Review: ‘How English became English’ by Simon Horobin

How English Became English
A Short History of a Global Language

Simon Horobin


Published by: Oxford University Press                                                                                                                       Publications date: 28th January 2016                                                                                                                       Edition: Hardback                                                                                                                                                             ISBN: 9780198754275                                                                                                                                                     Price: £10.99


The English Language is spoken by more than a billion people throughout the world. But where did English come from? And how has it evolved into the language used today?

In How English Became English Simon Horobin investigates the evolution of the English language, examining how the language continues to adapt even today, as English continues to find new speakers and new uses. Engaging with contemporary concerns about correctness, Horobin considers whether such changes are improvements, or evidence of slipping standards. What is the future for the English Language? Will Standard English continue to hold sway, or are we witnessing its replacement by newly emerging Englishes?


My Review


This short book is far from comprehensive, however it does cover the essentials of the history of English. Especially interesting is the discussion of attitudes to non-Standard English. The quote below gives a flavour of that discussion.

Standard English is a relatively recent phenomenon, which grew out of an eighteenth-century anxiety about the status of English, and which prompted a concern for the codification and ‘ascertaining’, or fixing, of English. Before the eighteenth century, dialect variation was the norm, both in speech and in writing.

Horobin has an engaging writing style and the books certainly holds the reader’s attention. While Horobin doesn’t cover anything new – there are plenty of other books that cover the same ground in greater detail – the compact nature of this book can give the casual reader a grounding in the subject quickly. There is little illustration but a ‘box’ in each chapter with illustrating quotes which adds to the content of the book.

5/5 – recommended for students studying English Language and nagging teachers who think they’re the grammar police.


  1. Does this cover the introduction of English into Brythonic speaking places? If so would you recommend to someone interested in this area? If not could you recommend anything else?

    1. There’s a paragraph about the small number of words in English that came from Brythonic languages but not much else. It mentions most of the words are landscape features, like avon and ouse. It’s hard to think of a book to recommend dealing with the subject, because it’s usually dealt with in a few paragraphs. The nature of the interaction between Old English and Brythonic speakers was distinctly hierarchical, with Brythonic speakers being the lesser party, much as English became the lesser language when the Normans invaded. Most books on the subject of the development of English generally gloss over the early pre-conversion years, other than to explain that it’s a Germanic language, and spend much of their ink on modern developments.

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