This course explores the dramatic ways in which the English language has changed over the 1200 years of its recorded history — dramatic enough that we as Modern English speakers need an Old English course to read Beowulf and may find even Chaucer’s Middle English a struggle. Together we will trace how English has developed from a West Germanic dialect spoken on an island off the coast of western Europe (i.e., England) into an international language spoken as a native tongue by almost 400 million people around the world. We will also consider a variety of more specific questions, such as: Why does the “f” turn into a “v” in wife/wives? How is the word “lord” etymologically related to a loaf of bread? Is txtng destroying English? When was double negation (e.g., “we don’t have none”) considered standard? How did English spelling become, to quote linguist Mario Pei, the “world’s most awesome mess”? Why and how do “living” languages change? As we move through the traditional stages in the “life” of English—Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English, we will focus on the general sound, word, and grammar changes within the language, as well as related literary, cultural, and historical events. We will also discuss relevant social and educational issues, including attitudes about American dialects, bilingual education, and the teaching of grammar.
No background in linguistics is required. The critical prerequisite for the course is genuine curiosity about the details of language and how language changes.
Course work will consist of frequent short assignments, two short papers, a midterm, and a final.