Conference report:

Studies in the History of the English Language 4 (SHEL-4), Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff Arizona, 30 September - 2 October 2005.

The fourth conference in the SHEL (Studies in the History of the English Language) series was hosted by the College of Arts and Letters at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ (USA), from 29 September to 1 October 2005. Flagstaff, some 150 km from the Grand Canyon, is the ideal point of departure for daytrips to this natural marvel, an opportunity that was cleverly used by the organizers to set the right tone for the conference by scheduling a pre-conference excursion. At an elevation of 2,100 metres, which is the equivalent of the European high alpine range, some 70 delegates from North America and Europe exchanged new insights on a rich variety of aspects of English historical linguistics at the conference. SHEL-4 was organized very efficiently along a surprisingly compact programme that spanned only two days of talks in two parallel sections.

Susan Fitzmaurice, conference organizer extraordinaire and her team (Joseph Collentine, Kathleen Knapp, Kathy McConnell, Debbie Berktold, Tim Darby, Doug Biber, David Isbell and student helpers) impeccably organized the event that featured William Labov as the plenary speaker (Roger Lass, the second plenary speaker, was unfortunately unable to attend due to personal circumstances). Arizona hospitality, a conference reception (with the mayor of Flagstaff) and a banquet in the historic Fairmont Hotel in downtown Flagstaff gave the conference a touch of Wild West.

A total of 46 papers, including one plenary presentation, was organized into fourteen sections that covered the areas of metrics, philology, corpus linguistics, syntax, grammaticalization, historical problems of special interest, sound change, word histories, North American Englishes, New (and present-day) Englishes, and corpus linguistics and syntax. Continuing a tradition from previous SHEL conferences, the organisers included a section on the pedagogy of teaching historical English linguistics (HEL) which completed the programme.

(Pre-) Medieval Englishes

With three sections, metrics must be considered one of the foci of the conference. Problems in Old English metrics were discussed in two papers (R.D. Fulk and J. Tran), while Middle English received the bulk of attention with seven contributions (C. Fitzgerald, C. Li, D. Minkova, G. Russom, T. Cable, J. Carlson and T. O’Donnell). Other contributions on (pre-) medieval English phonology focused on questions of palatalization (S. Laker), syllabic OE consonants (T. Oda), OE homorganic lengthening (B. Phillips) and the phonological value of OE <ie> spellings (D. White). Historical syntax was explored with four papers in two sections: special cases of ME subjunctival complementation (M. Bahtchevanova), the structure of OE to-infinitives (M. Pak), and the decline of ME/EModE impersonal constructions (G. Trousdale). The York-Toronto-Helsinki Corpus of OE was used by E. Traugott and S. Pintzuk to investigate OE left dislocations with respect to their information statuses. A complex case of word history, the unresolved etymology of English wife and its original neuter grammatical gender, was explored by A. Liberman.

An early aspect of the external language history was focussed on by J. Berry in his paper on arguments for the survival of Brittonic features in English. More on the philological side was K.E. Gade, who provided internal evidence for the connection between the early Icelandic grammarians and Ælfric’s vernacular grammar, as was P. Grund’s case study of a lME/EModE multiple-copy manuscript and the methodological problems it entails for corpus compilers.

Early Modern varieties

At the crossroads form medieval to Early Modern times, J. Schlüter reinvestigated the loss and re-emergence of [h]. In a similar vein, S. Schlitz explored th-dropping from ME to PDE and arrived at not one, but two etymologies of ’em, while C. Palmer’s paper focussed on derivational morphology and the naturalization of borrowed affixes at the turn of the modern era. A number of issues were continued from previous SHEL conferences: R. Bailey provided the third instalment, after SHEL-2 and SHEL-3, of his project on Henry Machyn’s EModE diary, while W. Kretzschmar’s contribution develops ideas for a model of language change that considered both intra- and interdialectal variation, as well as rapid demographic change in a society. Both “sagas” will hopefully be continued with new episodes at future conferences.

Late Modern English, the twentieth century and Present-Day English

A number of contributions at SHEL-4, which were spread across a number of sections, surveyed various aspects of the Late Modern English period. In the philology section, S. Garzon investigated the language use of eighteenth-century women in plays from the American south, while the influence of Jonathan Swift’s neologisms in PDE were investigated by E.L. Coggshall in the word history section. Concerning the prescriptivist tradition, R. Hickey explored the roots of phonetic and grammatical correctness in the British Isles and its strong effects in the nineteenth century.

The section on North American Englishes was firmly in LModE hands, however. While E. Schneider globally reviewed the evolution of AmE as a variety ofNew Englishes, C. Eble tuned in closely to nineteenth-century Louisiana and its fading bilingualism in a social network approach. Concerning the English North of the Canada-U.S. border, the modalities of select modals in pre-Confederation Ontario English were explored (S. Dollinger).

