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   Research trends

Early scholarship on the history of English
Early stages of English
New overviews of the history of English
Sociolinguistics and language change
Social networks and language change
New sources for the history of English
Domain-specific forms of English
Historical syntax
Grammaticalisation and lexicalisation
Historical pragmatics
Development of the standard
Late modern English period
Transportation of English overseas
Language contact

Although this website is primarily intended as an introduction to the history of English for students, it is nonetheless useful to give some indication of what the current research trends in this field are like. Some students may be interested in looking more closely at a particular aspect of the history of English and so tips about who is who in certain sub-areas could be useful. The information below is intended as a guide and not an exhaustive description of present-day research. Still, the outline of key areas should convey some idea of what is of interest to scholars in the field today.

In recent years there has been an expansion in the data base for historical analyses of English, above all due to the increasing availability of comprehensive corpora of primary data. In addition, there has been a questioning of assumptions and standard wisdoms in the field which has led to new avenues of research opening up. Two works which offer much useful information in this respect are (i) Nevalainen and Traugott (eds, 2012) and (ii) Brinton and Bergs (eds, 2012).

The first decade of the 2000s has also seen many overviews of the history of English, in handbook form, i.e. as collections of dedicated chapters in edited volumes, see Hogg and Denison (eds, 2006), van Kemenade and Los (eds, 2006), Momma and Matto (eds, 2007), Mugglestone (ed., 2006). There have also been monograph treatments of the subject, often geared towards a largely student audience, e.g. Barber, Beal and Shaw (2009), Brinton and Arnovick (2005), Culpeper (2005) and van Gelderen (2006). Collections with contributions on various aspects of language change, usually with English data, have appeared with a certain regularity, see Hickey (ed) (2002, 2003). Jones and Singh (2005) is a monograph on the subject. The Germanic and/or Indo-European background to English is treated in Clackson (2007), Fortson (2004), Harbert (2006) and Ringe (2006).

   Early scholarship on the history of English

The foundation for research into the history of English was laid by scholars in the early 19th century who were concerned with reconstructing the proto-language for the Indo-European language family. The techniques they developed came to be applied to individual languages in this group and by the latter half of the 19th century researchers had begun to systematically describe the development of English from its beginnings after the arrival of the first Germanic settlers in England in the mid 5th century. The best known author working on the history of English in England at this time was Henry Sweet (1845-1912) who in 1874 published a History of English sounds and later a grammar and text selection for Old English (then termed Anglo-Saxon).

By far the most productive scholars were those on the continent. The Austrian Karl Luick, who worked in Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th century, produced a monumental Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache [Historical grammar of the English language] (1914-1940) which has remained a classic in its genre as has A modern English grammar on historical principles (7 vols., 1909-49) by the great Danish scholar Otto Jespersen (1860-1943).

The larger the body of scholarly work became the greater the specialisation which became apparent. Studies of historical English which appeared in the early to mid 20th century were often restricted to a period, e.g. Alisdair Campbell Old English Grammar (1959), Ferdinand Mossé A handbook of Middle English (translated from the French original Manuel du moyen anglais, 1953) or Eric J. Dobson’s English pronunciation 1500-1700 (1968). Nonetheless, many overviews of the language continued to appear and some of these have been repeatedly revised and reprinted, testifying to their continuing popularity, e.g. Albert C. Baugh, and Thomas Cable A history of the English language. 5th edition, 2002, Thomas Pyles and John Algeo The origins and development of the English language. 4th edition, 1993 or Barbara Strang A history of English, 1970 (original edition). In this context one should mention the monumental overview of historical syntax offered in Visser (1963-73).

    Early stages of English

The history of English is normally divided into three or four broad periods: (i) Old English, (ii) Middle English, (iii) Early Modern English and (iv) Late Modern English which is now recognised as a separate period as well. There are books which are dedicated to one of these periods, see Hogg (2002), Baker (2003), Hough and Corbett (2006), Marsden (ed., 2004), McCully and Hilles (2005), Mitchell and Robinson (2006) and Smith (2009) for Old English. Consult Taavitsainen, Nevalainen, Pahta and Rissanen (eds, 2000), Smith and Horobin (2002), Ritt and Schendl (eds, 2005) for Middle English and Treharne (2003) for both Old and Middle English.

The term ‘Middle Ages’ occurs in some titles and can normally be taken to refer to the Middle English period (1100-1500), cf. Machan (2003) as an example, though this period of European history is taken to have begun before the 12th century.

