Find Out How the English Language Became History with this Excellent Book

How English Became History Book Review

Clichéd Yet Concise Beginnings

If you were to look at the book’s opening chapter from a purely creative point of view – particularly in the context of the rest of the book – then you would be forgiven for feeling that its style of opening is a little clichéd. The book opens with a chapter titled “What is English?”, with the much-familiar literary device of inserting the dictionary definition of the word “English” (in this case, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 definition) at the chapter’s outset.  

From a purely educational point of view, however, this chapter is the ideal introduction for secondary-level students. Though the clichés keep raining down with the inclusion of a bible passage, Horobin’s presentation of the 5 varied interpretations of this very same passage allow him to utilise a clichéd idea as a tool with more useful goals: to exemplify the divergence of English from its origins to the staggeringly diverse variations of the language we see in the modern day.

The use of a bible passage to draw distinctions between the lexicons, grammatical nuances, the borrowing of words and phrases from other languages, and the extremely brief exploration of dialects (covered in more detail in a later chapter), mirrors the wider purpose of this chapter, which is to attempt to drill the importance of English today as a tree formed of branches emanating from one historical root. You’ll find references to Old English, right the way through to relatively modern examples such as historical figure and literary/conceptual genius George Orwell.

For educational purposes, this book’s opening chapter is excellent as an overview and introduction to the English language as mentioned in andrewbiggs.com review of the book, though as one would expect from such a short book, there isn’t a massive amount of detail or exploration of its origins here – the following chapters aim to tackle this task instead.

An Origin Story

After setting up the general tone of the book in the first chapter, Horobin goes on to explore the origins of the English language. From it often being mistaken as having its origins entangled in the latin-derived French language, to a reminder that despite distant connections with Latin and French and a lack of a written origin story, English is much is predominantly a Germanic language.

From this point, we are treated to a straightforward tutorial-esqe amble through the origins of English with a look at old English (AD 650-1100), Middle English (1100-1500), Early-Modern English (1500-1750), and ending with the final stepping stone of Late-Modern English (1750-1900). This is a very accessible chapter of the book with a commendable amount of detail about the style of English in each period as well as its evolution between then. What is particularly enjoyable about this origins chapter is its inclusion of some example texts, specifically the earliest-known English poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn, which is a fascinating piece of history to any reader, no matter their level of education.

It can also be argued that in the “Origins” chapter, not only does the division of information into distinct historical periods make the subject more easily digestible for Primary and Secondary-level learners, it also serves a more useful purpose: to present the intertwining of history and language. The Middle English section makes much reference to the influence of religion and law on the language, for example, as well as the increasing instances of borrowing from Latin.

The Early-Modern section is particularly exciting too, given the references to and clear influence of the renaissance on not only the language itself, but also its propagation in society, taking Newton’s 1704 work Opticks as an example of a book written in English. References to the expansion of trade and travel are also made here, weaving a web of information where English and history are spun tightly together, such as with the influence of the propagation of travel allowing access to European languages (Italian, Dutch, Spanish, etc.) as well as further pastures such as Persia, highlighting its effect on the English language.

To close off the chapter, we are given a summation of what we are supposed to have been taught by its content. This is where many other reviews of the book are swayed towards taking these summations as almost patronising of condescending. Again, though, looking at this book and these summations in the context of a primary and secondary-level education approach, Horobin’s style of writing is conducive to the swift learning and gaining of the kind of overview required at these levels. Should more detail be required, then it would be best advised to pursue the reading of texts that are greater than 187 pages in length.

Authorities and Standards

The chapters following the historically-oriented “Origins” chapter a much more theoretical in nature. These chapters cover the so-called authorities and rules of the language, and the next chapter looking at the standards of the language.

These two chapters are a little lighter on the historical aspects of English, or at least much less so than the previous chapters. The “Authorities” chapter is rich with explorations of the various bodies/categories of authority as they relate to the language, covering dictionaries and linguistic academies (with reference to the Royal Society and their 1664 committee formed with the purpose of “improving” the language). References to usage guides and sources/citations as a method of imparting authority on various branches of English, are also made.

