Whose English?

English 233, Spring 2014

Prof. Jack Lynch


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Office: (973) 353-5204; 531 Hill Hall.

Hours: Monday, 1:00–2:30, Wednesday, 2:30–4:00, and by appointment (appointments are best).

Home: (609) 882-4642 (before 10:00 p.m.!). It's a landline: no texting.

E-mail: Jack.Lynch@rutgers.edu (the best way to reach me).


Course Description and Goals

“Whose English?” surveys the language in its many varieties from Old English to World English. The focus is on the struggles for authority among diverse populations that have shaped the language for 1,500 years.

The first part of the class offers a whirlwind tour of the history of the language, starting in the fifth century, when English was spoken by a few thousand Germanic migrants on a single island, to the twenty-first, when more than a billion people use it for global commerce and science. The second part focuses on the idea of “good” or “proper” English — what it means, where it comes from, who gets to say what's good, and what's at stake in those arguments. Topics will include sociolinguistics; attempts to arrest language “decay”; the status of dialects based on region, class, and ethnicity; lexicography; spelling reform; slang; obscenity; African-American Vernacular English; “Spanglish”; and English's status as a global language.

Each class will include critical readings about some aspect of the language, along with short exemplary literary readings — poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. We will read those literary passages extremely closely, paying attention to the linguistic features and contexts that help determine their meaning.

This is not a class in how to read Old or Middle English — that would require an entire semester, whereas we get only a rapid overview of these earlier phases of the language. It should, however, provide enough background to allow for intensive study of various phases of the language. Nor is it a class in how to use the language properly — at least, no more than any English class is about using the language properly. The point is to understand what the very idea of “good English” means.

By semester's end, students should:

This course meets the college's core curriculum requirement for literature.

Requirements

Online Quizzes
You'll have to take regular short quizzes on Blackboard to show you're keeping up with the reading. All quiz due dates are marked with an arrow (→). You'll have fifteen minutes to answer five multiple-choice questions about the most recent readings. All questions will be straightforward factual questions about the readings themselves — nothing about the authors, the historical contexts, and so on. If you've read the book, the quizzes should be easy. Each quiz should be available at least one full week before the due date, and will be open until the starting time of the class period on which they're due. You can do them at any time in that week, but each quiz must be completed in one uninterrupted session of no more than fifteen minutes; you can't start and stop. You may not consult the readings or cooperate with other students during a quiz. There are no make-up quizzes, so be sure to budget your time.
Written Assignments
There will be one argumentative paper of around 2,000 words (eight pages). There are also several short written exercises, all of which will be explained in class as they get closer. All due dates are marked with an arrow (→). Everything should be typed and submitted in hard copy. My (still-incomplete) guide to my expectations on English papers is available online.

Note that a significant part of your grade will depend on your writing skills. You don't need to know much about English grammar to take the class, and I'll make allowances for English-language learners (I'm especially eager for the class to have people who speak other languages). But you will need to write an argumentative paper. Even though this class is open to everyone, you might reconsider taking a literature class if you haven't yet taken, or at least started taking, English Composition 101.
Final Exam
There will be a short final exam, featuring identification, close reading, and short essays. I'll discuss this in class as the end of the semester approaches.
Attendance
University students are grownups; I understand that life sometimes gets busy. Almost any excuse, therefore, given in advance (in person, by phone, or by E-mail), will receive my blessing. Absences not excused in advance will be frowned upon, and your final grade will be lowered by half a grade (A to B+, B+ to B, and so on) for each unexcused absence. Students will initial an attendance sheet every class. (Multiple copies of the sheet will be going around; you need to mark only one of them.) The same policy applies to late assignments: I'll grant extensions, but only if you talk to me before the due date.

If you have to miss a class, you're responsible for getting the notes. Assume that in each class I'll cover exactly what's on the syllabus; any time I have to depart from it, I'll announce it on Blackboard.
Class Participation
Even though the class is large, regular and active class participation is essential. I've worked to keep the readings manageable and affordable, but you have to hold up your end of the bargain by doing the readings every day and participating in the discussions. I also expect the following in all classes:
Plagiarism and Academic Integrity
It should go without saying, but all work in this class must be your own. Students are responsible for knowing and abiding by the Rutgers Academic Integrity Policy. I used to be much more laid back about this, but no longer: I will report every violation. If you have even an inkling of a doubt about what's legitimate or how to cite something, see me before handing in the paper.
Accommodations
I'm committed to being inclusive, and of course I'll provide all necessary accommodations for students with properly documented disabilities. Get in touch with Disability Services for details on the procedures; if anything is unclear, talk to me.
Readings
The following books are available from New Jersey Books and the Rutgers Bookstore:

The remainder of the readings are available online, either linked to the syllabus or through Blackboard.

