History of English Language textbooks

Basically, the selection is frustrating. There are three classics: by Algeo, Millward, and Baugh & Cable. Each has its benefits. But they cost $100 each, which is just extortionate. For the number of these courses that are taught, I’m baffled as to why these companies can’t at least sell paperback versions. None are especially accessible in prose or layout or content. And because the answer keys for their Workbooks are available everywhere on the web, using one of them is, frankly, pointless. (Students and professors, for, ah, different reasons, might note that some of the answers to the OED exercises in Millward’s Workbook–which was published in 1996–are now out of date, since word entries have been updated in the on-line edition of the OED.) From now on, I’m making up my own exercises.

So, I’ve been researching other options. The first that I will always use is David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of the English Language: this book should be owned by every English Major of any stripe. Reasonably priced, very accessible, and very accurate (the only quibble I’ve ever found after years of using is a one-sentence remark saying that the long ſ [s] developed after the middle ages), it contains an enormous amount of material. What a great book.

But the students say “well, I miss having a basic reference text.” I find myself referring to material which they can’t return to in this, especially about other languages from Indo-European onwards. So, a bit guiltily, but not really, I’ve been asking every publisher I can find to send me examination copies. Choices? Well, three essay-collections-as-textbooks are by Mugglestone, Hogg & Denison, and Machan & Scott: what with entire chapters just on Australian English (but not other varieties), or great chunks of chapters on topics such as the advent of the periphrastic do, these present something more like original research, and are more appropriate for grad students. Hogg & Denison is organized by linguistic topic, not chronologically, which would unnecessarily complicate the narrative historical structure I enjoy.

The best options I’ve found are two. The first is Fennell’s A History of English, and the second is Barber, Beal, and Shaw’s The English Language: A Historical Introduction. They’re not sexy, and the graphics are spare (better in Fennell), but Crystal can complement this. They’re concise and clear, with enough linguistic detail to be helpful without making the mistake of trying to be comprehensive, they don’t separate out history or culture from language, and they’re in paperback at reasonable prices.

A less explicitly academic option might be McCrum, Cran, and McNeil, the companion to the old PBS series; the book is now in its third edition, though I’ve not seen it. There are an array of this variety that I’ve not seen: by McWhorter, Bragg, and Crystal. Popular press publishers, however, tend not to send examination copies, and I don’t have the money to track down whether these might work.

Or, maybe I’ll just have to write my own.

To provide a theoretical core for the course which complements the history, I have used Walter Ong’s classic Orality and Literacy several times: this helps them to contextualize the history and the data. Not all students get it, but for those who do, this becomes a very important book.

Should I get more? Other possibilities: Lerer’s Inventing English is a great set of essays which complement the comprehensiveness of the others very well, and offer good examples of the kind of research that students might imitate. A book such as God’s Secretaries is a helpful punctuation to the Early Modern Period, if I want to spend that much time on the KJV translation.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

4 thoughts on “History of English Language textbooks”

  1. I completely agree with this. I’ve used pretty much everything you’ve listed in some form or other, and have also included Bill Bryson’s book ‘The Mother Tongue’ which is pretty good (and funny, which is nice). I think we need something that’s a mix of all of this though, a text, but with exercises. Have you seen the newish Anglo-Saxon teaching text ‘Reading Old English.’ I used it to teach Anglo-Saxon (NOT my specialty, by any means), and it was SO user friendly. We need a HEL book that does the same thing:

  2. That’s pretty neat: what a text would include is some version of these exercises (couldn’t see the whole book, though) which teach key issues of OE without teaching students to read it, since reading ability isn’t really the point of HEL–case especially, which many of my students don’t understand. Maybe one way to get around the cheating issue, at least a bit, is to include these as an on-line component somehow, to log in and out of. I don’t know enough about how that might work, though. Or, include suggested classroom work?

  3. I switched to the Barber because of the cost of the others. I really did like Baugh and Cable, but at what a price! The Barber is ok. I make up my own OE exercise using some passages from Millward’s Workbook, just asking students to identify vocabulary and seeing common words that still survive, then they compare some nouns with different declensions, within the passage, etc. I also use Bauer and Trudgill’s Language Myths throughout the course as a kind of hook. I’m about to teach HEL online, which I suspect will be an impoverished version of a real course, but I’m forced to it by workload, etc. issues.

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