LINGUIST List 28.4927

Sat Nov 25 2017

Review: English, Old; Historical Linguistics; Morphology; Phonetics; Phonology; Syntax: Ringe, Taylor (2017)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 29-Aug-2017
From: Christine Wallis <>
Subject: The Development of Old English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Don Ringe
AUTHOR: Ann Taylor
TITLE: The Development of Old English
SERIES TITLE: A Linguistic History of English
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Christine Wallis, University of Sheffield

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book, the second volume in the series ‘A Linguistic History of English’, covers the history of the language from the evolution of Proto-Germanic into its separate daughter languages, until its development into the Old English (OE) attested in documents up to c.900 AD. As such its periodisation departs from other histories of English (e.g. Campbell, 1959; Hogg, 1992a), in that it bridges the gap between the language’s ancestors and its earliest surviving texts, and finishes some 200 years before the end of OE as dated by more traditional accounts. The book consists of eight chapters. After the introduction, Chapters 2-5 give a diachronic account of the phonological and morphological changes as Proto-Germanic develops into northern West Germanic, while Chapters 6 and 7 deal with changes in the immediate prehistory of OE. Chapter 8 provides a synchronic description of the syntax of OE. The volume therefore works chronologically, from the language’s earliest reconstructed stages, up to its attested forms at the end of the ninth century.

After a general introduction to the volume, the first chapter gives a brief overview of early OE, including information on surface-contrastive sounds and morphosyntactic categories. It discusses the dialects of OE, and addresses the uneven attestation of different varieties in the earliest English written records, before listing briefly some of the more important texts surviving in these dialects.

Each of the following chapters focuses on a particular stage of the language, and most follow a similar structure, beginning with phonological changes, before exploring morphological ones. Chapter 2 discusses Proto-Northwest Germanic (PNWGmc) innovations as the variety diverged from Proto-Germanic (for example, backing of *ē to *ā), alongside those partly shared with Gothic. Ringe takes care to distinguish changes which can be attributed to a unified PNWGmc from those which are shared between daughter languages, possibly as a result of continued dialect contact (both phonological and morphological). Examples from Gothic demonstrate morphological innovations in PNWGmc. Chapter 3 concentrates on the changes that distinguish Proto-West Germanic (PWGmc) from its Northern Germanic neighbours. The large number of changes common to PWGmc lead Ringe to suggest that ‘there was for some generations a unitary PWGmc language’ (41), though he distinguishes between changes which affected all PWGmc dialects and those which were less uniform in their spread (see for example p. 45). Also considered are changes which, although postdating the PWGmc period, are shared by many of the daughter languages (e.g. the loss of *w following non-initial velars). The chapter concludes with a diagram of the relative chronology of the changes discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 (104), which is helpful in visualising the wealth of detail contained in these two chapters.

Chapter 4 provides a welcome grammatical sketch of Proto-West Germanic (PWGmc). This gives a snapshot of the grammar of the language at this point in its development, before Chapter 5’s discussion of further dialect differentiation into northern West Germanic. A description of the PWGmc phonological system is followed by its morphology, with sections including handy tables showing inflections of verbs, nouns, adjectives, numerals and pronouns. A lexicon is also included, of lexemes unique to to WGmc, as well as meanings unique to WGmc among words which are more widely attested in Germanic languages. As Ringe notes, the list is a deliberately conservative one, given the difficulty of dealing with the evidence, with Gothic attested comparatively sparsely, and ON not surviving to any great degree until the fourteenth century. Finally, derivational morphology and loanwords are also considered.

Northern West Germanic dialects form the basis of Chapter 5, which compares changes common to OE and Old Frisian with those evident in Old Saxon (OS), including morphological and lexical innovations. Ringe stresses that this stage of the language was probably always dialectally diverse, in spite of its status as a single language for a number of generations. The chapter thus begins with sounds changes fully shared by ancestral dialects of OS (e.g. loss of nasals before fricatives, raising of *e to *i before *m), before going on to discuss changes such as nasalisation and fronting, which are not uniformly shared by OS.

Chapters 6 and 7 deviate from the structure of previous chapters, with each devoted solely to phonology (Chapter 6) or morphology (Chapter 7). Given that Chapter 6 is the longest chapter of the book, due to the sheer amount of data and the availability of attested forms demonstrating many of the changes discussed, this division is a wise one that makes the topics more manageable. The introduction to Chapter 6 includes a brief summary of the literature which will be most familiar to scholars of OE (e.g. Campbell, 1959; Hogg, 1992a; Luick, 1914-40; Brunner, 1965), before considering the origin of the OE dialects preserved in surviving texts. The chapter covers sound changes which will be well-known to OE scholars, such as breaking, palatalization, palatal diphthongisation, i-umlaut, Anglian smoothing, syncope etc. A relative chronology of the sound changes in diagram form is also provided (304). Chapter 7 details morphological changes in the same period (e.g. changes in strong verbs and in verb endings), and includes examples in tabular form, for example showing equivalent forms in West-Saxon, Mercian and Northumbrian for verbal inflections (350-1).

