Words in English:
Structure, History, Use

Linguistics/English 215
Fall 2007
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

Course Information

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

Meetings MWF 11:00-11:50
Room George R. Brown Hall 212 West
Instructor contact Office, Herring Hall 209; Tel. 348-6225; email, kemmer AT rice.edu
Instructor office hours MW 1:15-2:30 and by appt.

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 25% (was 20%, now changed)
    Final Exam 30%
    10 Vocab Quizzes0% (was 5%, now optional, usable as exam preparation)
    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. Optional Quizzes (total 10) will cover the Word Elements lists, or as I call them, Morpheme Sets, contained at the end of many of the chapters of the textbook.

    Students are responsible for getting an Owlspace account to take the exams online. Course records will be maintained on the Owlspace 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-/B.

    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 at least a B- 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.

    Course schedule and announcements

    "Read-by" dates for the readings and due dates for the assignments will be posted on the Course Schedule. Dates for exams will soon be added. The Announcements on the Ling/Engl 215 site on Owlspace will be the first place I announce any changes, so check the Announcements often.

    Text and reference materials

    Keith Denning and William Leben, English Vocabulary Elements, New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2006. (Second edition.) Plenty of copies of the textbook are in the bookstore. It is pretty inexpensive. But if you decide to buy a used copy somewhere, be sure to get the SECOND EDITION and not the outdated 1995 first edition.

    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.

    OED Online: Comprehensive on-line dictionary
    Rice has access to an online version of the famous Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition. You have to be using an on-campus computer to access it, or else have a VPN connection to Rice from off-campus. The OED, both the unabridged print dictionary and its online version, is the gold standard of dictionaries. The online edition has recently been updated to include new words and citations up to about 2000.

    Basic on-line dictionary
    Merriam-Webster Online . Quick search capability allow you to get definitions instantly. However, the etymology information is not detailed enough for our purposes.

    Among online dictionaries, only the Oxford English Dictionary Online, gives sufficient information on etymologies to be used as the source for etymologies presented in class. If you don't want to digest all the detail of the etymological information in the OED, use a large print dictionary such as the American Heritage Dictionary or other large desk dictionary.

    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.

    DVD series on the history of English

    We viewed the first 2 parts of the Video series "The Adventure of English: 500-2000 A.D." The host of the series is the British television personality Melvyn Bragg. These 2 DVDs are now available for checkout at the Circulation Desk at Fondren. They are on 2-hour reserve until about Sept. 20. During this period you can check them out overnight after 10 p.m. ; they will be due 10 a.m. the next day. In the week before the first midterm, they will be on 2-hour loan exclusively (no overnight), to accommodate more people wanting to review for the exam.

    Only the two parts we viewed in class are required viewing, but the rest of the episodes are enjoyable to watch and may help reinforce the material on the history of English for the exams.

    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 exams in the course are pledged, closed book, closed notes, closed mouths, closed ears (to others talking) and no internet surfing during exams. The optional Quizzes are intended as closed book too, since they are of little value otherwise. Since they now carry no credit, however, they are not under the Honor Code.

    Participation points for the course are based students' questions posed or answered in class; my perception of your presence as the course goes on; and submission vs. non-submission of the first 5 words assignment.

    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 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 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

    Extra Materials for the History part of the Course:

    Maps: Visual Aids for the History of England and English

    Maps of Britain from various centuries

    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

    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

    William Shakespeare


    Recent translations of Beowulf and a new high budget movie coming out in November can make this epic come to life for those interested in ancient Germanic stories (ultimately, the same source from which 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

    The latest neologism entries were collected in December 2005 by students in the last version of this class. A searchable database for them was created by Daniel Rasheed in consultation with the instructor, and with participation from other students. The words collected 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. If there is anyone who knows mysql/php and would like to work on this project, I can hire a student to work on it for money.

    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 these four are some of my favorites:

    Word.A.Day World Wide Words
    Word Play Word Detective

    © 2002-2007 Suzanne Kemmer
    Last modified 11 Sept 07