Words in English:
Structure, History, Use

LING 216
Fall 2017
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 2:00-2:50pm
Classroom Humanities Bldg. 117
Instructor contact Office, Herring Hall 209
Instructor office hours MW 3:00-3:50 Herring 209 and by appointment in Duncan College, Brochstein Pav or other place

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 origins and 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.

Expected Learning Outcomes (Course objectives)

By the end of the course, the student should

Course schedule and dates; and Announcements on Canvas

A tentative course schedule for 2017 is available at LING 216 Course Schedule. Due to the week-long Hurricane Recess, the schedule is being revised and material removed.

The changes impelled me to reconsider the nature of the course material and the weighting of the assessments. As discussed in class, the weighting of the exams has been reduced and another writing assignment has been added. The aim is to allow the students to get credit for individual explorations of words via various methodologies, including recent digital tools for word and text exploration.

Course requirements

Study Test #1 10%
Study Test #2 10%
Midterm #1 20%
Midterm #2 15%
10 Vocab Quizzes5%
New Word Journal (20 entries)20%
Word Commentary (Etymologies, other observations on words) 15%
Total: 100 course points 100%
Extra credit: up to 5%
Total possible points
in class:
Minimum course points required to pass: 60

Course content links and other web resources

In addition to assigned readings specified on the Course Schedule, students are responsible for reading the web materials in the Course Content Links, as these links become activated on the web. Also useful are the links to Maps which are good visual aids to help with the History of English part of the course.

Many of the other web materials for this course have been organized into a public, stand-alone website, available to the world with an organizational logic independent of this course. This site is Words in English public website. There is a site map for quick navigation.

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 sample new words assignment.

Students are responsible for getting a Canvas account so they can read the Announcements and get any course materials posted there. When we post an Announcement, we will also make it go directly to your email account.

Word Journal project

The 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. Your 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 Word Journal is covered under the Honor Code as well: you have 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 take a fair amount of time, but it can be done in small increments. 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.

The due date for the Word Journal will be posted on the Course Schedule.

Quizzes and Exams

Exam and quiz policies
Any illness or other disaster that keeps a student from taking an exam or quiz during the time period set must be reported to me (kemmer AT rice.edu) before the exam is due (if you can't notify me, then ask your parent or college master to do so). There are no make-up exams or quizzes for non-emergency situations.

Exam and Quiz nature and dates
The course will have 4 exams: 2 midterms ("midterm" is a Rice word for a non-final exam) and 2 Study tests (shorter exams meant to consolidate knowledge and prepare you for the midterms). There is no final exam.

Note that Midterm #2, the last of the 4 exams, will be activated during the last week of classes. More on the timeframe for this particular exam will be given later. And more on exam format is given under "Exam and Quiz Format" below.

In addition, there are 10 vocabulary quizzes on the sets of Word elements found in most of the chapters of the textbook. These are to be taken on Canvas. Most of these are activated on Wednesdays, and ggggdue the Friday of that week.

The dates for the quizzes, except for the last one, will be posted in the Course Schedule. If a quiz needs to be moved, advance notice will be given in class and in Canvas Announcements.

Exam coverage
The vocabulary quizzes, as stated above, are based on the sets of Word Elements following most of the chapters of our textbook.

Midterms and Study Tests will cover readings, two DVD episodes, class discussions, the web materials in the Course Content Links, and any materials distributed in class. They will NOT test the vocabulary elements in the quizzes, at least directly. If we discuss a quiz word in class or it otherwise appears in the materials outside the word sets, it is part of the materials that you can be tested on.

Exam and Quiz format
Midterm and study tests will be mainly multiple choice, t/f, matching, and fill in the blank. Midterms may have some short answer questions. Study tests might have one or two short answer questions.

The vocabulary quizzes are all multiple choice; each quiz contains 15 questions on word elements selected from a specified set of word elements at the end of a chapter; and 15 questions asking for definitions for English words illustrating those word elements. Most of the words asked will be from the examples given after the word elements; but some will be words similar to those in form and meaning, and in a few cases there will be other words on the quiz that might be found on standardized vocabulary tests such as the SAT or GRE. (Some of the words in the example words are extremely obscure and hard to find in dictionaries. Those are not expected to be on the quizzes.

Exam reviews
Lists of relevant terminology and topics will be linked in the week before the midterms and can be used for reviewing.

The review pages should give you an idea of what you do or do not know, so look at them and bring any questions you have to class or to the review sessions.

Honor Code issues

Honor code for exams
All 4 exams in the course are pledged, closed book, closed notes, closed mouths and ears (don't talk to anybody about anything remotely resembling the subject of the course or the words involved), and closed internet (including phone apps) during exam. The same restrictions apply to the Quizzes. They are worth a lot less for your grade, but for any of us to get any value out of them, all students must play by the same rules.

The time given for quizzes and exams is intended to give more than enough time to finish if you have kept up with the material and studied it.

Honor code for Word Journal
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 216 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.

The words you submit should not be taken from any collection of new words, or any other collection of words, on line or in any print materials.

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

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 office hours. Contact also the Disabled Student Services office in the Ley Student Center to find out how they can be of further assistance.


Grading is done by points. The course has 100 points total, plus a maximum of 5 additional points for an extra credit project . The mean is set at about a B-.

To pass the class, a student needs 60% or more of the total 100 points.

