25.3042, Review: Historical Linguistics: Miller (2012)

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Subject: 25.3042, Review: Historical Linguistics: Miller (2012)

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Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2014 13:41:02
From: Maria Volkonskaya [mary.volkonskaya at gmail.com]
Subject: External Influences on English

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4080.html

AUTHOR: Gary D. Miller
TITLE: External Influences on English
SUBTITLE: From its Beginnings to the Renaissance
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Maria Volkonskaya, National Research University Higher School of Economics


This book is aimed at virtually anyone interested in the history of English,
for it complements the existing internal studies and discusses the external
influences on the English language from its beginnings up to the end of the
Renaissance. As stated in the preface (p. x), throughout the book Miller
employs the framework of Trudgill (2010, 2011a, 2011b) to examine different
types of language contact, distinguishing between adult second-language
acquisition and continuing contact leading to child bilingualism. The former
results in simplifications, whereas the latter brings about complexifications.
Within this framework, the author’s main focus is on “the constituent
ingredients of contemporary English” (p. x). To this end, he examines the
influence of Celtic, Latin and Greek (early and later), Scandinavian, and
French on English lexis, phonology, morphology, and syntax, providing a
variety of examples and detailed case studies to illustrate the point at
issue. The chapters that follow are mostly organized chronologically.
In the introduction (Chapter 1) Miller situates English within the
Indo-European and Germanic families. He briefly describes the main
constituents of Germanic and Celtic, giving numerous examples of borrowings
from North Germanic, Continental Germanic, Insular and Continental Celtic into
the English language. The majority of these loanwords, however, is relatively
recent and often fulfills a terminological function, such as ‘fjord’ (1674)
from Norwegian (p. 5), ‘pumpernickel’ (1738) and ‘shiksa’ (1892) from German
and Yiddish, respectively (p. 7), or ‘banshee’ (1771) from Irish (p. 11).

Chapter 2 reviews the Celtic, Roman, and Germanic background of English.
Miller starts by discussing the genetic evidence for the pre-Celts, the
subsequent Celtic settlement of the British Isles and its mark on place names
and other loanwords in English. Next, several periods of contact with the
Romans and the influence of Latin both on the British Celts and the early
Germanic tribes are mentioned, though the latter is described in detail in
Chapter 4. In the following sections Miller discusses the arrival of the
pre-English tribes in c.5 and provides linguistic and archeological evidence
for the survival of Celtic population in many areas around England after the
Anglo-Saxon settlement. He argues that “the initial contacts between Celts and
speakers of pre-Old English were based on equality” (p. 40), resulting in
complexifications. Miller claims that the two Old English paradigms of ‘to
be,’ ‘it’-clefts and the English aspect system are all examples of this
development. The enslavement of Brittonic women by the invading Germanic
tribes and the following language shift, on the other hand, led to
simplifications, as “in [slave] communities... children would not have been
exposed to Brittonic but would have learned the imperfectly acquired
(non-native) English from their mothers and/or the female slaves as their
first language” (p. 40). According to Miller, these morphosyntactic
simplifications became manifest in Middle English.

Chapter 3, entitled “English: The early period”, provides a short overview of
the main events of the external history of English from c.6 to c.10-11.
Although this chapter somewhat overlaps with the previous one, its main focus
is shifted towards Latin influences. Miller emphasizes the importance of
Christianization for the English language, as it resulted both in the several
layers of Christian borrowings and a revival of Roman culture, the Roman
alphabet, and the use of Latin.

Continuing the previous discussion, Chapter 4 is a careful study of early
English loanwords from Latin and Greek. This chapter falls into two parts. In
the first part Miller discusses the dating of loanwords on the basis of their
phonological shape and gives a brief outline of sound changes (a) from Latin
to Romance and (b) from West Germanic to Old English. The second part of this
chapter is a comprehensive chronological list of Old English borrowings
arranged according to their sphere of use. However, one has to be careful when
trying to narrow a loanword down to a particular period, and Miller puts
considerable emphasis upon (re)borrowing, which “occurred over the course of a
millennium” (p. 53), as in the case of, for instance, ‘sponge’ (p. 68). This
chapter ends with a succinct appendix offering an overview of Latin and
pre-Old English sound changes.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to the Scandinavian legacy of the English language. It
begins with a discussion of the history of Scandinavians in England, from the
Viking raids in c.8 to complete assimilation to the English in c.12. The
account that follows traces Scandinavian influence on toponyms, the lexicon,
phonology, morphology, and syntax. Norse-derived words have considerably
enriched the English language, even though the types of contact between
Scandinavians and the English seem to be different, depending on the area and
period. Miller believes that the initial borrowings are the result of adult
contact, whereas the later loans testify to bilingualism and code-switching
(p. 106). The profound lexical influence also led to some phonological
differences between southern and northeastern English; depalatalization of
native palatals in the northeast is a case in point, cf. native ‘church’ and
Danelaw ‘kirk(e)’ (p. 121). As for the morphological influence, Miller
attributes the following changes to Scandinavian-English contact: the
borrowing of the pronoun ‘they’, the diffusion of the northern present
participle ‘-and(e)’, and the generalization of nominal ‘-ing’ to participles.
Moreover, East Norse (in particular, early Jutland Danish) and English share a
number of morphosyntactic innovations, such as noun plural and genitive
singular ‘-(e)s,’ phrasal genitive, reflexive ‘(-)self’, omission of the
conjunction ‘that’, relative ellipsis, preposition stranding with pronominal
‘wh’-words, preposition stranded passives, adoption of V2 order in the north,
and the shift from SOV to SVO. “The fact that Scandinavian and English were
closely related provided for a higher degree of hybridization than occurs with
more distantly related languages or dialects,” concludes Miller (p. 147).

