Words in English:
Structure, History, Use

Linguistics/English 215
Fall 2005
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

Course Information Page

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. --James D. Nicoll

Note: the most recent edition of this site is at Course Information Fall 2010

Meetings Tues/Thurs 1:00-2:15
Room Herring Hall 100
Instructor contact Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel. 348-6225; email, kemmer AT rice DOT edu
Instructor office hours Tuesdays 10:45-11:50 a.m.; Wednesdays, 1:30-2:30p.m.
TA contact Malcolm Eckel, meckel AT rice DOT edu
TA office hours Monday evenings 7:30-8:30 p.m., Wiess College 123

Course description

This course applies linguistic principles to the study of the English vocabulary. We will examine the rich stock of morphemes, or meaningful elements, in English words, and observe how these combine to derive much of the vocabulary of English. Other topics include the development of the English vocabulary, derivational processes, articulatory (i.e. pronunciation) processes, etymology (word histories), sound change and meaning change, the linguistic relations of English, sources of new words, usage and variation, and slang. No previous experience with Linguistics is required.

As far as possible, students will be encouraged to make their own investigations and discuss their findings and questions about words in class. Students will work to increase their mastery of English vocabulary from the technical, literary, scientific and other domains by acquiring recurrent morphemes and words incorporating them; and by generally increasing their awareness of the structure, history, and use of English words.

Course objectives

By the end of the course, the student should
  • have an awareness of the internal structure of words and of the systematic relationships among words in English

  • have a basic understanding of the history of the English language, with particular reference to the major periods of vocabulary expansion that it has undergone and how those periods are reflected in the modern lexicon

  • understand some basic principles of language change that have affected the English language, including principles of sound change and meaning change

  • know the basic stock of Classical roots and affixes that recurrently appear in English words; be able to interpret newly encountered words incorporating elements of that stock

  • be familiar with a wide range of words and their origins, meanings, and domains of use; be able to apply the knowledge gained so as to be able to say something about the origin and/or meaning of unfamiliar words

  • understand how the study of words can be used as an access point into knowledge and history of an entire culture, and be able to further pursue such knowledge via the study of words

  • have a good working knowledge of the incredibly rich lexical resources available in the English language, providing a basis for increased mastery of the spoken and written language

  • Course requirements

    Midterm #1 20%
    Midterm #2 20%
    Final Exam 30%
    10 Vocab Quizzes5%
    Word Journal 20%
    Participation 5%

    In addition to assigned readings specified on the syllabus, students are responsible for reading class materials on the web (below) as they become activated. Exams will cover readings, class discussions, and these class web materials. Quizzes (total 10) will cover the Morpheme Sets contained in an Appendix of the Denning and Leben textbook.

    Students are responsible for getting a WebCT account to take the exams and quizzes online. Course records will be maintained on the WebCT site and will be made accessible to each student as far as is possible.


    Grading is done by points. The course has 100 points total. The mean is set at about a B- (or B, or even above, if performance is overall good compared to previous years).

    The quantity and nature of the material is set with the expectation that if a Rice student (i.e. a student preselected for academic ability) does everything required in the course, spends a few hours a week studying the material, and takes the Word Journal assignment seriously, it should be possible to get a B- or above grade in the course.

    To pass the class, a student needs 50% or more of the total points. This is expected to be well below average performance, but it is acceptable for passing given the amount and nature of the material.

    The top 10% of the course scores are guaranteed A's. The total A range (A+ if any; A; and A-) is expected to embrace about the top 20% of the student score range, with the exact cutoff depending on performance groups. In some years it has reached 25% when the scores of a fair number of students clumped together to make a meaningful divide between them impossible.

    Course schedule

    See the Course Schedule for the 'do-by' dates for readings and assignments, and dates for quizzes and exams.

    Class announcements

    Class announcements specific to this year's class will be posted on the WebCT course homepage for Ling 215, under the course module icons. (Scroll down if you don't see them on the same screen as the icons.) Check these announcements periodically so you don't miss any crucial changes or instructions, particularly if you miss any class.

    Text and reference materials

    Keith Denning and William Leben, English Vocabulary Elements, New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 1995. (First and only edition.) Copies of the textbook are available in the Rice Campus Store under Ling 215. There are also used ones around campus from students who took the class before.

