The story of English tells of the dramatic changes to the English language over the past 1200 years – from an inconsequential west Germanic dialect to an international language spoken by nearly 400 million people. This journey carried the language from Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons – nearly unrecognizeable to 21st-century speakers of English – to the many varieties of English in the 21st century world. The journey is a literary one, documenting the changes in the language of texts from Beowulf, to the Canterbury Tales, to Hamlet, to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It is historical, presenting harrowing narratives of conquest and subjection, wars and treaties. But most of all, it is a story of people – kings and peasants, dictionary writers and illiterate apprentices, pilgrims and immigrants, CEOs and surfers – the individuals whose communicative needs shaped the changing English tongue.
We will study the stages in the development of English (Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and present-day English) to consider changes in the sound and construction of the language. We will encounter questions like the following: Why is knee spelled with a k and gnaw with a g? Why do other languages have masculine and feminine categories of nouns, but not English? If shoes is the plural form of shoe and dogs the plural form of dog, why isn’t childs the plural form of child? Why do the Wiggles speak differently from Rihanna? The goal of this course is to create proficiency in the phonological, syntactic, morphological, sociolinguistic and pragmatic evolution of English. To this end, course work will consist of daily homework, two short papers, quizzes, a midterm and a final.