LINGUIST List 25.4162

Tue Oct 21 2014

Review: Historical Linguistics; Phonology: Minkova (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 23-Apr-2014
From: Christine Wallis <>
Subject: A Historical Phonology of English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Donka Minkova
TITLE: A Historical Phonology of English
PUBLISHER: Edinburgh University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Christine Wallis, University of Sheffield

Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


Donka Minkova’s ‘A Historical Phonology of English’ is a recent addition to the ‘Edinburgh Textbooks on the English Language’ (ETOTEL) series. As a part of the ‘Advanced’ section of the series, it is aimed at an intermediate or advanced student readership and covers the phonological development of English, from its earliest roots to Present Day English.

The book consists of four main sections. The first section, comprising chapters 1-3, lays the groundwork, discussing the periodisation of English, its sounds, and the sound changes differentiating English from other branches of Indo-European and Germanic. The second section (chapters 4-5) deals with consonant development, while the third (chapters 6-8) details vowel changes from Old English to Present Day English. The final two chapters consider the evolution of the stress system in English, including verse forms in Old and Middle English.

Chapter 1 discusses periodisation in the history of English. Alongside a brief history of the English-speaking world from the fall of the Roman Empire to the modern day, the chapter sets out the book’s chronological divisions -- Old, Middle, Early Modern, and Present Day English. Minkova discusses the difficulty of assigning periodisation to the language, and justifies dating the beginning of the Middle English period on historical grounds to 1066 (‘conveniently, if arbitrarily, from a linguistic perspective’ (p. 9)) by basing her divisions on those in the ‘Cambridge History of the English Language’ series. Similarly, she dates Early Modern English by reference to the introduction of the printing press (circa 1450), and Present Day English from 1776 (the American Declaration of Independence). The chapter mentions historical events which have had a bearing on the development of the language, from settlements of different peoples to technological advances such as the invention of the printing press, as well as the evidence of loanwords and word formation for early pronunciation. Minkova justifies the book’s concentration on standard varieties such as General American and Southern Standard British English as representatives of Present Day English, these varieties being ones most easily recognisable to students (p. 20).

Chapter 2 deals with the sounds of English, starting with consonants of Present Day English, which offers a familiar starting point for the subject. The chapter discusses place and manner of articulation and reviews the terminology (including alternative terms) used to describe the sounds of English. A good range of examples are given to demonstrate differences between British and American varieties. A well-explained overview of syllable structure follows, along with discussions of the difference between orthography and phonetic realisation, and types and causes of phonological change. Unlike other books in the general ETOTEL series, this one contains no glossary, though terms are explained when they are introduced.

Chapter 3 locates English among its related Indo-European and Germanic languages by way of cognate word-pairs. Historical sound changes which differentiate English from other Indo-European languages are discussed, including Grimm’s Law, pre-Old English vowel changes and early prosodic changes.

Moving forward chronologically, chapter 4 deals with consonantal changes in Old English. Building on the previous chapter, a consonant inventory is given for Old English, then the chapter turns to case studies dealing with the palatalisation and affrication of velars and fricative voicing. Minkova uses the case studies to demonstrate ‘the complexity of the interaction between phonology, morphology, loanword phonology and prosody’ (p. 98).

Chapter 5 continues the exploration of consonant development in the second millennium, with detailed case studies on velar and glottal fricatives and rhotics. The chapter also deals with cluster simplification in initial &lt;kn-, gn-, wr-&gt;, the adoption into English of consonants such as /Ʒ/ and glottal stops, and new trends such as the cluster /ʃm/. Together these two chapters trace the major changes in the consonants of English through the last 1500 years.

Vowel developments are discussed in chapter 6, which starts with a clear, nuanced discussion of orthography and the reconstruction of Old English vowels. The developments discussed in chapter 6 are those with most relevance for the future shape of English, such as i-mutation and homorganic cluster lengthening. The second half of the chapter discusses short and long vowels, diphthongs and unstressed vowels in late Old English, as a precursor to Middle English changes.

Chapter 7 begins by discussing the problems of dealing with the unstandardised languages of Old and Middle English; the patchy geographical survival of manuscript evidence means that it is sometimes not possible to trace continuity from Old English, through Middle English, to Present Day English forms. A detailed section outlines the varied letter-to-vowel correspondences of Middle English, alongside case studies of qualitative changes such as the development of high front rounded vowels and the monophthongisation of Old English diphthongs. Innovations and influences from Old Norse and Anglo-Norman are also covered.

Early Modern English and later changes are covered by chapter 8. It begins with a survey of the new sources of phonological reconstruction available to scholars working in this period, before summarising the qualitative and quantitative changes to short vowels. The main part of the chapter is devoted to the Great Vowel Shift, discussing the construction and problematisation by scholars of ‘the Great Vowel Shift’, as well as its chronology and causation. The mechanisms of the shift are presented in a way which challenges the traditional models of chain shift attributed to Early Modern English vowel changes.

Chapter 9 is concerned with the stress system in English. A brief overview of the stress system in Present Day English provides an accessible introduction to the topic, followed by a recap of syllable structure and weight. The chapter’s introduction is completed by an account of the historical sources available for prosodic reconstruction, including orthographic and verse evidence for word stress. The remainder of the chapter deals with stress at word and phrase level and the prosodic adaptation of loanwords, and comments throughout on the uses and limitations of the available evidence.

