The Reading Matrix
Vol. 4, No. 1, April 2004

A History of the English Language (5 th ed.)
Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable (2002)
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hal l
Pp. xiv+447
ISBN: 0-13-015166-1
Reviewed by Deqi Zen
Southeast Missouri State University

Since its first appearance in 1935, A History of the English Language has gone through five editions. Its wide acceptance by and continuous popularity among professors and students speak well of its enduring qualities. While following faithfully the guiding principles, general structure, and narrative method of the first edition, the present edition maintains the natural growth of the preceding editions and updates itself with new linguistic theories, current cultural views, and latest scholarships.

A History of the English Language consists of eleven chapters. The opening chapter, “English Present and Future,” is not merely a survey of the current situation and a forward look into the future of the English language, more importantly it lays down for the entire book the guiding principle that language is inseparable from the social, political, cultural, and economic contexts in which it is used. It clearly states that the history of the English language is a cultural subject (p. 1). The second chapter puts the English language in the Indo-European family of languages, which helps account for the characteristics and changes of English in relation to other languages in this family. The following nine chapters trace the complicated development of the English language from the Middle Ages to the present in Great Britain, America, and other English speaking countries and areas. After each chapter, the authors provide a significant up-to-date annotated bibliography, which is very valuable for further studies.

The history of a language is at the same time largely the history of the people that speak it and the history of the English language can be well understood only in the context of the social, political, economic, and cultural history of England and other English speaking nations. One prominent merit of this book is its integration of the story of the English language with the history of the English people. It should be emphasized that in this book historical events or intellectual developments are not given as a mere background, as they often are in some similar books. Instead, they are foregrounded as inseparable forces that conditioned the change and development of the English language and are, therefore, discussed together with the changes and characteristics of the language in those areas. This makes not only the story of the English language more interesting, but also the discussion of the changes more convincing.

It is well known that English underwent radical, even revolutionary, changes in the Middle English period in syntax and vocabulary and developed from a synthetic to an analytic language. To this period, the authors give three chapters (5-7), a third of the total chapters on the historical development of the English language. They do not just present the changes, but also convincingly reveal what caused them. Those fascinating chapters on Middle English demonstrate that the coexistence of English, French, and Latin after the Norman Conquest, though hindering the growth of English in the first one or two centuries, really benefited the language and even accelerated its development in later centuries, especially in the Age of Chaucer.

Of course this book primarily presents the history of the English language and it is in narrating the language’s growth that the book most clearly reveals its solid scholarship and insight. Probably the English language has gone through more changes than any other major language in the world in the last fifteen centuries since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled down on the British Isles. A History of the English Language carefully traces in the labyrinth of history the changes of the language’s vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, focusing especially on English’s unusual ability to adapt foreign words, vowel and consonant shifts, and the process in which English lost its inflection, which characterize the language’s development from Old English to Modern English. Not only the ample examples and data of the changes are interesting and meaningful, the authors’ presentation of the changing process and their exploration into the causes of the changes are also intellectually provocative.

If the book focuses mostly on the development of the English language before the Renaissance, beginning from the Age of Reason, the authors pay increasing attention to the continuous “struggles” between the various forces that attempt to “standardize,” to “purify,” and to “fix” the English language on the one side and those that follow the “doctrine of usage” on the other. These struggles have taken various forms in the past three centuries concerning issues of dictionaries and language institutions as well as vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and usage of the English language; the tensions have never ended, and it seems they never will. While they are not exactly the history of English, they have greatly affected the development of the language, influenced people’s view of it, and have become inseparable from the history of English. It is interesting to see how this new awareness of language affects language. The authors’ discussions of various linguistic schools are generally objective and balanced and are integrated into their presentation of English’s development in these centuries.

A History of the English Language is a very useful and valuable textbook, as the past decades have witnessed. But its value and usefulness are certainly not limited to the classroom. Its vivid narrative of historical and cultural events, its straightforward but scholarly presentation of the fascinating story of the English language, and its lucid style spotted with humor all broaden the book’s appeal to general readers as well. Language is the most significant human creation and in it is embedded the wisdom as well as the history of mankind. Some knowledge of a language and its history, as the authors believe, is a necessary part of a person’s education.


Deqi Zen has a PhD from Ohio University. She is an assistant professor of English/TESOL at Southeast Missouri State University. Her research interest areas include language teacher education, second language literacy, and second/foreign language writing.