The historical phonology of Old English: a critical review

  • Arjen Versloot


There is a widely accepted chronology of sound laws, covering the transition from Proto-West Germanic to Old English, found in every handbook of Old English. This chronology contains sound laws whose only function is to cancel the effects of previous ones, such as ‘retraction’ and ‘smoothing’, reversing ‘fronting’ and ‘breaking’. This chronology of sound laws is allocated to the relatively short period between the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century and the oldest Early Old English sources around 700. On close scrutiny, some aspects of the theory turn out to be problematic: the series of sound laws is fairly unique in the history of Germanic languages; some of the sound laws are phonetically unlikely (e.g. ‘Anglian smoothing’); the extensive, sometimes repetitive, sequences (up to 5 stages) of forms in only 250 years seem hardly realistic; none of the questionable developments is positively confirmed by runic evidence; the theory requires the interpretation of many attested forms as ‘merely’ spelling issues or signs of dialect mixture, instead of evidence of historical changes. This article offers a detailed discussion of these problematic issues, to conclude that the theory is in need of revision.