The final chapter gives an overview of the main verse forms of Old and Middle English. The chapter begins with an explanation of metre, before a detailed discussion of alliterative verse types in Old English. This is followed by sections on Middle English alliterative verse and the growth in popularity of verse based on rhyme and syllable-counting during the period. Finally, the chapter discusses Chaucer’s innovative development of iambic pentameter, influenced by continental models.

The book also includes an online Companion, which discusses some points in further detail and includes suggestions for further reading on individual topics. In addition it contains exercises and questions for use by students or tutors. The book’s bibliography is wide-ranging and up-to-date.


This book would make a useful teaching resource. The text frequently refers to material covered in previous points and chapters, helping students build on their knowledge of the subject. It works from the modern English which students are familiar with to historical material they have less experience of, as exemplified by chapter 9 which reviews stress patterns in Present Day English before turning to Old and Middle English material. This focus on language development, even in chapters devoted to remoter periods of English, means that older stages of English are discussed in context of the Present Day English that the older Englishes will become: ‘one of the goals of this book is to describe the phonological features of the modern language in terms of its development, seeking to reveal how the present is indebted to the past’ (p. 2). This could be beneficial in giving students access to older material where they are unfamiliar with Old or Middle English. However by focusing only on the ‘successful’ features which are incorporated into later stages of the language it also risks giving the impression that the development of English into its present form is inevitable. Nevertheless, Minkova does acknowledge the role of different varieties, registers and sociolinguistic patterns in the development of the language, for example in her assessment of the Great Vowel Shift (p. 261). The book’s periodisation coincides with that used in the ‘Cambridge History of the English Language’ series, making for easy reference between Minkova’s book and the series’ sections dealing with phonology by Hogg (1992), Lass (1992, 1999), and MacMahon (1998).

The book’s online Companion is useful as it provides further reading and more nuanced or detailed discussion of some points, leaving the main text fairly clear of notes. This makes for easier reading, allowing students to take in the most important details without being encumbered with detailed arguments, while allowing more advanced students to further explore particular points. The online companion also has the benefit of preventing what is already a long book from becoming too cumbersome and allowing easy navigation of the main text.

Minkova discusses sources for phonological and prosodic reconstruction, such as scribal evidence, metalinguistic commentaries and verse evidence, and the book deals well with questions such as ‘how do we know what the language sounded like at this time?’ or ‘how does the evidence show us how English sounded?’. The suggested reading sections direct the reader to the most useful works on each topic, while the Companion’s assignments at the end of the chapters introduce students to some useful sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of Old English Corpus, the Linguistic Atlas of Early Medieval English and the Middle English Dictionary. Suggestions for further research are given when appropriate, giving students an insight into working independently on historical phonology.

One drawback is that, in focusing on the development of earlier stages of English into the standard modern varieties, the book inevitably has less to say about the varieties of English recorded at any given time. For example, in dealing only with phonological changes in Old English which have a bearing on Present Day English, features such as Anglian smoothing are not accounted for. In addition, the layout of the book differs from some traditional grammars, with features discussed only as they affect the main narrative of the development of the language. For example, breaking is discussed as it relates to the quality of Old English &lt;r&gt;, rather than as a diphthongal change (see in contrast Campbell, 1959: §139ff; Lass, 1994: 45). While this is of less importance in accounting for the development of Present Day English, readers wishing to find out how varied English was at a particular time will find traditional, period-specific grammars such as Campbell (1959) or Jordan (1974) more useful, and Minkova refers to these for further information when appropriate.

The book complements McMahon’s (2002) volume in the ETOTEL series by providing an in-depth historical background to Present Day English which demonstrates the development of modern English from its earlier stages. Minkova writes clearly, explaining the subject in an easily-understandable and engaging manner which is appropriate for more advanced students. The further reading and sample questions are useful for both students and tutors. Overall, the book succeeds in its aim as a bridge between basic introductory textbooks on the subject and more specific, period-based phonologies of English.


Campbell, A. 1959. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hogg, Richard M. 1992. ‘Phonology and morphology’, in Richard Hogg (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol I: The Beginnings to 1066. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 67-168.

Jordan, Richard. 1974. A Handbook of Middle English Grammar: Philology. Trans. and rev. by Eugene Joseph Crook. The Hague: Mouton.

Lass, Roger. 1992. ‘Phonology and morphology’, in Norman Blake (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol II: 1066-1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lass, Roger. 1994. Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 23-155.

Lass, Roger. 1999. ‘Phonology and morphology’, in Roger Lass (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol III: 1476-1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 56-186.

MacMahon, Michael K. 1998. ‘Phonology’, in Suzanne Romaine (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol IV: 1776-1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 373-535.

McMahon, April. 2002. An Introduction to English Phonology. Edinburgh Textbooks on the English Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Christine Wallis is a teacher and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, where she recently gained her PhD. Her research interests are in scribal practice and language teaching in Anglo-Saxon England, and her thesis focused on scribal behaviour in manuscripts of the Old English Bede.

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