Histories of the English Language

From the Old English of Beowulf to the Middle English of Chaucer to the many dialects that make up our modern tongue, the history of English is a history of change. Featuring materials from KU’s Kenneth Spencer Research Library, this exhibition explores English as embodied in the writings of its practitioners, whether celebrated authors, such as John Milton and Toni Morrison, or scholars, lexicographers, and  grammarians, such as Elizabeth Elstob, Samuel Johnson,  Noah Webster, and Robert Lowth or anonymous and little-known writers of “everyday” English. In manuscripts and books dating from 1000 CE to the present, readers will encounter the varied forces at work growing, standardizing, governing, describing, reforming, and reinventing English.

This is an online version of a physical exhibit that was on display in Kenneth Spencer Research Library, May through August of 2017. The exhibit was created by Elspeth Healey, Special Collections Librarian.


Fragment of “The Legend of the Holy Cross before Christ.”

Worcester (?), England, circa 1000-1050, with 13th-century annotations by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester.



"Booke of Recaits” [manuscript book of culinary recipes and medicinal remedies]

England, circa 1668. Contains approximately 300 culinary recipes and 425 household remedies for disease, wounds, etc.



The Nevv VVorld of VVords. Or a General English Dictionary

Full title: The nevv vvorld of vvords. Or a general English dictionary. Containing the proper significations, and etymologies of all words derived…


London: printed by W.R. for Robert Harford at the Angel in Cornhill.


The Lady’s Polite Secretary, or New Female Letter Writer

Extended title: The lady’s polite secretary, or New female letter writer : Containing an elegant variety of interesting and instructive letters,…


London: Printed for J. Coote, at No.16, and T. Evans No.54, Pater-Noster-Row


“My Pronouns Are:” pronoun pins


Lawrence, KS: KU Libraries, University of Kansas