The History of English

Linguistics/English 395
Spring 2009
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
Rice University

Course Information

Class meetings: TTh 1:00-2:15, Herring Hall 125
Instructor contact: Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel., (348)-6225, email, kemmer ((AT))
Instructor office hours: TTh 10:50-11:50 and by appointment
T.A. contact: Ja-Yeon Jeong. Email: nature ((AT))
T.A. office and hours: Herring Hall 127, Time TBA
Course schedule
Owlspace login page

Aims, focus and topics

The aim of this course is to introduce the History of English from a linguistic point of view. English will be considered in terms of the properties that define it as a language distinct from other languages. Thus one focus will be on its linguistic properties: its phonology, morphosyntactic structures, and its lexicon and semantic systems. But another focus will be on the distinctive properties of the users of English: the history of the speech community from the time of pre-English to the range of sub-communities of English speakers found in the world today. The interplay between the external history of the speech community and the effects of such external events on the language of that community will be a constant theme of the course.

The course will largely be organized around the topics introduced in the textbook. After the first two introductory chapters, the text largely follows the chronology of English from pre-English to Modern English.

Necessary background

Because the changes in the structure of English form a large part of the course content, some knowledge of linguistic structure will be assumed. Linguistics 200 will supply sufficient background, as will Ling/Engl 215. Chapter 2 of our text for this course will review the basics of linguistic structure. Without a course such as Ling 200 or Ling 215, Chapter 2 will probably be difficult and technical, and the rest of the course material, which depends on that background, will give the same impression.


van Gelderen, Elly. 2006. A History of the English Language. Amsterdam: Benjamins. Available in the Rice Campus Store. There is a companion website I will also draw from, see below under Websites.

Course schedule

The course schedule is somewhat tentative, as we the material will to some extent be adapted to fit class questions and interests and thus we might not get through the topics on my original plan. Check back periodically on this Tentative Course Schedule to find the most current version.


Readings in textbook and any assigned websites
Assignments (3) uploaded to Owlspace 35%
2 Midterms (first part of course; second part) 35% + 25%, total 60%
Attendance/Participation 5%
Extra Credit, max 5%
Total 105%

Reference materials

Online Dictionaries
Oxford English Dictionary Online | Merriam-Webster Online

Websites and other Resources

History of English. A companion website to our textbook, created by its author. I will use this for supplementary materials as relevant.

Words in English website. This site is a companion website to my course on English words, Ling/Engl 215 which focuses on all aspects of English words. The current course is not focused on words but on structural properties of English and their changes. But the history of the language is the same regardless of which part of language has the focus, so the website is quite relevant to our material.

Resources for the Study of English Language. Another course page associated with Ling/Engl 215. See especially the sections on History of English, Beowulf, Early History of England, and Language Change, which are highly relevant to our course.

In addition I will be posting web links to texts, audiofiles, and other resources to the course Owlspace site. Students are encouraged to explored the range of materials on earlier stages of English available on the web; to read literature about earlier periods of in English history; to explore music and art of these eras; and in general to take advantage of this semester as a time to immerse yourself in the Old and Middle English periods and their rich linguistic and cultural histories, since Rice has no courses devoted to these topics.

Extra credit

Students can earn 5% extra credit by memorizing a text in Old English or Middle English. The Old English text is the first 19 lines of Beowulf. The Middle English text is the first 34 lines of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Audiofiles will be placed on the Owlspace site. To earn the credit students will recite to the class by memory the text they choose on the last day of classes.


Any student with a disability requiring accommodations in this class is encouraged to contact me after class or in my office. Contact also the Disabled Student Services office in the Ley Student Center to find out how they can be of further assistance.

© 2001-2009 Suzanne Kemmer
Last modified 15 April 2009