Other publications refer to ‘early English’ which is usually a portmanteau for several periods, see Fischer, van Kemenade, Koopman and van der Wurff (2001), Smith (2005), Allen (2008), Denison, Bermúdez-Otero, McCully and Moore (eds, 2011).

Nevalainen (2006) is an introduction to Early Modern English while Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2009) is one for Late Modern English as is Beal (2004), although for the latter the name of this period does not occur in the title.

There are also thematic volumes for the history of English, e.g. Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Tottie and van der Wurff (eds, 1999) on negation in the history of English or Denison (1993) which deals explicitly with syntactic developments. Claridge (2004) is a similarly thematic volume which deals with developments in the early modern period.

    New overviews of the history of English

In the 1980s and 1990s a number of studies of the history of English appeared which strove to apply the insights of modern linguistics to this subject. The main work here is the many-volume Cambridge History of the English Language (general editor Richard Hogg). Single volume studies often with innovative approaches are Richard Bailey (1991), Norman Blake (1996), Barbara Fennell (1998), Roger Lass (1987, 1994), Jeremy Smith (1996). More compact textbooks have also appeared, e.g. Culpeper (2005). For overviews of individual periods, consult the previous section.

The turn of the millennium has seen several new studies of which one could mention the single-volume treatments of the history of English by Laurel Brinton and Leslie Arnovick (2005), Elly van Gelderen (2006), and the edited volumes by Lynda Mugglestone (ed., 2006) as well as Richard Hogg and David Denison (eds, 2006). Further, single-volume paperback overviews have also appeared, see Barber, Beal and Shaw (2009) and Crystal (2004). In a more popular vein one has surveys like Bragg (2003) and McCrum et al. (2002).

Collections of articles giving overviews of aspects of English and its history have also appeared or will do so shortly, see Aarts and McMahon (eds, 2006), van Kemenade and Los (eds, 2006), Momma and Matto (2007) as well as Nevalainen and Traugott (eds, 2012) and Brinton and Bergs (eds, 2012).

Many studies on late modern English appeared in the 1990s reflecting a concern with the centuries immediately preceding modern English. Of these studies one could mention the new edition of Charles Barber (1976) in 1997 and the more recent Richard Bailey (1996) as well as Manfred Görlach (1991, 1999, 2001), Terttu Nevalainen (2004) and Joan Beal (2004). Norman Blake (2002) and Jonathan Hope (2003) are specific studies of Shakespeare’s grammar; Crystal (2005) and Folkerth (2002) deal with the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s plays.

The 1990s also saw two large one volume guides to the English language with McArthur (1992) and Crystal (1995), the former with a broad brief and the latter with a specific emphasis on the history of the language. It also saw the introduction of a journal specifically dealing with the analysis of the English language, often from a diachronic perspective: English Language and Linguistics, 1997- (Cambridge University Press).

    Sociolinguistics and language change

The development of sociolinguistics in the 20th century is due primarily to the pioneering work of William Labov who in the 1960s carried out seminal studies (above all, that published as Labov 1966) which provided a methodological framework for sociolinguistic investigations since. Labov has increasingly been concerned with the application of insights from sociolinguistics to the history of English (see Labov 1981) and many linguists have followed this same path, much to the benefit of scholarship in the field.

The insights from sociolinguistics have been applied to the history of English, in an early study by Suzanne Romaine (1982) and later in such works as Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (2003). The latter study uses a corpus of historical personal correspondence as its basis. This data type has been increasingly the subject of investigations, see the full-length study in Susan Fitzmaurice (2002) and the volume edited by Terttu Nevalainen and Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen (2004). See also the contributions in J. K. Chambers, Peter Trudgill and Natalie Schilling-Estes (eds, 2002).

    Social networks and language change

An important extension of sociolinguistic principles took place in the work of James and Lesley Milroy who applied the notion of network (from sociology) to linguistics, first in synchronic investigations, later in diachronic (historical) ones. Networks are the connections which individuals have with others in their social surroundings. These connections are maintained, usually in low-income communities by the use of vernacular linguistic norms, generally in sharp contrast to the standard of the language in question, a form which is found supraregionally and used by speakers who do not share a mutual social network to anything like the same extent.

