Introduction: Rethinking and extending approaches to the history of the English language
Abstract and Keywords
Linguistic research has been undergoing major shifts over the past few years. From thinking in terms of discrete categories and modules of language, as well as large discrete steps in change, the attention has shifted to variation, gradience, and interfaces between modules. In particular, language change is observed at the micro-level. This article introduces the rationale for the selection of topics in the Handbook, first what types of evidence can be used to access changes in English that are attested not only in past historical records but are also currently ongoing in British and American English, and English word-wide. It focuses on major trends in work aimed to rethink diachronic accounts of key factors, language external and internal, such as language contact, socio-cultural change, continua, and typological processes. The article also introduces the topic of relationships between information structure, syntax, and prosody. The overall message of the article is that recent rethinking of the field has led to new findings, connections, and prospects for future work.
In the last decade major shifts have occurred in linguistic research. Twentieth-century structuralism led to thinking in terms of discrete categories and modules of language, and of large, discrete steps in change. More recently, there has been a move toward thinking in terms of variation, gradience, interfaces between modules, and of microstep gradualness in change. This shift results in part from work on empirical data such as are provided by electronic corpora and by the study of processing and of frequency effects. It also results from dramatic increases in the availability of large electronic corpora and other digital databases, and from growing interest in comparative cross-linguistic analysis of linguistic structures, including those of varieties of English around the world.
(p. 2) 1.1 Objectives
Our aim in the current volume is to take stock of some of the recent advances in the work on the history of English and varieties of English worldwide, thereby broadening and deepening our understanding of the history of English, and leading to ways of rethinking it. We intend to achieve this by, in broad terms, (1) bringing the past into a genuine dialogue with the present and (2) making more transparent the variety of conditions and processes, external and internal, that have been, and still are, instrumental in shaping the history of English.
The field of English historical linguistics has begun to pay attention to and attract researchers whose specializations range from statistical modeling and acoustic phonetics to present-day regional variation and language typology. These researchers conceptualize English as a system that is constantly emerging and unfolding and that can be analyzed on a variety of levels from micro to macro. Language change is observed at the macrolevel of the community. However, it starts with an individual speaker's linguistic innovation, which may or may not be picked up by others, but if it is picked up, it spreads in speaker interaction. James Milroy's (1992: 36) argument that “linguistic change is located in speaker-interaction and is negotiated between speakers in the course of interaction” has resonated well in domains of study as disparate as the supraregionalization of morphological and syntactic changes and the varying patterns of address forms between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.
The volume represents a new line of cross-field and cross-theory rethinking based on collaborative work. Our approach emphasizes that English historical linguistics is based on theoretically informed empirical research. We do not privilege one theoretical perspective over another, since no one approach could serve the range of topic areas we cover. While some contributors assume a universal grammar and others assume a usage-based grammar, commonalities emerge in the arenas of methodology, especially the use of statistics, and of corpus data. Nor do we privilege modules of grammar or periods of the language, since we wish to represent current research, much of which breaks down traditional boundaries of research.
Our objective is not to cover the history of English in the conventional manner or even to be comprehensive within the limits of the topics we have selected. Indeed, it would be impossible to achieve a comprehensive account of ongoing work, since it is far-ranging and always expanding. Instead we seek to provide an overview of some of the chief trends in work aimed to develop diachronic accounts of the major influences, such as social change, language contact, and typological processes that have shaped, and continue to shape, the language and its varieties while at the same time highlighting recent and ongoing developments of Englishes. An undertaking of this sort, focusing on multiple and ongoing histories of English, was envisioned back in the early 1990s (cf. Rissanen et al. 1992) but has taken two decades to mature.
We seek also to fill in some gaps in most handbooks and textbooks to date, such as correlations between information structure, syntax, and prosody, comparison of (p. 3) early English with early Germanic, or evidence of change in British and American English during the last fifty years. In sum, our aim is to celebrate the vitality of language change both over the centuries and under our very eyes, and the multiple contexts and processes through which language change happens, is speeded up, slowed down, or prevented altogether.
