The English Language: A very short introduction

S. Horobin (Oxford University Press, 2018), 176pp, £7.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978 01 98709 25 1

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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This addition to OUP’s highly successful A Very Short Introduction series first appeared in hardback under the title How English Became English, in 2016. It is a broad overview of our language, almost as though from an external perspective. Horobin covers its history and origins, then takes a look at authorities and standards, then surveys varieties of the language, including global English.

The last chapter, ‘Why do we care?’, pulls together many of the threads in earlier chapters and focuses on ways in which English can be used as a means for groups – social, academic or whatever – to include and exclude people. I have read so many books on language whose writers seem to almost go out of their way to ignore what linguist Michael Halliday calls the interpersonal aspect of language. (For example, the difference between ‘Sit down!’ and ‘Please take a seat’, or the ire sometimes aroused by the use of a split infinitive.) That interpersonal aspect, so often ignored or underrated by users of English, clarifies the speaker’s or author’s attitude and helps define the relationship between speaker and listener, or writer and reader. Horobin gives us a telling example of it with a blogger’s, ‘I love you, Waitrose, I really, really love you’, in response to that company’s change of checkout sign to ‘10 items or fewer’. He explains that this strong reaction results from the fact that ‘Waitrose is sending a message … that says “we care about the same things as you do”, while simultaneously allowing its customers the chance to feel a sense of social and intellectual smugness and superiority’. As I see it, for us as editors the interpersonal aspect is a vital but often unrecognised feature of the texts we work on – and this is why I’m so glad to see it explained so lucidly in this book.

Horobin also takes a good look at the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism. While he predictably exposes several flaws in prescriptivist arguments in the authorities and standards chapters, he doesn’t – perhaps surprisingly to some of us – let descriptivists off lightly, either: ‘The dismissive manner in which professional linguists have typically ignored prescriptivist approaches has also contributed to the lack of dialogue and continued misinformation.’ I’m glad to say, though, that he ends on a positive note: ‘Hopefully (or, as some would prefer, it is to be hoped that) this book will help to stimulate and inform such dialogue.’

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