Grades
This breakdown shows the starting point for my grading: I don't believe in penalizing students for not being proficient in writing English papers before they've had an English class, so I'll evaluate your performance over the course of the whole semester before I submit a final grade. If an early lapse is compensated for by better performance later in the semester, I'm happy to ignore a bad grade on an assignment. My usual approach is to examine all the marks and to ask what is the highest grade I can give in good conscience. After I finish wrestling with my conscience, though, grades are final, and I'll change a grade only if I made an error in calculation. If you're concerned about your performance, talk to me before you hand something in, not after you get the grade. I'm always happy to look at provisional theses, rough drafts, and so on.

Schedule of Class Meetings

Wednesday, 22 January
Language Origins: Class business, along with an introduction to what we can know about the deep history of human language in general and the Indo-European language family in particular.

Monday, 27 January
The Beginnings of English: David Crystal, Stories of English, Introduction. I'll introduce the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the single most important tool we'll use all semester to ask historical questions about the language.
Wednesday, 29 January
Old English: Crystal, Stories of English, chapters 1–2 (and interludes — readings from Crystal always include the associated interludes); selection from Ælfric's Colloquy. We'll look at the very earliest writings that can be called “English,” from more than a thousand years ago, and learn to read a few simple sentences.

Monday, 3 February
Old English Dialects: Crystal, Stories of English, chapters 3–4; selection from Beowulf. A glance at the most famous work in Old English, along with glances at a few works written in very different forms of the same language.
Online Quiz Due: Crystal, chapters 1–4.
Wednesday, 5 February
Introduction to Middle English: Crystal, Stories of English, chapters 5–7; selection from Geoffrey Chaucer, The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. The most important work of the English Middle Ages, and a good example of the form of the language used in London shortly before 1400.

Monday, 10 February
Language Change: Crystal, Stories of English, chapters 8–9; selection from William Langland, Piers Plowman. A very different form of Middle English, more or less contemporary with Chaucer.
Exercise 1 Due: Read the three translations of the opening of Beowulf (on Blackboard) and compare them — word for word, sentence for sentence — with the original text. In about 500 words, discuss the choices that three translators have made in rendering the opening sentences. Pay attention to what each translator gains and loses by his or her choices, and consider what sort of audience he or she has in mind.
Wednesday, 12 February
The Beginnings of Modern English: Crystal, Stories of English, chapter 10; Jack Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, Introduction; selection from Sir Thomas Malory, The Book of Sir Launcelot. The fifteenth century sees the transition from Middle to Modern English, along with the beginnings of “standard English.”

Monday, 17 February
The Arrival of Printing: Crystal, Stories of English, chapter 11; selection from William Caxton, Eneydos. What may be the single most transformative technology of the last thousand years — the printing press — arrived just as Middle English was turning into Modern English. We'll pay attention to the influence of the technology on the language and the culture.
Online Quiz Due: Crystal, chapters 5–11.
Wednesday, 19 February
Introduction to Early Modern English: Crystal, Stories of English, chapter 12; Matthew 25, as translated by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the KJV translators. We'll examine the same text in three different translations, one from the Middle English period, one from the earliest Modern English, and one from the seventeenth century.
Exercise 2 Due: Look up any three words from Malory or Caxton in the OED and report on how the words' histories (not just definitions) help you to make sense of the text.

Monday, 24 February
Shakespeare on the Stage: David Crystal, selection from Pronouncing Shakespeare (Blackboard); audio clips from Crystal's reading of Shakespeare; David Crystal and Ben Crystal, YouTube clip on original pronunciation. We'll discuss the evidence we have for pronunciations before the invention of sound recording.
Wednesday, 26 February
No Class: I'll be away at a conference.

Monday, 3 March
Shakespeare on the Page: Crystal, Stories of English, chapter 13; William Shakespeare, Richard III, act 1, scene 1, in facsimile from the First Folio of 1623 (Blackboard). We'll read a representative early Modern English text by Shakespeare, not in a modern transcription, but in a copy of the format in which it originally appeared in print.
Wednesday, 5 March
Imposing Order, Fixing Change: Crystal, Stories of English, chapters 15–16; Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, chapters 3–4 (“Proper Words in Proper Places,” “Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind”); Jonathan Swift, A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue; Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language; Lynda Mugglestone, “Dictionaries” (from Samuel Johnson in Context). We'll look at attempts to stop the language from changing — none of which have had any luck so far, and some of the principles that guided early English dictionaries.