1.2 Rationale for organization
It is customary to think of the history of English in terms of periods and to organize this history either “horizontally” or “vertically” (see 3). The “horizontal approach” envisages English in terms of Old, Middle, Early Modern, and Present-Day English. “Core” areas of linguistic study such as syntax, morphology, phonology, lexis, and sometimes semantics are discussed within the period in question. The “vertical” approach, by contrast, typically explores changes through time within one core area (e.g. syntax). Both approaches assume two things: one is that linguistic domains are relatively modular and discrete, and the other is that periods are relatively fixed. Both of these assumptions are challenged in the present volume.
As Lass (2000) points out, periodization is always conventional, artificial, and subject to different interests, questions, and methods. He suggests a matrix of linguistic factors that may be used to show similarities and differences among texts, allowing for clusterings to emerge at various points in time. A more traditional approach to periods is to identify historical and cultural events, as in The Cambridge History of the English Language (Hogg 1992–2001). For example, the “beginning” of Middle English may be associated with the effects of the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the “beginning” of (Early) Modern English with the establishment of Caxton's printing press in 1476. Compilers of electronic corpora have tended to assign texts to subperiods of between forty to a hundred years or more, depending on the data, but still using the main period divisions (cf. the Helsinki Corpus). However, close study of the emergence of particular linguistic structures using statistical methods may lead researchers to challenge periodizing practices that cross-cut those changes and to promote focus on time periods specific to those structures. Hence, the present volume is not organized according to broad-scale periods, nor does it take a stand on such periods. Many contributors have, however, used them, since broad-scale divisions are useful heuristics, provide guideposts, and allow cross-reference to other work.1 We might say that ours is a “diagonal” approach across the nearly fifteen hundred years of historical record of English.
The present volume is also not organized according to linguistic modules. While some chapters focus on one linguistic domain, whether syntax or phonology, (p. 4) others point to the need to consider continua between them (see especially Part IV). The second section of Part IV is specifically devoted to interfaces between information structure, syntax, and prosody.
Our rationale for organization is to highlight a selection of the major themes that are driving current research in areas of rapid expansion. Among them are the nature of the empirical record and some of the issues that arise in interpreting it, for example, how to address continua and gradualness. Other issues addressed are the nature of the major forces that impact change, among them social factors, including contact and language attitudes on the one hand and language-internal interfaces on the other.
2. The Structure
There are four parts, each with two sections that either complement or supplement each other. Each part is introduced by a very brief guide that outlines its rationale, suggests points of contact across the sections, and identifies relevant resources available on the associated website.
Although individual chapters can stand alone, the sections are designed to be read as a whole. Each section was coordinated by one or two experts on the theme. The coordinators contributed to the conceptualization of the section and the selection of topics to be included. Their introductory chapters outline a range of issues that pertain to the domain in question, illustrate their own research on it, and point to how individual contributions fit within the larger research enterprise.
2.1 Part I: Rethinking evidence
One major consideration that runs throughout the volume is evidence. The first part concerns the transparency of how research into the history of English is carried out and an evaluation of how secure our knowledge of it is.
The first section, “Evidence” (coordinated by Susan Fitzmaurice and Jeremy Smith), focuses on the empirical evidence that historical linguists have at their disposal and looks into new methods and approaches for the treatment of evidence and witnesses for the history of English. How can we develop a multifaceted approach to the historical study of the language? How can our work be informed by approaches to existing and new sources of evidence conducted in other disciplines that adopt historical study? This is particularly important for sources before 1500 and whenever information from multiple sources is integrated to provide a contextualized account of a particular phenomenon, such as courtroom discourse. How are traditional approaches and methods challenged by the appearance of new sources of potential evidence? Some chapters in the section on evidence are (p. 5) complemented by brief illustrative chapters that provide details of resources from coins to present-day changes in the pronunciation of vowels.
The second section, “Observing recent change through electronic corpora” (coordinated by Mark Davies), discusses charting recent change in ways that have become possible only now because of the availability of increasingly large electronic corpora. This section emphasizes how ongoing change can be accessed through evidence from several smaller and larger electronic corpora developed in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of this one, ranging from Brown to COCA, COHA, TIME, and the Web.2 Databases that represented contemporary English language forty or fifty years ago date to the early 1960s. They have now been superseded by those that record the language of the 1990s or the first decade of the 2000s, inviting comparisons between “then” and “now” in British and American English.