    Desk reference dictionary
    The American Heritage Dictionary or other good college-level desk dictionary (not pocket dictionary). I recommend you have such a dictionary in your room, for this course and all other reference purposes.

    Comprehensive on-line dictionary
    Rice has access to an online version of the famous Oxford English Dictionary. You have to be using an on-campus computer to access it, or else have a VPN connection to Rice from off-campus.
    OED Online. Accessible to the Rice community. This dictionary is the gold standard of dictionaries. It has recently been updated to include new words and citations up through the 1990s.

    Basic on-line dictionary
    WWWebster's Online Dictionary. Guide to using this dictionary is at Using the Dictionary. Includes things like how to do wild-card searches, using search results, etc.

    Note: On-line dictionaries, with the exception of the Oxford English Dictionary, do not give sufficient information on etymologies to be used as the source for etymologies presented in class. Use the American Heritage or other large desk dictionary for this purpose.

    Additional resources for this course
    See Online and Other References.

    Word Journal project

    The one significant piece of writing in this class is the Word Journal project. The purpose is to get you attuned to the words in the language used around you. One part of the assignment is to help you expand your vocabulary in the specialized subject matters that you are dealing with in your academic subjects. The other part of the assignment is to notice and collect neologisms and figure out how and why they were created; and to describe the various linguistic processes they demonstrate. The vocabulary you are learning in classes is not that different in kind from the neologisms: all technical vocabulary and jargon, for example, were once neologisms, either borrowed from other languages or created out of existing morphemes.

    The Word Journal is covered under the Honor Code as well: you have to to 'catch' the words in use yourself -- that means you must hear or read them in a real context, and not take them from anyone else's written or online discussion of them as words; and your definitions for the words must be in your own words. See the three links below under Honor Code issues for further explication.

    The Word Journal will end up kind of long, if you do it right. That is why it is advisable to use the whole semester to collect and write about the words. There is nothing worse than trying to find a whole bunch of words and think of things to write about them in a short period of time. The project will go smoothly if you do a little at a time and keep up with the class so you can use concepts from the course in your observations about the words.

    To help ensure that you are at least collecting words during the semester, and hopefully thinking abut them too, we will have a an assignment due before midterm in which you will submit 5 words, with definitions, that you have collected (no full write-ups necessary); and another due later, in which you will submit another five words, this time with draft writeups.

    Morpheme sets and flashcards

    The 9 Morpheme Sets on which the Vocab Quizzes are based are in the textbook as well as on the WebCT pages. You can test yourself on the morpheme sets online by using the Morpheme Flashcards. These were scripted by Jenn Drummond, a former student who took this class some years ago. To use them, you just choose a Morpheme Set, and various morphemes from it will come up on the screen in a randomized fashion. As a morpheme appears, think to yourself what the meaning is. Click on the answer to check yourself, or if you don't know the answer. When you're ready to move on to another, click on Next.

    DVD series on the history of English

    We viewed two parts, Disks 1 and 3, of the video series "The Adventure of English: 500-2000 A.D." on DVD in class. (Disk 2 seemed scratched in class but they tell me there is nothing wrong with it and it can be viewed.) The host is the British television personality Melvyn Bragg. I have placed all 8 parts on reserve in the Fondren Library Reserve room under Ling 215. You can take them out overnight until next week; in the week before the first midterm, they will be on 2-hour reserve to give more people a chance to view them. Only parts 1 & 3 are required viewing, but the rest are enjoyable to watch.

    Exam reviews

    These lists of relevant terminology will be linked in the week before each exam is activated.

    Midterm #1 Review
    Midterm #2 Review
    Final Exam Review Part I
    Final Exam Review Part II

    Honor Code issues

    All quizzes and exams in the course are closed book, closed notes, closed mouths, closed ears (to others talking) and no internet surfing during quizzes or exams. Participation points for the course are based on sign-in in class periods; students' questions posed or answered in class; and submission vs. non-submission of the first 5 words assignment. Sign-in and class participation are under the Honor Code. You alone can sign in for yourself and ask or answer a question under your name.

