Department of English

University of Toronto


ENG385H1F  L0101   M11-1, W12-2
History of English Language
Professor Carol Percy

Brief Description of Course: Calendar description: “This course explores English from its prehistory to the present day, emphasizing Old, Middle, and Early Modern English and the theory and terminology needed to understand their lexical, grammatical, and phonological structure; language variation and change; codification and standardization; literary and non-literary usage.”

Five broad questions will guide us through this introductory course. How can historicized varieties of English illuminate our understanding of earlier cultures and their struggles? How are these earlier Englishes reflected in the present? How are the many contemporary Englishes related to each other? What kind of cultural work gets done when we categorize what counts as a standard, a dialect, or a language? And who has assumed the authority to define what is and isn’t English, for instance in dictionaries, grammars, and the classroom?This course is not only accessible to but dependent upon the unique experiences and expertise of multilingual students from all disciplines.

Although the course will have a broadly chronological structure, we will begin with the varieties of Englishes spoken in this term’s classroom, and general linguistic concepts will be introduced one at a time. By the end of the course, you’ll be in confident command of the jargon for describing variation, change and standardization in vocabulary, grammar, accents, and spelling. You’ll learn how to use online resources like dictionaries and corpora (structured collections of electronic texts) to answer questions you never knew you had about language contact, variation, change, and authority. And you’ll have some concepts to critique the definitions of a ‘standard’ language. Low-stakes in-class and online tasks will introduce and familiarize key concepts introduced in daily lecture-discussion. And in collaborative in-class discussions we’ll apply linguistic concepts to analyzing literary and cultural-historical texts and to whatever contemporary issues come up during the course of the course. 

The cornerstone of this course remains your individually-chosen research papers, on cultural-linguistic or literary subjects. Past topics have included “Trends in the naming of hormones: from ‘Where they come from’ to ‘What they do’”; “Representing Japanese words in English: developing standards”; and “Thou and you in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Why not just say ‘Get you to a nunnery’?” Generous past students have given me permission to post their papers online for you to read. And I am always happy to help you devise your topics and shape your papers.

Required Reading: The University of Toronto Bookstore will stock the course textbook, Smith and Kim’s This Language, a river: a history of English (broadview press, 2018). A mini-reader along with other readings will be available online.

First Three Authors/Texts: TBA

Method of Instruction: Lecture and discussion; online exercises.

Method of Evaluation: Repeatable online exercises (5%), short paper (20%), take-home practice test question (5%), in-class test (aids allowed) (20%), research paper (40%), oral and written participation, in class and online (10%).

Site Information:

Site Tools:

Click below for directions to the University of Toronto!

University of Toronto, St. George Campus
Map of St. George Campus
Map of Mississauga Campus
Map of Scarborough Campus