Technological advances and the broadening evidence-base with its new methodologies have been instrumental in bridging the gap between synchrony and diachrony, and have changed the ways in which linguists now view methods and approaches relevant to the study of language history. With the availability of new textual resources, recent and ongoing work on the sociolinguistics and pragmatics of the past stages of English has also transformed historical linguists’ perceptions of the processes of language change. Issues that linguists who abstract over these processes should pay attention to include genre balance over time, data granularity, and accessibility of lower-frequency constructions (e.g. complementation). The notion of recent change also comprises the rise of new constructions, as well as the decline of recessive ones.
2.2 Part II: Issues in culture and society
The second part concerns external processes and mechanisms such as the impact of language contact and social change. These have been the object of a considerable amount of research over the last couple of decades. Part II also addresses diachronically less studied but vital domains such as the changing role of media over the centuries.
The first section, “Mass communication and technologies”, coordinated by Thomas Kohnen and Christian Mair, concerns practices of dissemination from Old English on. In the early period, which was oral, texts that have come down to us are necessarily written, but most were written to be “(re)performed” (e.g. wills and sermons). This section addresses the shifting importance of new technologies and media throughout the history of English and their impact on current varieties of English around the world. Print culture dominated the media landscape until recently and was a powerful agent of linguistic standardization, at least as far as the written language was concerned. Modern television and broadcast formats (p. 6) encourage informality, giving potentially worldwide exposure to previously local and marginal vernaculars. New digital media have, on the one hand, entrenched American English as the global reference standard, but, on the other hand, these very media are also effective agents in the global spread of vernacular features and of increasing cross-linguistic diversity.
The second section, “Sociocultural processes” (coordinated by Jonathan Culpeper and Minna Nevala), presents a select set of approaches to social, pragmatic, and cultural concepts and processes, as well as their definition and roles as both loci and agents of language variation and change over time. In their chapter, Culpeper and Nevala provide an overview of this very large field and argue that a comprehensive study of sociocultural processes is ideally interdisciplinary, comprising, as Jan Blommaert (2005: 3) puts it, “all forms of meaningful semiotic human activity seen in connection with social, cultural, and historical patterns and developments of use”. Culpeper and Nevala focus on a selection of these, including topics not taken up in the section (e.g. changing social structures), and highlight the complex use of language in interactions, which range from the microlevel of individuals to the macrolevel of groups of individuals. Considering research methods, they point out the varying extents to which historical texts present and represent contexts, and emphasize the dynamic dialectic relationship that holds language and social contexts together. The issues discussed by the contributors include democratization, changing politeness cultures, speaker attitudes, and language norms, political correctness, and the cultural concepts encoded in English over time.
2.3 Part III: Approaches from contact and typology
Of considerable interest in current research is the nature of English in comparison with other languages in the world. So is the effect of globalization on English and the Englishes that have developed as part of globalization. The third part focuses on these issues and the nature of English in contact with and in comparison to other languages.
The first section, “Language contact” (coordinated by Raymond Hickey), addresses the importance of the role of early contact in the development of English in England (especially the role of Celtic and Scandinavian languages in the Middle Ages) and in the rise of overseas varieties, both settler English in new dialect formation contexts such as North America and New Zealand, and second-language varieties of English in Africa and Southeast Asia. This is a topic that has received considerable attention in recent years (see 3) but has to date not been well integrated into works on the history of English.
Contact is a driving force for typological change. This is attested by changes in Middle English syntax (e.g. word-order changes), morphology (e.g. the preference for fixed stems and extensive borrowing of word-formation morphemes), and phonology (e.g. shifts in stress patterns). It is also attested by the structure of (p. 7) present-day varieties of English around the world. The second section, “Typology and typological change”, coordinated by Bernd Kortmann, explores the various ways in which established and recent theories, concepts, and methods in language typology are relevant for researching language change in general and the history of Englishes in particular. It offers an evaluation of the relevance of diachronic typology and grammaticalization research for the study of the history of both standard and nonstandard varieties of English. Topics include syntheticity, analyticity, markedness, typological changes in the lexicon, and methodologies for measuring complexity in the history of morphosyntax, including that of contact varieties.
