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Shapes of English

  • Setiono Sugiharto


Jakarta | Sun, December 2 2012 | 01:38 pm

As a language of wider communication or lingua franca, English continues to spread and permeate globally, crossing the boundaries of different nationalities.

To describe the fluidity of the English language, the term “hybrid Englishes” has been coined and is well-accepted as a standard term in literature on historical linguistics, applied linguistics and English language teaching. English is now no longer monolithic, but has become polycentric.

With the emergent varieties of Englishes such as Spanglish (Spanish English), Singlish (Singaporean English), Franglais (French English), Japlish (Japanese English), the often revered standard varieties — mostly from the inner circle English (i.e. American and British English) — have been seriously challenged and in many cases they seem to no longer hold sway over these Englishes.

Despite the plethora of literature on world Englishes, rarely are the growing Englishes varieties or issues on global English in general situated in their historical thrusts. That is, most discussions regarding the issues center on the synchronic, rather than the diachronic aspects of the English language. This means that the current shape of the English language needs to be understood in terms of its evolutionary nature.

Stephan Gramley attempts to bridge this gap, explicating how the English language, being internationally spoken today, underwent intricate shifts in terms of its vocabulary, pronunciation and structure.

To do this, Gramley traces the evolution of the English language from Old English, Middle English and finally Modern English. Drawing on both linguistic and sociolinguistic perspectives, he vividly expounds how English (deriving from the Germanic dialect) took its present shape and spread globally, transforming itself into other forms of Englishes.

From the linguistic point of view, changes in typology, grammaticalization and lexicalization of English are meticulously documented and exemplified through clear illustrations.

Going beyond the linguistic landscape, Gramley also discusses the mechanism of social interaction such as accommodation, bilingualism and bidialectalism, code-switching, creolization, pidginization and substrate influence.

Issues on language contact through these mechanisms have in fact been emphasized by Gramley, given that language change can be accounted for from the results of a contact among other languages and cultures.

For example, during the Old English period the cultural and linguistic influence of Celtic and Roman Britain affected changes in word formations in the English language. Similarly, both the Viking and Danish invasions affected changes in not only English word formation, but pronunciation as well.

Great linguistic changes occurred during the Middle English period — an era characterized by the dynasty conflict and the presence of the Norman French in England and hence the Norman Conquest. It was in this period (1066/1100-1350) — also known as the non-standard period — a massive effect on vocabulary, patterns of word formation and the phonological structure of English took place.

Not until 1350-1500 (which was still considered Middle English) did Standard English emerge. The important historical linguistic events documented in this period include the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, the rise of London Speech and Chancery of English (aka Chancery Standard) and the introduction of the printing press.

Linguistic changes still continued to occur until the Modern English period (1500-1700), but with a degree of sophistication. The effects of printing strengthened the notion of a standard, which in turn manifested in the religion of domains (Bible translation), literature and scientific writing.

The use of illustrative authentic materials such as ancient manuscripts, corpora and published sources lessens the reader’s burden in understating the content of the book. Also the glossary of technical terms given at the end of the books is a helpful resource for readers not familiar with field of linguistics and sociolinguistics.

What’s more the accompanying website links provides an avenue for the reader to further explore certain important points and concepts referred to by the author.

For linguistic students and language teachers, reading this book is a fresh start to understand the complexity of the history of the English language.


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