Chapter 6 examines French influence on English, which, according to Miller,
was mostly lexical. He criticizes the traditional view that loanwords from
Central French followed those from Norman French and agrees with Rothwell’s
assertion (1996, 1998) that the division between these two periods is rather
artificial (p. 150), for central and northern forms often coexist in one text.
Furthermore, due to the imperfect learning of French, an insular variety,
Anglo-French, appeared. Loans after the conquest easily fall into groups
according to cultural domains (for instance, titles of nobility, law,
government, religion) and reflect borrowing from a superstrate; however, “one
must distinguish terms superimposed by the Norman conquerors... from the later
borrowings that reflect cultural prestige” (p. 167). It is particularly
noteworthy that Miller pays special attention to the literary and stylistic
status of French words in English texts (pp. 162-164), a topic that rarely
comes under careful scrutiny. The period of continued bilingualism was
followed by the gradual decline and death of Anglo-French c.1400, which
correlates with “the increase (by double) of French suffixes in English
hybrids” (p. 176). Therefore, English was left with a large number of
derivational affixes. Whereas the morphological legacy of French is described
in great detail (pp. 176-184), the discussion of French impact on English
syntax is rather brief (pp. 185-187), as Miller believes that the influence is
“very limited” (p. 185). The appendix to this chapter presents an overview of
major sound changes from Latin to French.
The title of Chapter 7, which deals with later Latin and Greek influences, is
“Continuity and revival of classical learning”. Therefore, the first part of
this chapter is dedicated to the emergence of a liberal arts education, the
works of influential Christian writers of c.2-8, and the history of Latin in
the Middle Ages, though the latter account slightly overlaps with the previous
sections of the book. The second part of the chapter covers the Middle English
period, the humanistic movement, and the Renaissance (c.1300-1600) as the peak
period for Latinisms. A detailed survey of Latin and Greek influence on
English word formation is offered towards the end of this chapter. All in all,
Miller argues that the legacy of Greek and Latin is restricted only to the
lexicon and word formation (pp. 219, 221-223).

The final chapter, “External linguistic input to English,” summarizes the main
argument of the book: 1) French borrowings reflect “a substratal situation in
which English borrowed heavily from the dominant language” (p. 228).
Furthermore, French, Latin and Greek influence is restricted to the lexicon
and morphology; 2) the contact with Scandinavian was mixed, leading to a
considerable number of loanwords, whereas the contact with Celtic was
substratal. However, “for both, the major influence has been structural” (p.
232). Miller also raises some remaining problems and identifies areas that are
understudied, such as the loss of gender in English, acknowledging the need
for further research. He uses the last page to restate his key point, “A
typical family tree of the Indo-European languages lists English on a terminal
node in the Germanic subfamily, which is really relevant only for Old English.
Syntactically, morphologically, and lexically, Modern English reflects
multiple input languages” (p. 236).


Miller’s account of the external influences on English is striking. As his
book puts together the bulk of recent studies in etymology, linguistics,
archeology, history, and genetics, we should acknowledge the mere body of
scholarship that he takes into consideration while discussing a myriad of
phonological, lexical, morphological and syntactical influences. Furthermore,
far from being just a summary of previous research, the consistent application
of Trudgill’s theory of sociolinguistic typology even to some frequently
disputed or obscure cases, as well as the sharp focus on external impact, make
his work a notable contribution to current studies on English historical

However, a book that has to tackle such a vast and complex subject is bound to
contain a few irrelevant details. Occasionally, random associations, which are
due to the sheer vastness of the topic, lead the author astray and confuse the
reader, as the above-mentioned borrowings from Germanic and Celtic in Chapter
1 that fall beyond the time scale of the present study, or a rather redundant
list of the Church Fathers in Chapter 8. There is also a slight degree of
overlap in the chapters discussing classical background to English (Chapters
2, 3, 7).