2.4 Part IV: Rethinking categories and modules
The fourth part highlights some internal developments that have not received their due in previous handbooks on the history of English, let alone textbooks: cycles and continua, and interfaces.
The first section, “Cycles and continua” (edited by Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero and Graeme Trousdale), addresses issues such as the architecture of grammar, discreteness versus continua, and hypotheses about unidirectionality in morphosyntactic and phonological change, and how they have played out in English. Such cycles and continua may be seen as bridging the boundaries between structure and use, and between different components of the grammar. In consequence, they raise fundamental questions about the nature of language and of linguistic change in general, and about the history of English in particular.
The second section, “Interfaces with information structure” (coordinated by Roland Hinterhölzl and Ans van Kemenade), addresses the question of how discourse requirements such as conveying new and given information interacted with syntax and prosody in restructuring the word order of earlier English, compared with changes in other Germanic languages. Contributors have been asked to address the effects of the interface between information structure, syntax, and prosody in left and right peripheries of the clause and to discuss whether the range of word-order variation and word-order change in English can receive new explanations in terms of this complex interaction. Further, can work on other Germanic languages inform these explanations for the older period? This line of work draws heavily on electronic corpora, recently tagged not only for syntactic structure but also for information status.
A short glossary of terms that recur in the handbook appears at the end of the volume. A more extensive glossary is available on the associated website. The glossary for the most part defines terms that are used in more than one chapter and may not be widely known (e.g. “endonormativity”, the reliance on internal or local community norms of usage for shared language conventions in a speech community) or may have different interpretations in linguistic and nonlinguistic literature (e.g. (p. 8) “annotation”, which is limited in this volume to the mark-up added to a machine-readable text to convey linguistic information).
2.6 The associated website
The associated website (http://www.oup.com/us/ohhe) is a repository of additional materials supplied by contributors ranging from links to Web-based resources, expanded notes, tools for corpus work, sound files, and maps. It is expected that the website will be updated and expanded over time just as the online chapters and the material appended to them will be revised and updated as part of the Oxford Research Reviews (ORR) initiative and the transition to a continuous-publishing model.
3. Other Resources
The work represented in this volume is grounded in a vast body of earlier and ongoing research. The references, listed at the end of each chapter, provide a wealth of sources for further reading.
A handbook cannot be up to date or comprehensive, particularly when a field is expanding as fast as that of the history of English. Readers interested in other aspects of the explosion of work on the development of English and Englishes in recent years have a large set of resources mainly designed for the nonspecialist to draw on. Some resources are textbooks with extensive websites, most notably van Gelderen (2006). Others are handbooks, text corpora, databases, Web-based demonstrations, and tutorials of various kinds and on various platforms for diverse audiences ranging from professional linguists (e.g. Miura 2009–) to students (Hickey 2008–) and the wider public. In the more popular vein, YouTube, for example, offers a wide selection of videos, from the lighthearted History of English in Ten Minutes (2011) by Open University to the History of English (2011) by the British Council, originally published in 1943.
The large variety of digital resources created for the study of history can also benefit the study of the history of English. These include the BBC History home page, which allows those interested to explore, among other things, its timeline of British history (2011). Many other resources, such as archaeological findings, are mentioned in this handbook in the section on evidence.
A different type of resource are new research forums such as the International Society of the Linguistics of English, the objective of which is “to promote the study of English Language, that is, the study of the structure and history of standard and non-standard varieties of English, in terms of both form and function, at an international level”.3 The formation of this society has largely gone hand in hand with the development of this volume.
(p. 9) Here we focus on recent handbooks on the history of English (see 3.1) and on recent digital resources (see 3.2) that have direct relevance to the contributions to this handbook.