    New sources for the history of English

There has been a general switchover for the data on which historical investigations are based from printed records to digitally prepared data (often with such printed records as their source). The advantage of using electronic data is that much larger amounts of material can be scanned for particular features and so, in principle, offer a sounder basis on which to make statements about change in the history of the language. Such sets of data are known as corpora (plural of corpus, ‘body of data’). Many have been compiled since the early 1990s and their number is increasing every year. Originally associated with certain universities, such as that in Helsinki for the history of English, corpora are now produced throughout the world. These corpora often contain data hitherto unavailable to the academic public, e.g. the records of the court at the Old Bailey which have been compiled into a corpus at the University of Sheffield.

See the dedicated module Sources for the history of English for more details and for a list of many presently available corpora. See also the large-scale publication Karen P. Corrigan, Hermann Moisl and Joan Beal (eds, 2007).

    Domain-specific forms of English

Many scholarly publications on aspects of the history of English in recent years deal with specific topics, i.e. they draw their data from particular domains. The insights to be gained from domain-specific investigations are important for the language as a whole, see Dossena and Taavitsainen (eds, 2006), as they often throw light on developmental issues which are only partly visible, if at all, in other data, e.g. in fictional literature. A well-documented domain of writing is that of personal letters. These are frequently those of a specific family whose members corresponded amongst themselves over several years, if not generations. Bergs (2005) is a representative publication in this respect while Fitzmaurice (2002) is a good introduction to this domain.

Other domains are that of science and medicine, see Taavitsainen and Pahta (eds, 2004), or business and official correspondence, see Dossena and Fitzmaurice (eds, 2006) or that of print media, generally newspapers, see Brownlees (ed., 2006).

Another sphere of interest here is that of spoken language represented in textual records, see the detailed study by Culpeper and Kytö (2010).

    Historical syntax

The study of syntax has occupied a central position in linguistics since the mid 20th century, not least because of the great strides made in linguistic theory since the introduction of generative grammar in the late 1950s by Noam Chomsky. Many linguists have applied the insights of syntactic theory to the study of the history of English, not necessarily by strictly applying a current model of generative grammar but by working within a theoretically-aware framework in which they have sought to reach linguistically significant generalisations about language change in English.

This field has been served well by general surveys such as those by David Denison (1993), Olga Fischer et al. (2001) and Susan Pintzuk, George Tsoulas and Anthony Warner (eds, 2001). Studies of particular sections of English syntax can be found in Cynthia Allen (1999, 2008) and Anthony Warner (1993). A handbook with articles covering most aspects of the historical grammar of English is available as Ans van Kemenade and Bettylou Los (eds) 2006.

    Grammaticalisation and lexicalisation

A particular type of language change is grammaticalisation where lexical elements lose their concrete meanings and more and more adopt a grammatical function in a language. Lexicalisation is the mirror image of this, i.e. it deals with the shift from grammatical to lexical status for certain words which accrue specific, independent meanings.

Grammaticalisation has been studied with reference to a wide variety of languages, e.g. many African languages. The history of English has been examined from this perspective above all by Elizabeth Traugott, initially in such studies as Traugott (1989), later in book-length treatments such as Paul Hopper and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (2003, 2nd edition), Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher (2002), Laurel Brinton and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (2005). Other treatments in a similar vein are available, e.g. Olga Fischer, Anette Rosenbach and Dieter Stein (2000).


The interface between vocabulary and grammar has been dealt with in the previous section. Other publications of recent date deal with the interaction of vocabulary with phonology, e.g. Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova (2001), or that of vocabulary and lexicography, e.g. Hüllen (1999). In addition, a number of publications have looked at the structure of English vocabulary, frequently with a consideration of the historical background, e.g. Geoffrey Hughes (2000), Heidi Harley (2003). The two books by Kate Burridge (2004, 2005) are concerned with disputes surrounding the lexicon, especially vernacular vocabulary. The store of words found in varieties throughout the anglophone world is the topic of Stephen Gramley (2001) and is also dealt with in Tom McArthur (2002).

A full third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – the single most reliable source of diachronic information on English vocabulary – is being prepared by Oxford University Press. There is a dedicated website which includes updates on words which have already been processed in advance of the publication of the third edition:

A recent overview of etymology is available in Durkin (2009).

    Historical pragmatics

Among the new orientations in historical linguistics of the past two decades is that of historical pragmatics to which a journal is now dedicated: Historical Pragmatics, 2000- (Amsterdam: John Benjamins). Through the publication of this journal the linguists Andreas Jucker and Irma Taatvisainen have been especially instrumental in disseminating insights from this field.

