It has been some time since I read this book but I got distracted about writing my review of it. Basically, I set out to learn something about the history of english. This being an interest of mine and also relevant to my much stronger interest in language reform. I imagined that I would learn a thing or two useful for thinking about language reform, and I did. The book however, has an extreme focus on fiction especially poetry which makes it annoying to read for those of us who do not care about poetry. For my part, I skipped most of the poems and just read what he had to say about them. I would have preferred a shorter book without focus on poetry. Not having read another history of english, actually evaluating the book is a bit hard (this comes to mind). My guess is that the book is not bad but not particularly good either, unless one is really interested in old poetry (like Beowulf).

Some quotes worthy of interest.


“Philology means “love of language,” but for scholars it connotes the
discipline of historical linguistic study. For Seamus Heaney, or for you or
me, philology illuminates the history of words and those who speak them.
My goal in this book is to illuminate: to bring light into language and to
life. Whether you grew up in New York or New Mexico, whether your first
words were in this or any other tongue, you are reading this book in the
language of an early-twenty-first-century American. Writing at the begin-
ning of the nineteenth century, Washington Irving called America a “logo-
cracy”—a country of words. We all still live in a logocracy—invented then
and reinvented everyday by citizens of language like ourselves.” (p. 13)

This is misleading as the word “philology” is not used anymore or almost not anymore to mean |love of language|. It is getting close to an etymological fallacy.

Compare results in dictionaries:

the OED also reports the greek-inspired meaning as rare or old.


“In morals the agreement of good men, and in language the practice
of the learned, is the determining rule. Therefore writing will have
to conform not to the pronunciation of plowmen, working-girls, and
river-men [bubulci, muherculae, potiores], but to that used by learned
and refined men [docti et culte eruditi viri] in their speech and writ-
ing. And just as accomplished artists represent the appearance of the
human face so that it resembles the living feature, so it should be
proper to transcribe the sounds of the human voice so that we do not
misrepresent the true pronunciation in any way.
(Gil, Logonomia Anglica, Alston trans., 87)” (p. 170)

Hume?! Sounds a lot like Hume and it predates Hume by some 100 years or so.

One may note that he had some good ideas for spelling reform, namely

  • Revive the Anglo-Saxon signs ð () and þ (þorn) for the two sounds of th
  • Use of the letter ŋ ()[4]

I may note that two of these suggestions may as well apply to danish (ŋ and ð since danish does not have the /θ/ phoneme).


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