A word to the wise: A fair amount of material in the course is not known to most speakers of English. And unfortunately, most speakers of English believe a good number of myths about the language. It is probably not possible to pass the course relying on "general knowledge", since so much of what passes for general knowledge about English and about language in general is simply false: there are many popular misconceptions about English and about language in our culture, often dating back centuries and spread through the school curriculum.

A large part of the course consists of information that is completely new to most speakers, or at least different from what they thought was the case. So reading the book, web pages, and attending class is necessary to do well.

Extra credit

Up to 5% extra credit can be earned by making a multimedia presentation, to be shown in class, about some aspect of words in English. Generally this presentation will be a video of approximately 3-5 minutes in length.

Your topic can be basically anything that relates to the material of the course. Your video can go into more depth than the course did in some area. For example, one possible topic might be a particular set of loanwords from a particular language we did not talk much about: Arabic, Dutch, Malay, Chinese....and how this set of words came into English via cultural contact between speakers of that language and English.

You can work in pairs (maximum group size is 2), but for two people, the length of the video should be 8-10 minutes.

See me or email me if you want to broach a possible topic for this kind of extra credit project.

Fondren Library has a digital media center in the basement where you can get facilities and equipment. Also the Center for Oral and Visual Communication has resources.

There is a student video contest that the Rice Center for Civic Engagement, in cooperation with the Digital Media Center, is putting on in spring. One of the categories is research, so any class project is eligible apparently. You can treat your extra credit video for this class as a planned entry to the spring contest. The website for the contest is: Video Contest.

Needless to say, you can also enter the video contest with a video completely unrelated to our class, although it doesn't count for extra credit!

Text and reference materials

Keith Denning, William Leben, and Brett Kessler, English Vocabulary Elements, New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2006, second edition.

Note that the required version is the the SECOND EDITION and not the outdated 1995 first edition.

There is a digital version of the textbook for about $25. There should also be arriving some hard copies in the bookstore by the time class begins. Amazon has new and used copies and there may be some around Rice.

English language dictionaries
Different purposes call for different dictionaries. Nowadays online dictionaries can be used for definitions. But for etymologies, a better resource is needed than standard online dictionaries. Many online dictionaries don't have any etymological information, and some have very little.

The following print dictionaries can be used for preparing and/or checking your etymologies for the Word Journal assignment; or you can use the OED Online, see below.

The unabridged dictionary referred to in our textbook is the Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary of the English language, unabridged (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam Webster, 2002) which is in Fondren, call number PE1625 .W36 2002 .

The print dictionary I prefer for etymologies is the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. My copy is the 2nd edition which has the Dictionary of Indo-European Roots in the back, as well as an excellent article on the Proto-Indo-European language. The publisher removed those materials in the 3rd edition, but restored them in the 4th edition by popular demand. Fondren has the 4th edition in its stacks, call number PE1628 .A623 2000 .

OED Online: Comprehensive on-line dictionary
Rice has access to an online version of the famous Oxford English Dictionary Online Second Edition. This link works from the Rice Owls and the Rice Visitors networks. Off campus, it may require a VPN connection to a Rice server. (Check with a reference librarian reference librarian if you cannot get into the OED online.)

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 linked above 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 one of the larger print dictionaries referred to above.

Additional resources for this course
See Online and Other References.

DVD series on the history of English

We will view the first 2 parts of the video series "The Adventure of English: 500-2000 A.D." in class. The host of the series is the British television personality Melvyn Bragg. These 2 DVDs, after we view them, will be available on reserve at the Circulation Desk at Fondren. They are on 2-hour reserve until the first midterm. During this period you can check them out overnight after 10 p.m. ; they will be due 10 a.m. the next day. You can also view the first episode on YouTube (last I looked the You-Tube version was cut up into 5 parts on that site).

Beyond the videos shown in class, rest of the episodes in the series are enjoyable to watch and may help reinforce the material on the history of English for the exams. They are all available in the library on reserve for this course.

Dictionaries of Earlier English

A Dictionary of Old English

Electronic Middle English Dictionary

Texts and Images from English History

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


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.

English Spelling reform?

Spelling reformers have gained supporters at various times in English history. George Bernard Shaw was perhaps the most famous, as he left his fortune to an association promoting English spelling reform. This little article is a joke, but it does suggest some of the problems that would arise with spelling reform.

Proto-Indo-European links

Proto-Indo-European demonstration and exploration website

The Comparative Method and IE Languages

"Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans", by Calvert Watkins. This is the essay that was originally published in the 2nd edition of the American Heritage Dictionary in about 1976--the dictionary I had when I was in high school and which I bring to class when I remember. I read it and was blown away by all of this information, which was completely new to me, and as I found, completely unknown to anyone else around me. It put me on the path to becoming a historical linguist (although I did not become an Indo-Europeanist, but a diachronic typologist, another variety of historical linguist.)

Dictionary of Indo-European roots This dictionary of reconstructed roots of the Proto-Indo-European parent language can be used a) to explore the deeper origins of words whose etymologies are given in the American Heritage Dictionary; these etymologies cite the roots which you can then look up here; and b) to browse through, and thereby explore word families, that is, sets of words that are etymologically related (i.e. descended from the same parent root) although you might never know it from their current forms.

Collections of neologisms from Ling 216

A searchable database for neologisms collected by students in this class 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 prototype database can be accessed at: Neologisms Database.

The new site Rice University Neologisms has been upgraded to include full searchability on all fields, similar to an online dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary Online. You will enter your neologisms on the site. Collect them in the meantime in a Word file and you can cut and paste later.

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

© Suzanne Kemmer
Last modified 20 August 2017