This course will explore the dramatic ways in which the English language has changed over the past 1200 years — dramatic enough that we as Modern English speakers can barely understand those who first began to call their language “English” and created written records of poems such as Beowulf. The course will balance attention to the technicalities of historical linguistic developments and serious engagement with theories of language ideology — including how standard language ideologies developed in the history of English and how language ideology shapes the history we tell. In surveying the languages' history, we will focus on changes in the English sound system, lexicon, grammar, and literary style, as well as related cultural and historical events. We will also constantly strive to understand linguistic phenomena in the context of the social — from the effects of language contact to the difficult question of how changes spread through speech communities, from attitudes about American dialects and their history to pedagogical questions related to the rise of Standard English and prescriptive grammar. Along the way, we will also address a variety of intriguing linguistic questions such as:
- Where did the pronoun she come from? (And why is it the Word of the Millennium?) When did double negation become non-standard, and who first said (erroneously) that two negatives make a positive?
- Is must really being replaced by hafta?
- How did English spelling become, according to linguist Mario Pei, the “worlds' most awesome mess”?
- Why and how do “living” languages change?
Course work will consist of frequent short assignments, a shorter investigative essay and a final project (the two may be related), and a comprehensive exam. Seminar participants will acquire the tools and methodological expertise to do original research using new electronic text databases (or corpora).
No background in linguistics is required; the critical prerequisite for the course is genuine curiosity about the details of language and how language changes.