Department of English

University of Toronto

ENG385H1S L0101

ENG385H1S L0101 TR 10-1
History of the English Language
M. Sergi

Brief Description of Course: Speakers and writers of English, across the millennia and miles through which that strange dialect of West Germanic has spread and changed, diverge so widely that we often cannot understand each other. Indeed, there are many different varieties of English (“Englishes”) spoken and written in Toronto, each connected in a different way to the language’s complex and fascinating history. Our lecture-based (but discussion-friendly) course will explore the linguistic, practical, socio-economic, and cultural history of the language itself. By the end of term, students will learn to recognize and study (and in some cases read and understand) a range of multiple Englishes, extending across time and the globe. They will begin to perceive, embedded in any given English word or phrase, centuries of history, politics, tradition, and struggle. They will learn and apply the laws, rules, theories, and terms by which scholars have come to understand the development of the English language. Students will be expected to treat their own Englishes — and each other’s — as subjects of study, allowing us to better understand by the end of the semester not only how English ended up looking and sounding the way it does, but also what English actually does look and sound like.

We will begin by surveying as many present-day global and virtual Englishes as we can manage (of which Standard Written English is only one). From there, we will work backward into the troubled and turbulent history of English: tracing the now-Global Englishes back to Early Modern English (1500-1800), then Middle English (1100-1500), then Old English (c. 449-1100). We will discuss changes in English’s core grammatical systems of phonology (sound structure), morphology (word structure) and syntax (sentence structure); in its lexicon (vocabulary and all other meaningful units in a language) and semantics (the shifting meaning of those units); and in writing and literary forms. Meanwhile, we will approach the “outer histories” of English — that is, the series of historical events that influenced the development of the language — as stories of fragmentation, conflict, and power.

ENG 385 will hone students’ mastery of present-day language standards by examining key moments in the historical development of those language standards: how they have been controlled, preserved, described, prescribed, proscribed, or rejected. Who has the authority over the rules of the language in which we write and speak? Who makes the judgment about what is standard, proper, established, important, or significant? Does good English always facilitate communication, or can it sometimes muffle it? Can bad English do the opposite? Consider: the way we articulate ideas verbally is linked to, even synonymous with, the way we think.

While we will often draw on literature for examples of the language in development, this is not a course about literature; rather, we will focus primarily on the language itself. There will be quizzes, exams, daily questions, and presentations of original student-driven research, but very little writing (only 1000 words) assigned in this course. This is an intensive course, condensing the usual 12 weeks of course content into 6 weeks. Be prepared to work and read intensively.

Required Reading: Smith and Kim, This Language, A River; various technical readings in sociolinguistics and related items.

Method of Instruction: Lectures and discussions.

Method of Evaluation: Case Study Presentation (15%), English guide critique (15%), week 2 quiz (10%),    final exam (20%), in-class comprehension questions (15%), engagement and participation in class discussions (15%), actual attendance in at least 9 of our 11 class sessions (10%, fewer than 9 = 0%).

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