The English Language:
Past and Present

Rice University Continuing Studies
Fall 2001
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

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:Tuesdays 6:45-8:45, Sewall Hall 303
Instructor contact: Office, Sewall Hall 360A; Tel. 348-6225; email,

This course applies linguistic principles to the study of English words. We will start by looking at the situation of the English language today: its major lexical characteristics and its relation to society, locally and globally. We will then look at how English got into its current form and social position. How did English go from a local language of a few thousand islanders to a global language of millions? What changes have occurred along the way, in the general form of the language and in its vocabulary?

We will then 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. We will consider derivational processes, articulatory (i.e. pronunciation) processes, etymology (word histories), sound change and meaning change. We will delve into the closest linguistic relations of English, discovering some unexpected antecedents. Back to the present, we will examine the sources of new words, word usage and variation, folk etymology and language myths, and slang and other group codes. No previous experience with Linguistics is required.

As far as possible, participants will be encouraged to make their own investigations and discuss their findings and questions about words in class. Some of the content of the course will be driven by class interests. The global aim is for participants to generally increase their knowledge and awareness of the structure, history, and use of English words.

Text: Keith Denning and William Leben, English Vocabulary Elements, Oxford University Press 1995. Recommended, not required. You can examine my copy to see if it is useful for you.

Reference: The American Heritage Dictionary or other good college-level desk dictionary (not pocket dictionary).

On-line Reference:Oxford English Dictionary, Online Edition. Accessible to the Rice community.

On-line Reference: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 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. See also Online and Other References


Course Information (this page) Syllabus Questions about Words in English Online and Other Resources

Word Journal Project Some Loanwords in English Chronology of the English Language The Entire Bayeux Tapestry

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Morphemes Roots and Affixes Parsing

Sound terminology Story of the Shibboleth Word Stories

Classical morphology The Latin Language Sir William Jones Quote Indo-European Family Tree
Genetic Relationships of Languages English Spelling reform

Some outside links (for a fuller list, see the Online and Other References Link above):

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

Neologisms from The Independent Turns of Phrase Old English Links Parody: Hrodulf Hrandeor

The Anagram Genius Server

Some internal links:

Flashcards As an additional resource, you can test yourself on the morphemes in the sets in the book (Appendix II) by using our Morpheme Flashcards.

New Words in English A collection of new words (neologisms) begun in Fall 1996 from Word Journal entries by Rice students. Now a popular Yahoo site.

New Word Journal Web interface. Designed by Jenn Drummond. Rice students input their Word Journal entries via a form. For those who want to read them, the entries can be browsed or clicked on individually.

Harold, King of the English A short essay on a novel interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry.

© 2001 Suzanne Kemmer