3.1 Handbooks since 2000
There are two major multivolume handbooks on the history of English: the six-volume Cambridge History of the English Language (Hogg 1992–2001) and a two-volume compendium, the HSK Historical Linguistics of English (Bergs and Brinton 2012). These handbooks provide in-depth coverage of changes in what is traditionally considered the “core” of the history of a language, and knowledge of which is in some cases assumed by the contributors to the present volume: the changes in its structural makeup, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and lexis, and the dialects of a given period, beginning with Old English. This is the basic structure of the Cambridge History of the English Language, the organization of which is essentially “horizontal”, and each major chronological period is discussed in terms of linguistic domains such as phonology, morphology, and syntax. Separate volumes are, however, devoted to English over the last two centuries in Britain and overseas and North American English. Volume 1 of the HSK Historical Linguistics of English, edited by Bergs and Brinton, is devoted to the same “core” fields of research with additions such as pragmatics and discourse, and styles, registers, and text types. It, too, is “horizontal” in organization. The second volume includes, in addition to varieties of English and contact, substantial sections on “new perspectives” such as historical sociolinguistics, historical pragmatics, and on what might be called metainformation: teaching the history of English, historiography, literature, and music.
The essence of the Cambridge History appears in updated form in a one-volume compendium edited by Hogg and Denison (2006) but this time organized “vertically”. In another volume of similar scope that came out in the same year, Mugglestone (2006) again organizes the history of English “horizontally” according to period. A third handbook that also appeared in 2006, van Kemenade and Los, highlights innovative approaches to the history of the English language worldwide that reveal in a new light its variability in structure and use over time, space, and medium. It was one of the inspirations for the present volume. A more recent publication, edited by Momma and Matto (2008), combines both “horizontal” and “vertical” approaches. Its scope is broader than that of most other handbooks, since it also introduces different approaches to the history of English, ranging from “linguistics and etymology to the philosophy of language and literary history” (Momma and Matto 2008: cover). Some hundred pages are also devoted to diverse issues in Present-Day English such as the teaching of essay writing.
The growing interest in theoretical and descriptive work on varieties of English, which is reflected in Part III of this handbook, is evident in the number of published and forthcoming handbooks on the subject. Kortmann and Schneider (2004) have compiled a multimedia work organized according to phonology (vol. 1) and syntax and morphology (vol. 2). A second edition (2008) comprises four (p. 10) volumes organized by geographic area. It contains short descriptions of the major linguistic features of a large number of varieties of English. Online resources provide sound recordings and interactive maps. Kachru, Kachru, and Nelson (2006) provide new interpretations of the changing identities of users across the “three circles” or diasporas, first Wales, Ireland, and Scotland; second, North America, Australia, and New Zealand; and third, South and East Asia; a fourth diaspora is world Englishes today. Kirkpatrick (2010) surveys the development of varieties in various regions, their functions and structure, and emphasizes that all varieties, including “standard” ones, are hybrid in origin. Both of these handbooks address globalization and also applications, for example, to pedagogy. Filppula, Klemola, and Sharma (forthcoming) contextualize World Englishes within the core concerns of theoretical linguistics. Lanehart, Bloomquist, and Green (forthcoming) focus on African American English—its structure, origin, use, and attitudes toward it.
3.2 Developing digital resources
The explosion of digital resources in recent years has made a wealth of older materials newly accessible and available, and produced new resources that were not imagined even fifty years ago. Just how foundational to work on the history of English they have become can be seen from the way in which they are referred to by almost all contributors.
The digital turn in the humanities gave rise to the International Computer Archive of Modern English (ICAME) in 1977, which became the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (with the same acronym) in 1996 in recognition of the work done on historical corpora. Now that electronic corpora and other digital resources have become mainstream, and represent a unifying rather than a divisive methodology in linguistics and philology, they are manifest in the context of the meetings of most professional organizations. The many historical corpora and databases referred to by the handbook contributors are listed at the end of the volume, complete with references to their home pages and/or to the Corpus Resource Database (CoRD), which gives more information about their contents and compilation principles.
The recent history of English can be studied using increasingly comprehensive and varied data sources. Contributions to the present volume make use of the megacorpora of contemporary and historical American English, COCA and COHA, illustrate the heuristic value of the Google Books Ngram Viewer, and show how the Web can be used as a corpus. Audio recordings are available in increasing proportions from the last one hundred years and are beginning to be used to bridge the gap between evidence for the written and oral modes of communication in histories of English. Both full chapters and short illustrative chapters in the present volume discuss the ways in which spoken records can shed light on sound change in progress. Contributors argue that access to the spoken language in history writing calls for serious rethinking of its impact on how language use and language change in general are studied and presented. Besides varied written and (p. 11) spoken data sources, usage-based models of language variation and change benefit from experimental methods, as evidenced, for example, by Rosenbach (2002) and Bresnan and Ford (2010). Contributors to the present volume show how statistical modeling opens up new ways of approaching old issues such as periodization and the changing proportions of syntheticity and analyticity of English over time.
