The English Language

by Whitney F. Bolton (ed.)

Rating: ★★★

A collection of introductory essays for the study of English linguistics, pitched at the undergraduate student or interested lay-reader. It's rewarding material. I think relatively few native speakers have ever studied or seriously considered their own language, and it is surprising how much you may never have noticed about something you use every day. Taking a series of experienced guides like this is a good way to begin.

The first two chapters are excellent and lively discussions. The first starts from a discussion of what linguistics is, and explains the need for taking a 'synchronic' approach -- observing and describing a language at a single point rather than deferring to our understanding of how it has historically evolved. I tend to enjoy etymologies and language histories, but was convinced that this material, while useful at explaining the 'why' of a language, can be a distraction when simply trying to understand the present system.

The second chapter on phonetics was denser but similarly riveting. It must be quite entertaining watching someone read this essay, as you unavoidably find yourself testing out various examples from the text, which manifests as muttering bizarre alternating phrases repeatedly. One tidbit I enjoyed: we are quite aware that we change the indefinite article depending on whether the following word begins with a vowel: 'a lollipop' but 'an elephant'. But we also change our sound for the definite article -- listen to how you say 'the' in both 'the lollipop' and 'the elephant' and you'll find that it might be more accurately rendered as 'thuh lollipop' but 'thi elephant'. This is a sound-rule of English that we don't encode in our written language, and there are loads more to convince yourself of by addressing common words to the wall in a puzzled manner.

The third chapter, on morphology, is quite edifying but lacked the easy presentation of the previous chapters. The authors include a lot of classifications and lists of components or examples, which are quite dry without any general thesis to follow the pursuit of. This is the first chapter that really felt like a textbook chapter, something that you might return to for reference rather than read to gain an understanding.

The fourth chapter swings with more energy, supposedly about syntax but quite cheerfully diving off-script, and yet the ground it covers is still quite a trek, and you soon find yourself reading paragraphs like:

The traditional use of adjunct and complement recognizes [sic] the fact of syntagmatic dependency and constraint but are bound to be insecure if based on a single criterion of deletability or non-deletability. The term 'adjunct' is much more satisfactorily used, it seems to the present writer, in contract with 'conjunct' and 'disjunct' and with reference to English adverbial forms and their syntagmatic implications for discourse.

Which, while contextually not an impenetrable as it might seem, does tend to make the eyes gloss over.

The fifth chapter picks things back up with a discussion of words -- where they come from, how they are formed, and what the layers of words in our language can tell us about its history. I found this reviving after the long fourth chapter. The sixth chapter focuses on the subject of style, which is quite a difficult concept to nail down, but is managed happily enough by its author.

The seventh and eighth chapters cover the development of English historically, respectively addressing English from Old to Middle and from Middle to modern. This is the sort of linguistic material I most enjoy, and both essays were highly rewarding, with discussions about how both grammar and vocabulary have changed over the centuries and are still changing. I didn't even mind that the eighth chapter repeated some of the introduction to word formation from the fifth.

The final chapter concludes with a somewhat whimsical polemic on the relationship between English language studies and literature, and the need for a restatement of purpose in historical linguistics, given the changing state of higher education. I was particularly captured by his quotes from historical critics, some of whom seem worth reading in full.