History of the English Language


Course Convenor: Dr Kathryn Allan

The course traces the growth of a standardised variety of English since the Anglo-Saxon period and considers how and why Standard English and other varieties have changed and continue to change. Classes will explore the social and cultural factors that have shaped English in different periods, and examine past and present attitudes to aspects of language (such as grammar, lexis, spelling and accent) and language change.

The structure of the course is broadly chronological. It will begin by considering the nature of different types of language change, and exploring the characteristic features of the language in the medieval, Early Modern and Late Modern periods. It will then trace the development of English from the Late Middle period to the present day, and examine the impact of events such as the Norman Conquest, the introduction of printing, and the spread of English around the world. Students will be strongly encouraged to think about the relationship between a language and its speakers, and to make connections between changing literary and linguistic conventions and preoccupations.

Among the topics studied are the ‘hows and whys’ of language change; the emerging awareness of regional and social dialect differences and of the need for grammars and dictionaries; the development of English lexicography from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries; Shakespeare’s language; and changes in the origin and meaning of English words.

Students will be taught by weekly two-hour seminars which will be a mixture of lectures and workshops. Examination is by means of a 3-hour written paper, or by Course Essay, if preferred and if no other Course Essay is being submitted by the candidate in that year.