Three papers were dedicated to very recent phenomena: F. Barbieri contributed a real-time perspective to the study of quotative “be like” in AmE, while D. Chapman discussed double suffix constructions, which have been attested in AmE since the 1920s, but still shunned in BrE. A real variety of the New Englishes was the topic of C. Rogers’s talk on the tense-aspect system of present-day Indian English, while ARCHER-1 served as data for a paper on the use of the subjunctive in BrE and AmE newspapers (B. Crawford). A number of different corpora was used by J. Rudanko in a study on the complementation pattern of the verb consent, an approach also used in L. Brinton’s study on the grammaticalization of anytime as a subordinator, which included data from LModE to various varieties of PDE.

New corpora and software tools

In this day and age, no historical linguistics conference can do without a section on new corpora to showcase newly developed research tools. At SHEL-4, J. Beal introduced the Newcastle Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English (NECTE), based on recordings from 1969 and 1994, which greatly facilitates real-time studies. M. Davies introduced a new search tool for the OED quotations database that allows complex quick searches of the data (free at:, password “m42”, 4 Oct 05). M. Kaunisto introduced internet resources and discussed ways how to use internet as a corpus.

Long-term studies and Labov’s plenary

Long-term studies, i.e. studies spanning more than two or three periods, were also present. L. Simms spoke on the grammaticalization of start, while E. Traugott and I. Buchstaller traced the development of emphasizer all through the centuries, with a focus on PDE.

The conference plenary, by William Labov, also contained a long-term perspective of English vowel shifts and as such it was demonstrated by the master himself that both synchronic and diachronic perspectives are needed in language description. The plenary paper focussed on data from the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash and Boberg forthc.), which is to be presented to the scientific community at NWAV-34 later this month (October 2005). Labov, discussing phonological phenomena like the Canadian Shift, the Northern Cities Shift (a U.S. phenomenon) and the Pittsburgh Shift, asked the somewhat elusive question of what events trigger such changes. The data presented in his 75 minute plenary was truly impressive, and much of it was depicted in the form of: isoglosses. In a way, the founder of modern sociolinguistics seems to have come around full circle. After departing from dialectological models in the 1960s, the presentation of the sociolinguistically collected data looks very much like traditional dialectology maps and their lines of isoglosses. May we hope that this development could mark the marriage of two major schools in contemporary linguistics? Labov’s presentation was, in any case, truly inspiring.

Teaching the history of the English language (HEL)

The HEL panel has become a tradition at SHEL conferences, and has also found an equivalent section at last year’s ICEHL-13 conference in Vienna. Four contributions provided food for thought and discussion on how to best teach HEL: M. Blockley started off the session, which was chaired by A. Curzan, with her list of essential language internal phenomena. F.J. Steele introduced a variety of multimedia resources on HEL, with links to be provided at the SHEL-4 conference homepage (, 4 Oct. 05). An interesting perspective on teaching HEL in a Japanese context was provided by A. Tani, demonstrating the integration of PDE nursery rhymes into HEL courses. Finally, E. van Gelderen introduced her forthcoming textbook on the history of the English language. The 2005/06 academic year might mark a milestone for HEL textbooks, as three new books are going to appear: besides van Gelderen’s book, the one volume version of the Cambridge History of the English Language is announced for April 2006, and, already within the next few days (October 2005), L. Brinton and L. Arnovick’s history is going to be available from bookshops.

Possibly facilitated by the high altitude, Flagstaff provided an ideal point of departure into the higher spheres of English historical linguistics. It became apparent once more during this conference, especially in Labov’s plenary, that diachrony and synchrony are two aspects of language study that cannot be separated. If the number of papers on different periods is in any way indicative of the research activities, it seems that (pre-) medieval Englishes continue to be an essential part in HEL, while EModE, the former Cinderella of English historical linguistics (Görlach 1988), may have lost some of its momentum of the 1990s at the benefit of the younger language stages, and here especially LModE.

The recent instalment of SHEL, the little North-American sister series of the ICEHL conferences, provided a very pleasant and supportive environment that promoted and facilitated the exchange of points of view and much fruitful discussion, which, I’d like to think, was furthered by the excellent choice of the location in the small, compact and charming university town of Flagstaff on the famous Route 66.

SHEL-5 is going to be hosted in 2007 by William Kretzschmar in Athens, GA (USA), another small university town, in the American South. With Atlanta, a major airport is nearby, so that it may be hoped that many scholars, especially from outside of the USA, will manage to find their way to Athens, GA. However, now that ICHEL and SHEL operate in alternate years, one does not have to wait long for the next conference on the history of the English language.

Stefan Dollinger (University of Vienna). Contact.



Görlach, Manfred. 1988. “The study of early Modern English variation - the Cinderella of English historical linguistics”. In: Jacek Fisiak (ed.), Historical Dialectology. Regional and Social. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 211-228.

Labov, William, Ash, Sharon, & Boberg, Charles. (forthc.). Atlas of North American English. Phonetics, phonology, and sound change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.