The Origins and Development of the English Language, International Edition Paperback – 8 Mar 2009
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-This relatively slim volume is attractive and accessible for undergraduate and graduate students, has so much information, and could serve even as a reference source.- --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The book might be difficult to follow for someone with absolutely no background in linguistics or the earlier stages of English, or at least some knowledge of a language (for example, German) that retains more inflections than modern English. I have learned some Old English, and have picked up bits and pieces of linguistics although I have never studied it in any systematic way. However, Algeo's book is certainly not for just the serious student of linguistics.
After some general chapters on language and linguistics, the book takes the development of our language chronologically. It begins with the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and Proto-Germanic phases, before English existed as a language. It then goes through Old English, Middle English, early modern English, and late modern English. There are then a few more general chapters: about how languages change, and (with many examples) how words have entered English. Each of the chapters on Old through late modern English includes some brief history of English speakers as the history pertains to what happened to the language during the period under discussion.
A strength of this text is how it makes the connections to show the development of the language. It does not just give a snapshot of English at various dates, but keeps referring back to previous periods.
The author takes an informal and occasionally irreverent tone. As a bit of a pedant about usage (colloquially, a grammar Nazi) myself, I recognized myself as a type the author pokes gentle fun at. His point is that language changes, usage changes, the meanings of words change, and it is more profitable to study how English is actually used than to try to prescribe some unchanging rules. English is an evolving system, but one in which we can find a good deal of continuity back to its early roots.
The OE word for "sister" was "sweostor" (like German "Schwester"). But the Old Norse words --in this case "syster"-- won out, and this was long before the Norman Conquest of 1066 from which we got most of our Latin and Greek loan words.
This book is lean and dense (no fluff). It begins with brief overviews of language in general, what distinguishes it from animal communication, the sounds people make with a cross section of a human head to illustrate places of articulation (and related terms like "fricative" and "plosive"), and major languages families, past and present.
FAIR WARNING: you will likely be lost unless you have studied a language formally because there is a lot of detailed discussion about case, tense, noun declensions, verb inflections, and the like. But if you "dig" languages, come on in.
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