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English Words: History and Structure

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The subject of this book is the origin of words in the English language. English Words: History and Structure is concerned primarily with those words borrowed from the classical languages, namely Latin and Greek, either directly, or indirectly via French. A secondary theme is the internal structure of English words.

Exercises to accompany each of the ten chapters are available to download from the publisher's web site. These will be particularly useful for teachers and students who want to structure their study of historical linguistics, etymology, and morphology around the chapters of this book.

It should be noted from the outset that the text is very accessible to all levels of reader. Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova assume no knowledge of linguistics or linguistic terminology; they explain all technical concepts and jargon in simple terms.

In the first chapter, Stockwell and Minkova identify nine ways in which new words can come into being without being borrowed from another language. These are inheritance, neologisms (creation de novo), blending, acronyms and initialisms, shortening (clipping or abbreviation), derivation (by affixation and conversation), compounding, eponyms, and echoic imitation (onomatopoeia).

However, most words in present-day English originated in none of these ways. In fact, the authors claim that "well over 80 per cent of the total vocabulary of English is borrowed" from other languages. The remaining nine chapters are therefore dedicated to exploring word-borrowing.

In Chapter 2, we learn about the various historical events and social factors that have influenced our language. English is traced back to its Indo-European roots, and the effects of the Germanic, Celtic, Hellenic, and Italic language branches are discussed. This is followed by an explanation of historical influences on the early vocabulary of English, including Celtic, Latin, and Continental loanwords, Scandinavian invasions of Britain in the Middle Ages, and the Norman Conquest of 1066.

In the third Chapter, Stockwell and Minkova turn their attention to the composition of the Early Modern and Modern English vocabulary. They chart the history of the enrichment of English through borrowing, during the Renaissance and after, not only from French Latin and Greek, but Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch too.

Chapter 4 deals with morphology. It is explained that the morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning, and care is taken to avoid the popular confusion of morphemes with syllables. The authors discuss how roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) combine in both derivational and inflectional morphology. The former has the function of deriving new words, whilst the latter is largely syntactic.

The next three chapters deal with the mechanisms by which words were borrowed from Latin and Greek. This builds on their introduction to morphology, and also introduces some basic phonetic notions concerned with the sounds of English, before covering the interaction of phonology and morphology. Stockwell and Minkova discuss in detail how and why the sounds of the language change when words, or parts of words, combine to form new ones.

In the following chapter, we are shown how words from the same root may hardly resemble one another at all. The words demented, admonish, and mnemonic, for example, are all connected etymologically to the root morpheme men meaning 'think' or 'warn'. On the other hand, we are warned to be cautious about words that look as if they are closely related, as the resemblance is occasionally the result of historical accident.

Chapter 9 is entitled "Semantic Change and Semantic Guesswork". The authors introduce the ideas of homophony, polysemy, homonymy, homography. These are used respectively to describe different words that sound alike, words with multiple meanings, words that sound alike but have different meanings and origins, and different words that are spelled alike. Two questions are considered in this section: what forces in our society or thinking bring about semantic change; and how do these changes affect the lexicon? In answering these, the following mechanisms of change are described: analogy (using a word in a figurative sense), metonymy (naming one thing as another), narrowing (changing to a more specific meaning), generalisation (changing to a less specific meaning), amelioration (increasing in social status), and perjoration (decreasing in social status).

Pronunciation and stress rules are the focus of the final chapter. Rules for stress placement in English are notoriously complex, and stress very often shifts when a word is borrowed into the language. Stockwell and Minkova discuss some rules for predicting when and how these changes takes place.

The first of two appendices explains the types of dictionary that are available and how to use them for more advances purposes than simply checking the spelling or meaning of a word. The second appendix presents a useful, quick-reference list of morphemes with their meanings, origins, and examples of each.

Stockwell and Minkova cover a large amount of material in this work. Yet despite the abundance of sophisticated linguistic terminology, it is in fact a book which is very easy to understand. Anyone studying the history of the English language, or any branch of diachronic linguistics, will benefit from it. English Words: History and Structure is suitable both for undergraduates and those with a more casual interest in the subject.

For the reader unfamiliar with historical linguistics, or the influences which have shaped the English language, it will bring a new dimension to the understanding of the words that form the basis of our language. The once-baffling relationships between pronunciation, spelling, and meaning will become a source of enjoyment in themselves in the light of what can be learned from this book.

Both authors are widely published and well-respected experts in their field. Robert Stockwell is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Linguistics, UCLA. Donka Minkova is Professor of English language, also at UCLA.

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