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Review of  The Development of Old English

Reviewer: Robert McColl Millar
Book Title: The Development of Old English
Book Author: Donald A. Ringe Ann Taylor
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
English, Old
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 26.3042

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


There have not been enough attempts to describe in a relatively circumscribed space the system of Old English as it developed in a way which is relatively accessible to an informed reader. Campbell (1959) has been employed by generations of students as a means of making sense of Old English – particularly West Saxon – phonology. Lexis and morphosyntax are treated in rather less detail. The late Richard Hogg’s two volume work on essentially the same themes (Hogg 1992 and, with Fulk, 2011) provides the student with a welcome dose of linguistics for what has largely been a philological concern. But what Ringe and Taylor have achieved in “The Development of Old English” is far more dense and potent than what any of their predecessors achieved. While there is little doubt that specialists in the various fields covered will take issue with some of the findings presented in the book – particularly in relation to detail – Ringe and Taylor’s achievement will stand as a beacon for others to follow.

The book itself, while it can be said to stand alone, acts as the second part of Ringe’s “A Linguistic History of English.” Since the first volume considered the phonology and morphosyntax of Indo-European and proto-Germanic, this volume begins with a discussion of North West Germanic (Chapter 2), the following chapter giving the same attention to West Germanic. Chapter 4 provides ‘A grammatical sketch of Proto-West Germanic’, followed in Chapter 5 by a discussion of the ‘northern West Germanic dialects’ – without much explanation, Ringe avoids terms such as Ingvaeonic or North Sea Germanic (although most of the evidence presented does point to a connection between what we now would term English, Frisian and (to some extent) Low German and Dutch). With the conclusion of this chapter the real heart of the book is presented to the reader.

In the centre of this ‘heart’ lies Chapter 6, ‘The separate prehistory of Old English: sound changes’, which runs to well over 150 pages. The chapter presents a scrupulously illustrated run through of the various sound changes which are postulated to achieve the phonological state of Old English as it is first attested and in the first century or so after it begins to be written. It would be very easy to get lost in this chapter; nonetheless, great care has been taken to provide signposting where necessary, in particular in relation to the chronology of the phonological changes described.

Chapter 7, ‘The separate prehistory of Old English: morphological changes’ is, naturally, a rather slim section in comparison, amounting to around fifty pages. The main paradigms of each part of speech are covered in considerable depth. A minor criticism might be that presenting the paradigms for the various noun and adjective declensions and verb conjugations in tabular form would have helped the reader to follow what is intended by particular comments in the text (this is in line with what was done in, for instance, Campbell 1959).

The book is completed with a chapter on Old English syntax, written by Ann Taylor. In many ways this chapter is conceptually different from the rest of the book, using material from relatively late in the Old English period (Ringe’s cut-off date is around 900 CE). There is also no attempt to be all-encompassing (understandably, given the scope of Old English syntax. Instead, following a later generative model, the chapter is concerned with making the reader aware of some of the concerns and concentrations of present research. This makes for a highly readable, but not entirely satisfactory, experience. The volume ends with Addenda and Corrigenda to Volume 1, References and an Index.


With a book of this scope and level of achievement it is dangerous to be over-critical of what are often very minor issues; this can appear at the very least petty or even as self serving. I hope I will avoid being either. Nonetheless a number of issues might be raised.

In many ways it is regrettable that this work should be (fairly) rigidly system internal in its focus. It would have been interesting, for instance, to have a discussion of whether, as has been suggested recently by Schrijver (for instance, 2009 and 2014), some of the rather more unexpected sound changes of the Old English and pre-Old English periods were due to Celtic influence. While there may not actually be anything solid in this suggestion (I admit to being an agnostic myself), such a treatment would have added greater depth to the findings of the book. Along the same lines, it would have been interesting to see a discussion of the origins of the Old English dialects and whether these can be ascribed to continental origins. This would be particularly pleasing in a book called The Development of English.

Moreover, although it is to be welcomed that occasional reference has been made in the book to modern changes in progress described via sociolinguistic analysis, it would have been useful at times if the description of sound changes were given more discussion as actual phonological events or series of events (particularly when changes appear to be flying thick and fast in the last few non-literate centuries); otherwise the changes remain something like mathematical formulae (as I remember their being introduced when I was taught these very changes by the late Michael Samuels). It is understandable that such a desirable outcome would not have worked well with the need to keep control of the length of the work, however.

Given that the Syntax chapter has a different author from the rest of the book, it is understandable that it has a different ‘feel’ to it. The strongly expressed theoretical orientation of the chapter is not necessarily of itself a bad thing. Nevertheless, it is strange to have so little reference to Bruce Mitchell’s monumental “Old English Syntax” (1985), even if the author strongly disagrees with its findings and methodology (this is in marked contrast to Ringe’s practice in the rest of the book). There is a danger otherwise that the chapter become a conversation between a relatively circumscribed number of scholars. That the chapter transcends these issues is entirely to the author’s credit, however.

Finally, the book would have benefited from a conclusion, even if it had been a highly contingent one. It would have been interesting, for instance, to consider the early varieties of English in relation to what was to come: the considerable morphological changes through which the language passed in the late Old English and early Middle English periods, for instance.

Despite these minor issues, however, “The Development of Old English” is likely to become the main scholarly resource for the study of Old English language for the foreseeable future.


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

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

Hogg, Richard M. and R.D. Fulk. 2011. A Grammar of Old English. Volume 2: Morphology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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

Schrijver, Peter. 2009. ‘Celtic influence on Old English and phonetic evidence’. English Language and Linguistics 13: 193-211.

— 2014. Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages. London: Routledge.
Robert McColl Millar is Professor in Linguistics and Scottish Language at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. His research interests lie in the Historical Sociolinguistics of both English and Scots. He is presently completing Contact: the interaction of closely related varieties and the history of English, to be published by Edinburgh University Press in Summer 2016.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199207848
Pages: 632
Prices: U.K. £ 65