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

Linguistics History of the English Language
Ans van Kemenade, Bettelou Los
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • 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. The history of English in all its breadth has thus become a field of study that draws both on rich documentation and on 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. 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.

    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. London: 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.

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

    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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