With the publication of the Early English Books Online (EEBO) and the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), comprehensive print resources are now available for the study of the period from the late fifteenth century to 1800. These databases will be even more useful when their full-text versions become available and can be accessed with corpus tools. One of the obstacles to the full exploitation of historical corpora is spelling variation, and new tools are being developed for automatic spelling normalization (e.g. Baron, Rayson, and Archer 2009). As contributors to this volume demonstrate, adding annotation to corpora also significantly increases the research uses to which they can be put. This work began with the York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose (YCOE) and the Penn-Helsinki Parsed Corpora of Historical English, which have been both tagged and parsed. Part-of-speech tagging is now commonplace even with large corpora such as COCA, COHA, and even the massive Google Books (American English) Corpus, but parsing has proved a bigger challenge with diachronic datasets that cover centuries.
Creating multimedia corpora is one of the current trends. A number of digital text editions available on the Internet contain an edited text and manuscript images of the originals. A case in point is A London Provisioner's Chronicle, 1550–1563, which also comes with a modernized spelling version (Bailey, Miller, and Moore 2006). Resources like this are being produced in various disciplines in the humanities, notably by literary scholars (e.g. the Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition project, 2011) and historians. Some of the handbook chapters refer to the richly contextualized online resources designed by historians that have become available in the last few years, among them the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674–1913 (Old Bailey Online) and London Lives: 1690–1800, which is an edition of 240,000 original manuscripts.
London Lives gives access to 3.35 million names alone; that is roughly the total number of words included in the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, which contains at least one copy of every surviving Old English text. But this is not the extent of the Anglo-Saxon linguistic record: three times as many texts survive in Latin as in English and are currently being developed into a digital corpus of their own (Timofeeva 2010). Parallel historical materials are discussed in this volume in the context of the comparison of Old English and Old High German.
The handbook chapters also illustrate the use of a large variety of digital resources besides classic text corpora. These range from Anglo-Saxon coins, which provide evidence spelling variation according to monyer, to the combined use of the Oxford English Dictionary (2012) and the Historical Thesaurus of English (Kay et al. 2009), both of which appear online. Other historical online dictionaries include the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (2011), available from the Anglo-Norman (p. 12) On-Line Hub, complete with a search facility of source texts. Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME) (Lancashire 2011) provides online access to monolingual English dictionaries, bilingual and polyglot lexicons, and many other lexical treatises from the invention of printing to 1700.
Interactive websites have become an essential part of historical and dialect atlases. Those discussed in this volume range from A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (LAEME) and the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS) to the multimedia reference tool that accompanies A Handbook of Varieties of English (Kortmann and Schneider 2004) and the open eWAVE resource, an interactive morphosyntactic database that maps 235 features from a dozen domains of grammar in 48 varieties of English (Kortmann and Lunkenheimer 2011). With a range of visualization tools available, it is now also possible to present both linguistic data and processes of language change in increasingly dynamic and visual terms (e.g. Hilpert 2011; Siirtola et al. 2011).
This handbook focuses on variation and change in English through time and space. It emphasizes English as a dynamic system and the convergence of interests among many researchers. We hope it will help researchers to rethink the history of English and approaches to change and also foster further work developing the lines of thought introduced here. Work on English has tended to lead the way for research on other languages, partly because of the sheer amount of data available due to the global spread of English in recent centuries and partly because of the current increase in its use as a lingua franca. We therefore hope that the present volume will also inspire rethinking of the histories of other languages.
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(1) The language codes contained in the Library of Congress International Standard ISO 639-2 date Old English to the period c. 450–1100 and Middle English to 1100–1500 (http://www.loc.gov/standards/iso639-2/). No other historical periods of English have so far been “standardized” in this way.
(2) The corpora and databases referred to in this introduction and the rest of the chapters are listed at the end of the volume.