New York: Random House.
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Fischer, David H. (1989). Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways
in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fries, Charles C. (1927). The Teaching of the English Language.
New York: Thomas Nelson.
Fromkin, Victoria, and Robert Rodman. (1998). An Introduction to
Language, 6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
Frost, William G. (1899). "Our Contemporary Ancestors." Atlantic
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Krapp, George P. (1909). Modern English: Its Growth and Present
Use. New York: Scribner's.
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vols. New York: Century.
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States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Kurath, Hans, and Raven I. McDavid, Jr. (1961). The
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Labov, William. (1982). "Objectivity and Commitment in
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
David Cahill's research areas are the history of the English
language, English Renaissance literature, the history and theory
of rhetoric, Chinese language and rhetoric, the sociolinguistics
of English in China, and second-language writing.
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