The History of the
English Language

English 513, Spring 2014

Jack Lynch

Course Description

Go directly to:


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.!).

E-mail: (the best way to reach me).


Not an in-depth investigation of English philology, but a series of short readings from Old English through World English, with attention to the changing forms of the language. Each class will include a few textbook chapters on the history of the language, along with brief selections from literary works, many from the MA Exam reading list. We'll do very close readings of the texts against the linguistic background. Topics will include the difference between manuscript and print culture, theories of language, the search for “standard English,” lexicography, African American Vernacular English, profanity, hate speech, the place of English in colonial societies, and the rise of global English.

Course Requirements

Schedule of Class Meetings

22 January
Introduction: Class business, &c., along with an introduction to some of the essential terms in linguistics, the basics of English morphology and syntax, and the place of English in the family tree of the Indo-European languages.

29 January
Introduction to Old English: It's impossible to get more than a nodding acquaintance with Old English in a class like this; it takes at least a semester to get even basic competence. Still, it's useful to know the fundamentals, and to see how the modern form of the language emerged from the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European family tree.

5 February
Introduction to Middle English: As we move into Middle English, after about AD 1100, we'll see important developments in morphology and a huge influx of words from Latin and French. Today's class involves close reading of the most important Middle English author and the best representative of London English. Exercise: Before reading the complete text on the Web, attempt to transcribe the opening lines of The Miller's Tale from the MSS on Blackboard. Then look at The Multitext Edition and collate the variants in the first ten lines of The Miller's Tale in all the MSS.

12 February
Middle English Dialects: Not all the action was in London. This class will look at other varieties of Middle English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — and with Margery Kempe, we're getting very close to Modern English.

19 February
Early Modern English: The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries mark the transition from Middle into Modern English. We'll read a few texts that are looking both backwards and forwards in time.

26 February
No Class: I'll be away at a conference.

5 March
Manuscript Culture and Print Culture: The development of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century coincided roughly with the beginnings of Modern English. Today we'll look at the influence the new technology has had on the language, and try to understand early modern expectations about textual stability.

12 March
The Quest for Standard English: The notion that the English language needs “protection” from “corruption” was widespread in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as people began to call for governmental regulation on the language itself. We'll also focus on the nature and purpose of dictionaries, with the benefit of a visit to class by Peter Sokolowski, lexicographer and editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. First Paper Due.

19 March
No Class: Spring Break.

26 March
Theories of Language: Philosophizing about language isn't a new pastime. Seventeenth-century Britons were fascinated by the problems posed by language. Some thought it was possible to develop a perfect language; others thought that language inevitably distorted meaning.

2 April
Bad Words: We'll consider obscenity, profanity, hate speech, and political correctness, with a visit from Jesse Sheidlower, lexicographer and author of The F-Word.

9 April
Demotic Language: The nineteenth and twentieth centuries see new attitudes toward linguistic formality in literature: where literary writing, especially poetry, was once associated with a “high” tone, poets began experimenting with what Wordsworth called “a selection of language really used by men.”

16 April
African-American Vernacular English: Probably the most interesting American variety of English — interesting for linguistic, sociological, and literary reasons — is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes called Black English or Ebonics. We'll look at several literary representations of AAVE (remembering that these may be biased in any number of ways), and discuss some of the modern controversies on its place in the modern curriculum.

23 April
Pushing the Limits: Modernist writers in the early twentieth century explored new conceptions of meaning and the relationship between words and things. The investigation was continued in the 1970s and '80s by poets in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, who also took inspiration from postmodern theories of language.

30 April
Global Englishes: In Shakespeare's day, English was spoken by a few hundreds of thousands of people, almost all on a cluster of islands off the northwest coast of Europe. Today it is the first language of hundreds of millions, and used by more than a billion people all over the world — in fact, native speakers now constitute a minority of English speakers. The center of gravity of the English language moved from Britain to the United States around 1850, and is now shifting again, with many varieties of English assuming new importance. Final Paper Due.