The history of a language is the history of the people who speak it, those who read and write it, and those who come into contact with it. This is a course in which we will examine the origin and development of the English language, from its earliest beginnings in the misty past, through Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, Early Modern English, and Present Day English, and across the post-modern globe. Language is a fundamental cornerstone (perhaps the very foundation) of all human culture. It is, therefore, a vital part of who we are, and a knowledge of how language operates serves to explain, in part, how we came to be what we are.
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The study of what language is and how it changes, and how these changes are grounded in parallel cultural changes, is therefore a subject of intrinsic value, especially to those interested in literature, linguistics, history, and cultural studies.
This course may be unique amongst English courses in that it mixes the study of technical subjects (phonetics, linguistics, historical grammar, etc.) with more abstract cultural and literary issues (the impact of the Norman Invasion upon Old English, the place of Ebonics in the modern public-school curriculum, etc.).
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I have attempted to reflect this mix in the schedule of reading assignments, exercises, papers, and the like. Some of the material covered in this course is a bit technical, and we will cover a wide range and large volume of material in a relatively short time. It is vital, therefore, that you keep up with the daily reading, as well as with the linguistic and historical exercises.
During the second week of class, we will discuss this 4–5-page paper, which is concerned with the “etymology” (look up in Millward glossary) of words. You will choose an interesting word, discuss its derivation, “cognates”, spelling, pronunciation, characteristics, and meanings, and will examine how some of these have changed over time, and discuss why. The purpose of this assignment is to ensure that you have grasped the basic linguistic concepts and tools associated with this course.
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This paper will be due at the end of Week Eight. Language & Culture Essay: During the third week of class I will distribute a list of possible topics for this 6–7-page essay; you may choose one of these topics, or you may (subject to discussion with me) design your own. The purpose of this assignment is to underscore the relationship between linguistic development and cultural factors. Possible topics might include the impact of the Viking invasions on the English language, the relationship between the slave trade and the establishment and development of Jamaican Creole, or the function of dictionaries as tools to attempt to slow or to halt linguistic change. Perhaps beginning with the Suggested Further References in Millward, you will compile a bibliography on your subject, outline your approach to the topic, and then meet with me to discuss your progress. You will then annotate your bibliography and present a report on your findings to the class (see below). Your final paper will be due during the last week of class.