25.4162, Review: Historical Linguistics; Phonology: Minkova (2013)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-25-4162. Tue Oct 21 2014. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 25.4162, Review: Historical Linguistics; Phonology: Minkova (2013)

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Date: Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:51:32
From: Christine Wallis [c.wallis at sheffield.ac.uk]
Subject: A Historical Phonology of English

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-17.html

AUTHOR: Donka  Minkova
TITLE: A Historical Phonology of English
PUBLISHER: Oxford 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

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 <kn-,
gn-, wr->, 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

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

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
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 <r>, 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

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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