Words in English
Linguistics/English 215
Prof. S. Kemmer


Here is a list of project topics for this semester. Choose two different topics. Aim for 4-5 pages (printed, double-spaced, 1 inch margins) per project. Don't go overboard! Make it fun. Note the due dates in the syllabus.

Imagine you are writing for the intelligent lay public; in other words, write so as to make informative and interesting reading matter for colleagues, family, and friends who read.

1. Exploring a lexical family tree. Find an interesting morpheme and investigate its history. Include as many reflexes (i.e. modern day word forms) as you can find that contain this morpheme, and explain the sound and meaning changes that connect the original form with the modern words.

2. Semantic change in an abstract lexical item. Choose a relatively grammatical word (e.g. a preposition, adverb, or connective such as over, back, together again, still etc. ) and investigate its history in the Oxford English dictionary. (Available to Rice students on the internet; see the course information sheet) and, with documentation, on CD-ROM in the Language Lab.) Describe the main developments in meaning that the word has undergone since its earliest appearance in English, or since some period when it had a different meaning from what it has now (e.g. since Early Modern English).

3. The Indo-Europeans. Research some of what is known (and not known) about the speakers of Proto-Indo-European. Describe their culture in much greater detail than covered in class, using multiple sources of information. How do we know what we know?

4. Influence of a particular language on English. Choose one of the languages from which English has borrowed considerable numbers of words (French, Old Scandinavian, Latin or Greek). Discuss the set(s) of loanwords taken from this language into English, and the social and cultural contact that was the backdrop to this influence. (If there was more than one period of major influence, you can either concentrate on a particular period or discuss the influence of the language through various periods of history). Consider aspects such as relative status of the languages in contact, differences in sphere of usage of the languages in the society, particular cultural or institutional domains in which influence was greatest, and any other interesting aspects of the contact you can think of (e.g. parallels with language contact more recently in history).

5. Modern-day language contact. Collect information (including demographic) on a case of language contact that exists today in the United States or another country. Describe some social and cultural aspects of this contact, including status of the languages concerned, differences in sphere of usage of the languages, code-switching or code-mixing if it occurs (cf. "Spanglish"; "Franglais" etc.), impact of the contact on institutions such as education, government etc.

6. Prescriptivism and language contact. Describe a case of language contact that has led to a strong prescriptivist reaction or even official proscriptive measures (e.g. anti-English legislation in Quebec; Ranti-foreign languageS measures in France, Croatia or other European countries, language disputes in India, Africa, etc.). Discuss the impact of these measures on the society and on the specific groups concerned. (Use current sources for facts, e.g. journalistic and/or governmental publications).

7. The English-Only movement. One example of attempts to legislate language matters is found in the U.S. Recent legislative proposals have sought to make English the official language of the U.S., with the apparent aim of trying to discourage in various ways the use of other languages. Investigate the legislative developments associated with this trend and discuss some of its political and social aspects. (A way of approaching this is to imagine you are writing an article for Newsweek or Time.)

8. Word histories in a particular field. Choose a particular field of inquiry (e.g. chemistry, linguistics, architecture, music, engineering etc.) and investigate the origins of 10 or 15 terms in that field which you find particularly interesting in origin. (Adjust the number to fit with how much you find out about each term.) You may include words that have passed into the general vocabulary from those fields, as well as extremely specialized words, and everything in between. Make your discussion essay-like, not list-like.

9. Slang and jargon. Discuss the specialized vocabulary of a particular group (for this topic, choose non-academic domains such as surfing, computer hacking, beltway politics, military, sports, college students or youth culture, etc.). Include information on meaning, usage, in-group status of words, etc., such as is done in William Safire's column "On Language" (found in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and some local paper reprints). Be sure not to overlap much with the information given in your Word Journal; and make sure your discussion is a coherent whole, not a list.

© 1997 Suzanne Kemmer