Monday, 10 March
Interpreting a Language by Itself: In-class exercise in lexicography. Students will work in groups to get a hands-on sense of the problems lexicographers face in the real world. Note: Attendance is especially important today, since there's no easy way to make up for missing the class.
Online Quiz Due: Crystal, chapters 12–13, 15–16.
Wednesday, 12 March
Dictionaries: A visit to class by Peter Sokolowski, lexicographer and editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. Come prepared with questions.

Monday, 17 March
No Class: Spring Break.
Wednesday, 19 March
No Class: Spring Break.

Monday, 24 March
Say It Ain't So: Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, chapter 10 (“Sabotage in Springfield”). The story of the most controversial English-language dictionary in history, Webster's Third New International (1961).
Exercise 3 Due: Look up three common English words — one noun, one verb, and one other word (adverb, preposition, conjunction, what-have-you) — in three English dictionaries, and describe the dictionaries' different approaches to defining them.
Wednesday, 26 March
Obscenity and Profanity: Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, chapter 11 (“Expletive Deleted”), pp. 229–45; Jesse Sheidlower, Introduction to The F-Word; Nicholson Baker, “Leading with the Grumper.” A consideration of what we mean when we talk about “bad words.”
Provisional Theses Due: Submit three brief ideas for the argument in your final paper. This will not be graded, but I will use it to point you toward the most promising topics and theses.

Monday, 31 March
“The Filthiest, Dirtiest, Nastiest Word in the English Language”: Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, chapter 11 (“Expletive Deleted”), pp. 245–52; Randall Kennedy, selection from Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word; Phil Middleton and David Pilgrim, “Nigger (the Word), a Brief History.” A whole class on what many consider the worst word in English, one that even the most foul-mouthed swearer might be hesitant to say aloud.
Wednesday, 2 April
“Bad Words”: A visit to class by Jesse Sheidlower, lexicographer and author of The F-Word. Come prepared with questions.

Monday, 7 April
Speling and Mispeling: Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, chapter 8 (“The Taste and Fancy of the Speller”); Benjamin Franklin, “The Case for Spelling Reform” Noah Webster, essays on spelling reform. We'll look at some early American attempts to make English orthography more rational and regular.
Wednesday, 9 April
English Goes International: Crystal, Stories of English, chapter 17; Lynch, Lexicographer's Dilemma, chapter 6 (“The People in These States”); selection from John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles; Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”; Noah Webster, Preface to An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). A look at what happened when English began its progress from the language of a small island off the northwest corner of Europe to a global tongue.
Exercise 4 Due: Look up any three “offensive” words — whether obscene, profane, or derogatory toward a race, ethnicity, nation, religion, class, gender, or sexual identity — in three different dictionaries. In about 500 words, report on how the dictionaries handle the sensitive material.

Monday, 14 April
Dialects and Demotics: Selections from Robert Burns, Mark Twain, and Sarah Orne Jewett; Irvine Welsh, “A Soft Touch” and “Granny's Old Junk.” Several British and American versions of “improper” language and its functions.
Wednesday, 16 April
African-American Vernacular English: Charles Chesnutt, “Po' Sandy”; Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”; selection from Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; selection from Toni Morrison, Beloved; Paul Laurence Dunbar, “A Negro Love Song” and “When Malindy Sings.” The single most important “nonstandard” variety of English in modern America.
Monday, 21 April
The “Ebonics” Controversy: James Baldwin, “If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”; Alondra Oubré, “Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) and Educability: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Language, Cognition, and Schooling”; Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights; Oakland School Board resolution on Ebonics; Linguistic Society of America resolution on Ebonics. Documents from the big public blowup in the late 1990s over teaching “Ebonics” in schools.
Wednesday, 23 April
“They Think We're Taking Over”: Junot Dias, selection from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). Latino- and Chicano-inflected English — “Spanglish” — has also been drawn into the culture wars.
Exercise 5 Due: Use the OED to look up any three words from any of the African American or Latino authors on the syllabus in the last few weeks, and and report on how the words' histories help you to make sense of the text.

Monday, 28 April
The Empire Strikes Back: Ken Saro-Wiwa, selection from Sazaboy: A Novel in Rotten English; Linton Kewsi-Johnson, “Inglan Is a Bitch”; Ngugi wa Thiong'o, selection from Decolonising the Mind. English-speakers colonized much of the planet, and they brought their language along with them.
Wednesday, 30 April
Global Englishes: Chinua Achebe, selection from “The African Writer and the English Language”; Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”; Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue.” (Blackboard). As English has expanded beyond “the English-speaking nations,” it changes the cultures as much as the cultures change it.

Monday, 5 May
Conclusion: More on global English in the Internet age, and where we can expect the language to go from here.
Final Paper Due.