In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of the English Language

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overview
  • Glossaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks
  • Dictionaries
  • Bibliographies
  • Data Sources
  • Historical Dialect Atlases
  • Text Editions
  • Journals
  • Lexicon
  • Phonology
  • Morphology
  • Discourse and Pragmatics

Linguistics History of the English Language
Ans van Kemenade, Bettelou Los
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0069


The study of the history of the English language has a long and rich tradition, starting with a range of editions of important Old and Middle English texts in the middle of the 19th century, many of which are still available as reprints from the early English Text Society (see Text Editions). The linguistic study of the history of English took off in the 20th century with a range of traditional grammars usually concerned with the phonology and morphology of Old and Middle English and a further range of detailed studies of the language of particular texts and of particular dialects areas. Since the 1970s and in the wake of the development of functionalist and formalist models of language structure, language use, and diachronic change, the various historical stages of English and the diachronic changes in the domains of phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics have also become a favorite playground of historical linguists. The study of these aspects has been greatly enhanced by the recent boost of computerized corpora, including text corpora as well as corpora enriched with various types of linguistic information. This in turn has boosted research and novel research methods in historical sociolinguistics, and in corpus-based work on syntax and discourse/pragmatics. The history of English in all its breadth has thus become a thriving field of study that draws both on rich documentation and on ever-increasing linguistic and methodological sophistication.

Historical Overview

Many introductory textbooks present an overview of the main characteristics of English in its various historical stages and survey the grammatical development of English against the backdrop of its socio-cultural history. Barber, et al. 2009 is an updated edition of Barber’s classic text. Baugh and Cable 2002 is the fifth edition of another classic; it is rich in its historical detail and sociocultural background and is highly accessible to a wide audience. Cable 2002 is a companion book to Baugh and Cable 2002, which presents many attractive exercises for beginning students. The following selections consist of some relatively recent texts. Fennell 2001 and van Gelderen 2006 are both useful introductory course books that can also be read independently. Whereas Fennell is strongly focused on the development of the language in its changing sociolinguistic setting, van Gelderen 2006 is primarily written from a linguistic perspective. Horobin 2010 is a short overview text that focuses on some of the highlights of the history of English in short chapters. McIntyre 2009 has a quite different format, giving a treatment that is introduced at four different levels of depth, each in a separate book section. Moessner 2003 is a well-structured beginner’s introduction. Moore and Palmer 2019 is primarily a resource book for lecturers. Ringe 2006 is the first of an in-depth four-volume history of English and focuses on the pre-English stages. Ringe and Taylor 2014 is the second of those volumes and presents the development of Old English. Smith 2005 is an accessible introductory text. Burnley 2000 is an extremely useful source for textual material from all periods.

  • Barber, Charles, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw. 2009. The English language: A historical introduction. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511817601

    A compact, chronologically ordered history of English.

  • Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language. 5th ed. London: Routledge.

    A textbook that is rich in historical detail. Although regularly updated, it betrays its venerable age by the occasional remark that is anachronistic in the light of modern research. The fifth edition also contains a chapter on American English. Originally published in 1951.

  • Burnley, David. 2000. The history of the English language: A source book. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Longman.

    Contains some fifty fully annotated (excerpts from) texts spanning the period 700–1920, with full translations provided for the earliest texts. It provides short general introductions to Old English, early Modern English, Late Modern English, and Modern English. Many genres are represented, including advertising.

  • Cable, Thomas. 2002. A companion to Baugh and Cable’s history of the English language. 3d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    An attractive exercise book for beginning students.

  • Fennell, Barbara A. 2001. A history of English: A sociolinguistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

    A textbook that includes chapters on the origin and main historical periods of English as well as chapters on US English and worldwide English. Its focus is on the sociolinguistic embedding of the development of English.

  • Horobin, Simon. 2010. Studying the history of early English. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-04051-0

    A textbook that offers seven short chapters about the basic highlights of the history of English, not ordered chronologically but by topic.

  • McIntyre, Dan. 2009. History of English: A resource book for students. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    This textbook follows the two-dimensional format of the Routledge English Language Introductions in that each of the four sections discusses the same topics but at increasing degrees of depth.

  • Moessner, Lilo. 2003. Diachronic English linguistics: An introduction. Narr Studienbücher. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag.

    A well-structured beginner’s textbook on the history of English, allowing the student a look into the kitchen, with chapters on methodology and kinds of evidence and motivations for language change as well as on the levels of linguistic description. Each chapter is followed by a set of questions to check understanding.

  • Moore, Colette, and Chris Palmer, eds. 2019. Teaching the history of the English language. Options for Teaching 46. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

    This is a resource book for lecturers, offering advice on how to structure a course on this topic (chronological or thematic). It provides sample assignments including working with archives, digital resources, and how to guide students to investigate language change in their communities.

  • Ringe, Donald. 2006. The linguistic history of English. Vol. 1, From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199284139.001.0001

    The first of a four-volume “deep” history of English, giving an insightful and systematic treatment of the phonological and morphological development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, with a section on Proto-Germanic word formation.

  • Ringe, Donald, and Ann Taylor. 2014. The linguistic history of English. Vol. 2, The development of Old English. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199207848.001.0001

    The second of a four-volume history of English, giving a detailed account of the phonological and morphological development of the language from West-Germanic to the end of the Old English period. Its special asset is a lengthy chapter on syntax.

  • Smith, Jeremy J. 2005. Essentials of early English: An introduction to Old, Middle and Early Modern English. 2d ed. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    An introductory textbook, highly accessible, with sample texts and a section on historical methods.

  • van Gelderen, Elly. 2006. A history of the English language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/z.135

    A textbook with chapters on the origin and time periods of English, including a chapter on English around the world. Its focus is primarily linguistic.

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