What you will study

The aim of this course is to give you a good understanding of the history of English.

In this class, we will study the linguistic, social and cultural development of the English language from before its establishment in Britain around the year 450 to the present. We will study the changes in the language from Old English through Middle English to Modern English, illustrated with a wide selection of examples.

We will study the epic poem about the hero Beowulf and the monster Grendel, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle about the arrival of the Vikings, William the Conqueror and the influence of French on English, Chaucer, a love letter in Middle English, a recipe for custard, Shakespeare and more. You will learn what English was like over 1000 years ago and how – and why – it has changed to become the English you study today.

You will also learn why all languages change and study the ways that languages can change. These include:

  • Sound change (Grimm’s Law, the Great Vowel Shift), including how sound change can lead to grammatical change (reduction of inflectional endings in English)
  • Grammatical change (from analytic to synthetic, regularisation, grammaticalisation, auxiliary do)
  • Meaning change (etymology – the study of the origins of words, Shakespeare’s slang)
  • Sociolinguistics and language change (why English borrowed relatively little from Celtic but heavily from French, the loss of thou and spread of you in English, the influence of London)
  • Language contact (with Celts, with Latin and Greek, with the Vikings, Normans, Africans), including borrowing

We will study not only English in the UK, but also America (USA, Canada and the Caribbean), Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa.

First semester

Week 1 The origins of human language

Today we will study the origins of human language. How and where did human language begin?

  • Link: English Timeline
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 5-15, 24-29

 

Week 2 How and why languages change

In today’s class, we will study why all languages vary and why there are thousands of languages in the world rather than just one.

  • How sound changes
  • How grammar changes
  • How meaning changes
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 3 Indo-European: the grandparent language of English

In this class, we will learn about Proto-Indo-European, the grandparent language of English. We will also learn how Russian, Greek, French, Hindi, Urdu and Persian are related to English.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 4 Germanic: the parent language of English

In today’s class we will look at Proto-Germanic, the parent language of English, and the Germanic languages. We will see how similar the Germanic languages are, even today.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 6-7

 

Week 5 How sounds change: Grimm’s Law

Today you will learn about how sounds change in language. We will look at a very important sound change called Grimm’s Law.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 6 Introduction to Old English (450-1066)

Today we will study and listen to some Old English

  • You will learn how Old English is different to Modern English
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 18-19, 20-21, 22-27

 

Week 7 Mid-term assignment

You will have a mid-term assignment.

 

Week 8 Old English and Celtic

We will learn about Old English and Celtic. We will look at the differences in social status between the two peoples and the consequences for the two languages.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 9 The invasions of the Vikings and influence on English

Who were the Vikings? What language did they speak? What is the Danelaw?

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 10 The Norman Conquest and influence of French on English

English has borrowed thousands of French words. Why is this?

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 46-47

 

Week 11 Old English literature: Beowulf

Today you will study the most important work of Old English literature: Beowulf

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 10-17

 

Week 12 Introduction to Middle English (1066-1500)

Today we will study and listen to some Middle English

  • We will look at the main characteristics of Middle English
  • You will learn how Middle English is different to Old English
  • We will study the changes in the language from Old to Middle English
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 30-55

 

Week 13 Middle English literature: Chaucer

In today’s class we will study Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 14 A love letter and recipe in Middle English

Today we will study a Valentine’s letter in Middle English. It was written by a woman called Margery to her fiancé, John.

  • You will also translate a recipe for ‘custard’ from Middle English to Modern English, looking at the differences in language – and food!
  • After that, we will learn about the great social changes in the Middle English period and their effect on the language.
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 15 Changes from Old English to Middle English

Today we will look at how English grammar changed from Old English to Middle English, and try to explain why.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

Second semester

Week 1 Early Modern English (1500-1700)

Today will be an introduction to Early Modern English.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 56-75

 

Week 2 The Bible and printing in English

For hundreds of years, people in England could not read the Bible in English. We will look at the bloody history of the translation of the English Bible.

We will also learn about the invention of printing and its influence on English. Today you can print easily from your computer. However, until printing was invented, all documents were written by hand. Now a text could be reproduced thousands of times.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 3 Standardisation of English

We will learn about the standardisation of the language.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 4 How sounds change: the Great Vowel Shift

Why does English write make with an a but pronounce it with an e-i-sound? Why does English write sweet with ee but pronounce it with an i-sound. Why do we write ride with an i-sound but pronounce it a-i? And why do some people in Scotland say hus and mus for house and mouse?

  • In today’s class we will study the Great Vowel Shift. We will learn about these changes in pronunciation from the 1400s to 1700s in the long vowels of English.
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) page 55

 

Week 5 Shakespeare’s original pronunciation

What did Shakespeare sound like? How is Early Modern English different to English today?

  • Today we will study Shakespeare in original pronunciation. We will listen to Sonnet 18 and part of Romeo and Juliet in Early Modern English. We will compare it with Old, Middle and present-day English, looking at differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
  • We will also listen to a song in Early Modern English
  • Finally, we will read the diary of Samuel Pepys in Early Modern English, when he describes the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666
  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 6 English in Britain

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language) pages 318-327

 

Week 7 Mid-term assignment

 

Week 8 Social differences in British English: ‘posh’ and ‘common’

We will look at the English of the Queen and the English of David Beckham. How are they different? We will also listen to Mick Jagger, Tony Blair and Prince Harry. Why do they change the way they talk when they are on TV?

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 9 Drawing a dialect map of England

Today you will draw a dialect map of English. We will then analyse the map and see what it can tell us about how and why language changes spread.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 10 Changes from Middle English to Modern English

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 11 The spread of English around the world

English has gone from being spoken on an island in the North Sea to the USA, Canada and the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and more.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 12 Borrowing words: vocabulary from other languages

Where does the word ‘chocolate’ come from? What about ‘tomato’, ‘coffee’ and ‘curry’? We will learn the origins of foreign words in English.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 13 English in America and Canada

Today you will learn about English in North America. How and why is it different to English in England?

We will also study New York English and the social variation in the language.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 14 African-American English

How and why is African-American English different? Where does it come from? We will study the English of African Americans and Caribbeans like Usain Bolt.

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)

 

Week 15 English in Australia and New Zealand

Today we will study Australian and New Zealand English. Why are they different to American English? How similar are they to British English?

  • Reading (Crystal Encyclopedia of the English Language)