On the other hand, while Miller’s account is highly accurate and detailed, a
few items are noticeably missing. For instance, one component that seems to be
lacking from Chapter 2 is a discussion of possible Celtic influences on
English phonology, though several studies have recently addressed this issue
(Laker 2009; Minkova 2011). Another example is the case of Old English
‘cirica’ from Greek ‘kuriakon.’ Though Miller uses this loanword as an
illustration a number of times (pp. 45, 81, 121), never does he mention the
later form ‘cyrice,’ which was probably a learned reborrowing. Furthermore,
whereas a number of Latin and French suffixes are being described in great
detail, ‘-or’ of agent-nouns is only mentioned in passing (p. 174). A final
instance of such omissions occurs when Miller discusses the later Latin and
Greek influence, which he believes to be lexical only, and overlooks the fact
that some borrowings are not fully morphosyntactically integrated and preserve
their original plurals (Nevalainen 1999, p. 366).

Besides, Miller makes several claims that are quite controversial. He notes,
for instance, that pre-Christian oral works, such as “Beowulf”, were written
down in c.7/8 (p. 47). However, there is no consensus view on the issue in
recent scholarship (Bjork & Obermeier 1997, pp. 18-28). Kiernan in particular
argued for a late date for the poem, claiming that “the last poet of ‘Beowulf’
was the second scribe” (Kiernan 1996, p. 278). Indeed, whether epic poetry
could be among the first texts to be written down in Christian monasteries
seems rather doubtful.

Miller also suggests that /a/ in such words as ‘man’, ‘bank’, ‘land’, is due
to Scandinavian influence (pp. 119-120). However, Middle English dialect maps
(cf. “MAN: ‘mon’ type” in eLALME) clearly demonstrate that the /o/ vowel was
restricted to the West Midlands, whereas the /a/ vowel was present outside the
Scandinavian-English contact area, which does not support Miller’s hypothesis.

Overall, the book is systematically structured, concise and quite easy to
read. All chapters are divided into subsections according to the topic, and
most of them have both introductions and conclusions; as a result, the text is
not difficult to follow. The appendices are handy and to the point. However,
there are some aspects of this book that could be improved upon. On the one
hand, the list of abbreviations is somewhat obscure as several abbreviations
are sometimes used for one term, for instance both ‘E’ and ‘Eng.’ for
‘English’ or ‘F’ and ‘fem.’ for ‘feminine’ (pp. xvi-xvii). On the other hand,
the book could benefit from a more elaborate word index, divided into
subsections to include not only Modern English, but also Old and Middle
English words as well as those of Celtic, Latin, Greek, Scandinavian, and
French origin.
To conclude, Miller’s comprehensive account of external influences will make a
highly useful resource for both academics and advanced students of the history
of the English language. Even though for the most part it requires a solid
background in English historical linguistics, even interested laypersons have
something to gain by leafing through this illuminating volume.


Bjork, Robert E. & Anita Obermeier. 1997. Date, provenance, author, audience.
In Robert E. Bjork & John D. Niles (eds.), A Beowulf handbook, 13-34. Lincoln,
Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press.

Kiernan, Kevin S. 1996. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press.

Laker, Stephen. 2009. An explanation for the early phonemicisation of a voice
contrast in English fricatives. English Language and Linguistics 13(2).

eLALME = Benskin, Michael, Margaret Laing, Vasilis Karaiskos & Keith
Williamson. 2013. An electronic version of a linguistic atlas of Late
Mediaeval English. Edinburgh. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/elalme/elalme.html.
(15 January, 2014.)

Minkova, Donka. 2011. Phonemically contrastive fricatives in Old English?
English Language and Linguistics 15(1). 31-59.

Nevalainen, Terttu. 1999. Early Modern English lexis and semantics. In Roger
Lass (ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language, vol. 3, 332-458.
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2010. Investigations in sociohistorical linguistics: Stories
of colonisation and contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011a. Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of
linguistic complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011b. A tale of two copulas: Language-contact speculations
on first-millennium England. NOWELE 62/63. 285-320.

Rothwell, William. 1996. Playing ‘follow my leader’ in Anglo-Norman studies.
Journal of French Language Studies 6(2). 177-210.

Rothwell, William. 1998. Arrivals and departures: The adoption of French
terminology into Middle English. English Studies 79(2). 144-165.


Maria Volkonskaya is a Senior Lecturer at National Research University Higher
School of Economics and Moscow State University (Russia). Her research
interests include the history of the English language (with particular
attention to the Old English and Middle English periods), the historical
development of Scots, Historical Sociolinguistics and Stylistics, as well as
Applied Linguistics (especially English for Academic Purposes).

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