Again, some of the most enjoyable sub-sections of these chapters is the inclusion of texts by and references to authors such as George Orwell, as well as examples of citations within the Oxford English Dictionary - http://www.oed.com/ – a text that most English speakers in the world will have at least heard of, if not encountered on a regular basis, particularly in the context of English education. Fewer of these respites from the stuffier lecture-esque style of writing are seen in the “Standards” chapter, which tackles subjects like “Proper” English, and the importance of good grammar.

A Bit of Variety

One of, if not the most enjoyable chapters within the book is that which covers the many varieties of the English language. Horobin moves away from the sweeping historical journey of the opening chapters here to discuss an admittedly British-centric wide-view of the variations within the English language.

Here we are treated to an overview or the problem of dialects, and the problems they pose to any scholar. These are largely problems of degree, since many areas can express anything between minor and major variations in dialect. Scots is given as an example here, and is explored in much detail, from pronunciation to standards of grammar, varying pronouns, and general differences in vocabulary.

This section also contains a very interesting (yet some would argue all too short) exposition on the attitudes surrounding dialects when compared to standard English. There is a good exploration of social prejudice, and Horobin reminds us that such prejudice is a largely recent phenomenon, but one that has its origins as early as the 15th and 16th centuries.

Horobin also reminds us of the important distinction between dialect and accent, of course, with the latter being just one property of the former. It is also difficult not to enjoy the inclusion of linguist Peter Trudgill’s diagnostic sentence “Very few cars made it up the long hill”, which brings to the surface the main important criteria of what makes up the various dialects within the UK.

An Controversial Approach to LOL

One of the latter chapters of the book also offers an interesting insight into Horobin’s approach and therefore opinion on the development of technology and its impact on the English language. Reading an oxford scholar’s take on “text-speak” and modern forms of communication may provide an an unintential side-effect of humour here. He covers the development of text-speak, and himself refers to the use of the phrase “Linguistic poverty” of the medium of electronic discourse.

Horobin’s own view on new mediums and their offspring (LOL, OMG, and other indicators of our time) may surprise some, however.  References to the widely-known phenomenon of Tesco’s “10 items or less” announcements in store, and the argument that “fewer” is the correct term, allow us to see that Horobin has little time for the level of snobbery that many scholars would certainly impose. His reference to Waitrose’s “10 items or fewer” is also a nice touch which serves to represent a deeper sense of linguistic and intellectual superiority that penetrates society in the UK.

Impressive Considering Its Length

Horobin certainly set himself quite the substantial task when writing and releasing this book. At 187 pages, the need to be concise is already in the back of the reader’s mind before evening opening the first page. And it certainly is concise. Its 7 chapters are akin to being swept up on a magic carpet and hurtled through the language’s origins, authorities, variations, standards, and its relevance not only in the present, but also in the future.

One would expect an author like Horobin whose publications can be found here https://www.english.ox.ac.uk/people/professor-simon-horobin – an oxford-educated scholar – to take a dim view of more modern variations of the language. Though he certainly shows an element of distrust of non-standard versions of English and their potential to dilute and eve threaten the status of the mighty English language, his treatment of modern electronic communication is much more sympathetic than most would expect. There are elements of humour littered throughout the book, though these are more professorial than anything of the sort that would provide a deep belly-laugh.

One of the main criticisms of the book would be its length. That is, if you are an English scholar, then this sort of text would be mere child’s play for you. This book will almost certainly be a useful tool for injecting your brain with a very good basis of English-language knowledge. The symbiotically-entwined historical and linguistic elements within the book certainly give this text a double-edge, too; they allow the reader to develop an understanding of how the development of technology through the ages, as well as historical events like the renaissance, had a direct impact upon the English language.

The only area that could have benefitted from a little more of a balanced approach would be that of the sheer universality of the language. Given the global nature of the language, the book certainly has a somewhat Anglo or British-centric approach to it, touching only on the more global impact of the language in the earlier and last chapter. Overall, however, this is a very concise overview of the English language available from amazon.co.uk, and its historical references certainly broaden the potential audience of the book even further. You can find a qood summary of the historical events of english here https://www.lingualearnenglish.com/blog/featured/a-short-history-of-the-english-language/