    Students are welcome, in fact encouraged, to talk about their Word Journals with classmates, as long as they don't use for their Journals words collected from other Ling 215 students (current or former). Some people will come up with some of the same words independently, but that's OK if you caught the word 'in the wild' yourself. Your own journal entry for the word (all of the writing you submit for these assignments) should be original to you of course.

    To avoid unclarity about academic standards relating to use of the World Wide Web, these standards are posted on the following links:

  • New words guidelines
  • Using Web Sources: Basic Academic Standards
  • Creating Web Materials: Basic Academic Standards; Copyright Issues
  • Students should consult these before using the web to produce coursework (in this or any course!!)


    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.

    Course content links

    The other web materials for this course have been organized into a new website, Words in English. The relevant pages from this site will be linked below as we come to them. You can also surf around on the new site, which is available to the world as a stand-alone website with an organizational logic independent of this course. See the site map.

    Questions about words in English

    English as a World Language Some Dialects of English Chronology of the English Language The Lord's Prayer in English Through Time
    Beowulf Excerpt: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Viking Invasions in Europe The Bayeux Tapestry Harold, King of the English
    The Canterbury Tales Caxton, First Printed Book in English The King James Bible William Shakespeare Some Loanwords in English
    Morphemes Roots and Affixes Some Affixes of English, Native and Borrowed Parsing

    Sound Terminology
    Word Stories Semantic Change Classical morphology The Latin Language The Story of the Shibboleth
    Sir William Jones Quote Genetic Relationships of Languages Proto-Indo-European PIE cognates Indo-European Family Tree

    Maps: Visual Aids for the History of England and English

    List of maps of Britain from various centuries (The most relevant ones are selected and
    linked in the proper order below, with others from elsewhere.)

    Map: Germanic tribes arrive in England from the Continent, starting 410 a.d.

    Map: Tribal control ca. 550 a.d.

    England prior to Viking attacks and before rise of Wessex (700s)

    Viking Invasions in Europe (800s and later)

    England after rise of Wessex and after partition between Anglo-Saxons and Danes (800s)

    The Danes take the whole thing: England under Canute, Scandinavian king (1014-1035)

    Dominions of William I, Post-Conquest

    Dictionaries of Earlier English

    A Dictionary of Old English

    Electronic Middle English Dictionary

    Texts and Images from English History

    The Lord's Prayer in English Through Time

    Excerpt: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

    About the Bayeux Tapestry

    View the Whole Bayeux Tapestry

    Harold, King of the English

    Canterbury Tales, First Page of Prologue

    The Canterbury Tales, Digital Facsimile

    Caxton, First Printed Book in English

    The King James Bible: Source of common phrases in Modern English

    William Shakespeare: His Dramatic and Linguistic Legacy


    Recent translations of Beowulf and a high budget movie that was >released in November 2007 can make this epic come to life for those interested in ancient Germanic stories (ultimately, the same source from which J.R.R. Tolkien created The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy). The movie homepage and other links are on our Resources Page under the heading for Beowulf. The links are optional, but recommended, and in the case of the movie, very cool.

    Collections of neologisms from Ling 215

    NEW The newest neologism entries were collected in December 2005 by students in this class. A searchable database for them was created by Daniel Rasheed in consultation with the instructor. The words for the Word Journals 2005 were entered by the students, each entering his or her own collection. In addition, a number of students input entries (and/or edited and corrected entries, in teamwork coordinated by Daniel Rasheed) from Word Journals from Fall 2004 and from the earlier online Journals cited below.

    This database can be accessed at: The Rice University Neologisms Database.

    It is still a work in progress and will be fixed up to include full searchability on all fields, similar to an online dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary Online. Eventually it will be moved to a production server.

    Earlier incarnations of class neologism collections:

    Neologisms, Fall 2003.

    New Word Journal Interactive, 1998-2002 Web interface. Designed by Jenn Drummond. Click on the link under Output near the bottom, "View a list of existing entries", to see the collection of words.

    New Words in English, 1996-97 A collection of new words (neologisms) begun in Fall 1996 from Word Journal entries by students in this class.

    Outside links

    For a fuller list, see the Online and Other References link. But the following are some of my favorites:

    Word.A.Day British-American Dictionary World Wide Words Word Spy
    Word Play Word Detective Online Etymology Dictionary Language Log

    © 2002-2005 Suzanne Kemmer
    Last modified 12 May 2011