English historical linguists have often complained about the scholarly neglect of the phonology of the Late Modern English period; yet, the value of pronouncing dictionaries as rich and reliable evidence has been demonstrated (Beal, 1999; Jones, 2006). This paper presents a new electronic, searchable database of eighteenth-century English phonology (ECEP) which aims to facilitate research on the social, regional and lexical distribution of phonological variants in eighteenth-century English, as documented in contemporary pronouncing dictionaries. Taking Wells’ (1982) lexical sets for the vowel system of present-day RP English as its reference, the database provides unicode IPA transcriptions for the relevant segment of each keyword in Wells’ vowel sets and some complementary consonant sets, which will be of use for comparative studies with nineteenth-century and present-day English.
First, we describe the methodology and contents of ECEP: primary source selection, data input and annotation, the web-based interface. Second, we report on two case studies that demonstrate the value of evidence that can be systematically extracted from ECEP for the analysis of segmental and suprasegmental phonology; these are variation in the pronunciation of ‘wh’ in the set WHALE, and the palatalization of alveolar consonants before /u/. Thus, this paper will demonstrate the viability of ECEP for historical phonology, dialectology and sociolinguistics, and will help to promote the use of databases as key resources in historical linguistics.