Overview articles can be found in Traugott (2000) and Traugott (2004). Among the books dealing with this topic are Brinton (1996), Jucker (ed., 1995), Jucker and Taavitsainen (eds, 2008) and Fitzmaurice and Taavitsainen (eds, 2007); see also Taavitsainen and Jucker (eds, 2003) and McEnery (2005) for studies of specific subjects in this field.

    Development of the standard

The data for nearly all the investigations listed above derive in the main from the English language as attested in England. There has been criticism of this fact by several linguists who see in the concentration on England, a covert prescriptivism as if the history of English was the domain of English English. Discussion of such attitudes are to be found in James and Lesley Milroy (1991) and, by the provision of contrasting scenarios, in Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (eds) (2001). The issue of standards – deliberately set in the plural – is a central theme in Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (eds) (1999) and in Linn and McLelland (eds, 2002). The historical background to the rise of standard English in England and the attendant increase in prescriptivism is treated in such books as Cheshire and Stein (eds, 1997), Tony Crowley (1989, 1991) and Mugglestone (2003, 2nd edition), Wright (ed., 2000), see also Hickey (ed., 2010). Rosina Lippi-Green (1997) looks at similar subject matter within the American context.

    Late modern English period

In the past ten years of so, increasing attention has been paid to the late modern English period (1700 to 1900). Although the linguistic changes in this period may seem slight compared to the Old and Middle English periods, there were nonetheless significant changes which led to a clearer profile emerging for standards forms of southern British English. Full-length studies of the period can be found in Beal (2004) and in Jones (2002, 2005) (the latter for pronunciation). Sociolinguistic issues of the 18th century are dealt with in many books, e.g. Mugglestone (2003, 2nd edition) and Görlach (2001). Here it is the development of a British standard of English and reactions to this which form the focus. Grammar-writing has been receiving special attention in this context, see the contributions in Tieken-Boon van Ostade (ed.) 2008. Other volumes which deal with key issues of the late modern period are Dossena and Jones (eds, 2003), Perez-Guerra et al (eds, 2007) as well as Tieken-Boon van Ostade and van der Wurff (eds, 2009). These are volumes of proceedings from the Late Modern English conference series. See also the volumes by Fitzmaurice (ed., 2000) and Hickey (ed., 2010), both on eighteenth-century English. English in the nineteenth-century is the topic of Bailey (1996), Görlach (1999) as well as Kytö, Rydén and Smitterberg (eds, 2006) and Smitterberg (2005). Developments in the twentieth century are the topic of Mair (2006).

    Transportation of English overseas

The development of overseas varieties of English and their relationship to regional dialects of British, Irish and Scottish English is a further branch of the history of the English language which has been examined in depth recently, see the volumes on English overseas (Burchfield, ed. 1994) and on English in North America (Algeo, ed., 2001) in the Cambridge History of the English Language. See also the contributions in Hickey (ed., 2004) and the views put forward in Trudgill (2004). Issues concerning English in a global context has been served well by many book-length publications and there are quality journals dedicated to this subject, such as English World Wide, 1980- (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), with an accompanying book series, and World Englishes, 1981- (Oxford: Blackwell). More information on varieties of English can be found on the website Studying Varieties of English.

    Language contact

A reassessment of the role of language contact in the history of English has been taking place in the last decade or so. Much of the work concentrates on the possible influence of Brythonic (the assumed Celtic language spoken in Britain at and for some time after the arrival of the Germanic settlers). Two works can be singled out in this context, the edited volume by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola and Heli Pitkänen (eds, 2002) and the monograph by the same Finnish team Filppula, Klemola and Paulasto (2008). The interaction of various languages in the British Isles, some from a diachronic and some from a synchronic perspective, is a subject in Britain (ed., 2007). A more diachronic approach which also deals with language contact between varieties of English in the British Isles is found in Dieter Kastovsky and Arthur Mettinger (eds, 2001) and in the conference proceedings volumes published by Hildegard Tristram (ed. 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006). A more general overview of current thinking on language contact is available in the many contributions in Hickey (ed., 2020) and in the section on language contact in Nevalainen and Traugott (eds, 2012).


For a more complete list of references for the history of English, please consult the Reference Guide which comes with this website.

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Ans van Kemenade and Bettelou Los (eds) 2006. The Handbook of the History of English. Oxford: Blackwell.

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