Anatoly Vorobei writes:

Many years ago, my mind was blown by reading Otto Jespersen’s Modern English Grammar On Historical Principles. I read/skimmed mainly Part I: Phonetics, where Jespersen slowly, fascinatingly and painstakingly goes over the phonetical changes that occurred in English […], including the Great Vowel Shift as well as changes that came after it. He doesn’t just list the principal changes, he discusses at length when they occurred, approximately, what they were caused by, when this is known, and what were the exceptions to them. He gives many examples of words that underwent the changes or exceptions that didn’t, and for the latter he discusses the reasons why (that was one of the most interesting aspects of the book – realizing that sound changes are not always as completely universal in a language as I’d naively thought).
I want to find this book again, […] [b]ut before I even do that, I’d like to understand if I should really be looking for a different book instead. After all, Jespersen wrote something like 100 to 70 years ago. Perhaps many of his explanations are considered outdated by now; perhaps there have been much better books of this kind. I wouldn’t know – I’m not a linguist and my interest in this is amateur. If you know anything about how well his work stood the test of time, or about newer books of this kind I might be interested in, would you please let me know? I’d like to emphasize though that I’m not simply looking for, say, a concise one-volume “History of the English Language”, of which there are dozens, many doubtless excellent. I looked at a few and their phonetics sections mainly listed the important sound changes that occurred, with a few examples. They lacked the obsessive “deep-dive” into many examples, exceptions, discussions of sources and methodology, etc. that I remember loving in Jespersen.

I don’t know the answer (the history of English was not my specialty), but it’s a good question, and I thought some of my learned readers might know, so I’m passing it along.


  1. Don Ringe is working on this project. I believe that only the first volume of his book (“From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic”) is currently out, but here’s what the back cover says:
    “The next volume in the History will consider the development of Proto-Germanic into Old English. Subsequent volumes will describe the attested history of English from the Anglo-Saxon era to the present.”
    If Vol 1 is anything to go by, it will be pretty in depth, though not as readable as Jespersen, a very accessible writer.

  2. Dobson: “English Pronunciation 1500-1700” should be obsessively detailed enough. It ends up saying quite a lot about changes outside those two centuries.
    You mainly want volume 2. I managed to get it second hand from Amazon around $50. That volume alone is over 500 pages.

  3. Is Ringe also working on the subsequent volumes? I got the impression that they would be by different authors. Ringe’s volume one is excellent: concise
    and efficient to a T. I would recommend it even to someone only interested in PIE.

  4. narrowmargin says

    The Stories of English by David Crystal?

  5. The Stories of English by David Crystal?
    No. That’s a genial overview of the history of the language, with no special attention to the details of sound change.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Roger Lass is another well-known name in English historical linguistics.

  7. I’m afraid you won’t find that combination of readability and rigor in any modern text that I’ve ever seen.

  8. I’ve been reading L.M. Myers The Roots of Modern English on the bus. Not sure how much detail it has, but seems wordy and dry enough to make you want to reach for Bill Bryson, which I understand is a big no-no when it comes to linguistics.

  9. Nijma: If you’re finding it dry, you might try soaking it in water before you read it. Although that may make it even harder to tell how much detail it has.

  10. Not directly on-topic, but a concise yet detailed account of the sound-changes of English can be found in Wikipedia’s “Phonological history of English” article. The “See Also” section points you to individual discussions of specific vowels and consonants. It’s not entirely uncontroversial, but nothing about the English language is.

  11. david waugh says

    What you want I think is the Cambridge History of the English Language. There are 6 volumes covering the period from Old English to modern times. Volume 3 covers the period 1476-1776 which is the one you want for the great vowel shift, oddly enough. I checked in vol.2 which doesnt cover it. The snag is, they’re quite dear – nearly £100 a vol.

  12. I’m afraid you won’t find that combination of readability and rigor in any modern text that I’ve ever seen.
    Alas! So what about the other side of the question? If a non-specialist decided to read just one book on the topic in order to get an overview, would Jespersen’s work still be a good choice?

  13. marie-lucie says

    Matt, if you really don’t know anything about the topic, and are not concerned in learning every single detail, then David Crystal would be a better choice. (He has written severl other books on English, all aimed at the general public).

  14. Someone posted a link to an essay about the great vowel shift sometime back.

  15. marie-lucie says

    There is a lot more to the history of English than the Great Vowel Shift, although that is a “defining moment” (spread over a few centuries).

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