Chapter 8, written by Ann Taylor, provides a synchronic syntax of OE. The evidence for this chapter is based on the York-Toronto-Helsinki Corpus of Old English (YCOE) and is often (though not exclusively) drawn from examples in late-OE text, such as those by Ælfric. This chapter is not intended as an exhaustive commentary on OE syntax, but as a sketch of some of the more important aspects of the language, and those that differ most from PDE equivalents. The chapter contains sections on clausal syntax, verb phrases, periphrastic verb constructions, impersonal constructions, prepositional phrases, nominal phrases, and non-finite and finite subordinate clauses. Numerous illustrative examples are provided from YCOE and, where appropriate, from PDE.

The volume is completed by a substantial and up-to-date reference section, and three main indexes (ancestor forms of English, attested forms of English, and a separate index to Chapter 8).


The biggest advantage of this book over others charting the development of OE is the way in which Ringe marries the phonological and morphological evidence with theories of language change such as sociolinguistics, which focus on speaker involvement. Ringe contrasts his approach with those of Campbell (1959) and Hogg (1992a), stating that those works ‘retain an old-fashioned philological focus on the forms which the student encounters rather than writing an internal history of the language’ (167). This makes the present work of greater use to a wider range of students, and makes the material more accessible to those with an interest in disciplines such as sociolinguistics or language change. This approach is also demonstrated by Ringe’s focus on whether at any particular stage the language can be demonstrated to have been relatively uniform or more dialectally diverse (see for example his discussion of whether pre-OE *a fronting had continental or insular origins (167-8)).

In the introduction Ringe states that ‘comparative Germanic linguistics has been worked over so intensively by so many specialists for so long that getting the facts is seldom a problem, though the wealth of conflicting interpretations has to be sorted’ (2). Ringe writes in a clear engaging style, effectively explaining features, drawing the reader’s attention to overarching points and helping navigate the abundant examples. Relevant literature and counter-arguments are neatly referred to in a way that does not detract from the main point of each chapter, and unsolved questions or problematic data are noted where they occur. For the researcher of OE, the points are well keyed into the most used reference works in the area, such as Hogg (1992a), Hogg & Fulk (2011), Campbell (1959), and Luick (1914-40). This enables easy comparison of the treatment of particular features in any of these works. The layout of examples is also clear and easy to follow, for example the comparative lists of verb forms in the different OE dialects (350-1). The layout of such information compares favourably, for example, with Campbell (1959: §732-735), as it is easy to see at a glance comparable material from several languages or dialects.

Taylor’s chapter on syntax complements the overall scope of the book, and redresses the balance of earlier treatments of OE, in which syntax is given only brief (or no) consideration (e.g. Campbell (1959), Lass (1994)). Another important methodological concern is that lengthy prose works in the period up to 900 are rare, and so Taylor uses YCOE to provide the data for a synchronic description of OE syntax, on the grounds that differences in syntax between early and late OE are relatively few (1). The chapter is clearly exemplified; however Taylor’s ‘loosely generative’ (392) approach requires a level of theoretical knowledge which, while not beyond scholars with a purely linguistic training, may be a challenge for readers coming from a more philological or literary background, and if searching for a syntax of OE, such readers may find Mitchell (1985) more user-friendly (if more detailed).

The periodisation of this volume differs from that of other works dealing with the history of English, in that it stops short of traditional boundary dates (around c.900, rather than c.1100). Ringe suggests that ‘the division between OE and ME is an artificial one, imposed by external factors [...] and since the research of our predecessors has made it increasingly feasible to extrapolate across evidential gaps, it seems worth the attempt to adopt a different periodization’ (3). On a practical level this has the advantage of keeping the book to a manageable size, while on a theoretical level the periodisation has the advantage of focusing on the stage of OE during its earliest written phases (i.e. early West Saxon). This means that the problems of untangling phonological and morphological change from the more complex texts of the later OE period (involving the socio-linguistic aspects of the proto-standard or focused variety of late West Saxon, or the fact that the majority of eleventh-century texts are copied from earlier exemplars and so potentially represent mixed dialectal input) are left for the next volume. It also means that linguistic changes which are believed to have started during the Anglo-Saxon period, but which only appear in the written record to any degree in the post-Conquest period (for example, the demise of case and mood marking in nouns and verbs respectively; Lass, 1994: 245; Hogg 1992b: 150) are to be considered as a whole in the following volume.

Overall this is an informative and very well-written book, which will clearly benefit advanced students of historical linguistics and readers who require a more in-depth treatment of the history of the language’s prehistory than is found in traditional histories and grammars. It provides a successfully updated view of the internal history of the language, which takes into account more recent approaches to language change, and encourages readers to make links with neighbouring linguistic disciplines, and is a welcome addition to existing reference works.


Brunner, Karl. 1965. Altenglische Grammatik: nach der angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers. Tübungen: Niemeyer.

Campbell, Alistair. 1959. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hogg, Richard M. 1992a. A Grammar of Old English, vol. 1, Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hogg, Richard M. 1992b. ‘Phonology and Morphology’, in The Cambridge History of the
English Language, vol. I., The Beginnings–1066. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hogg, Richard M. & Robert D. Fulk. 2011. A Grammar of Old English, vol. 2, Morphology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lass, Roger. 1994. Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luick, Karl. 1914-40. Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache. Leipzig: Tauchnitz.

Mitchell, Bruce. 1985. Old English Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


I am a teaching associate at the University of Sheffield, where I teach the history of English. My research interests lie in the field of Old English, in particular literacy, education and scribal culture. I am currently working on marginalia, corrections and drypoint additions to Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

Page Updated: 25-Nov-2017