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


Here is a list of possible extra credit mini-project topics for this semester. Choose one topic. Aim for 7-10 pages of text when printed out (more if there are images that take up text space).

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.

To make your project useable also for academic purposes, reference all your sources of information. Adopt some standard bibliographic format; if you don't know one, a useful set of guidelines is found in the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you use the Web at all in the course of your research, consult Using Web Sources: Basic Academic Standards.

Make your mini-project an HTML document, consulting the page Creating Web Materials: Basic Academic Standards; Copyright Issues so you do not fall into the usual student pitfalls. I will still need a hardcopy of your mini-project for grading purposes.

1. Major 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).

2. Loanwords from lesser-known sources. Write about loanwords from a language or language family that is not one of the major sources of borrowings in English. For example, what Arabic loanwords does English have, and how did they get into the language? Describe the cultural connections that facilitated the borrowing of the loanwords (in more than one period if there is more than one layer of borrowing from the language). Kinds of information you might give include observations on typical forms and changes in forms, particular interesting etymologies, etc. Loanword source languages worth investigating include Arabic; Japanese; Sanskrit/Hindi/other Indic languages; American Indian languages; African languages; Chinese; other languages mentioned on the "Loanwords" link (be sure to go beyond the lists on that link when giving examples). Sources of information on this topic include not only books on the history of English, but also, the OED on CD-ROM, if you learn a bit about the searching capabilities, can be searched for entries which have sources in specific languages.

3. 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.

4. 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).

5. 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?

6. 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.

7. 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; anti-foreign language 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 published sources for facts, e.g. journalistic and/or governmental publications).

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, etymologies where possible, 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 too much with the information given in your Word Journal; and make sure your discussion is a coherent whole, not a list.

10. History of placenames in England or Britain. Investigate placenames in the British Isles. Discuss etymologies, layers of placenames correlating with the movements of different groups into Britain. Sources might include dictionaries of placenames as well as specialized books on the subject; your project will of course be much more limited and selective. Try to draw out some of the more interesting names and their histories, relating them to the history of the island(s).

11. History of people's names in English. Investigate 20 or so common English first names OR last names. Try to find patterns-- what are some different groups of names, e.g. by language of origin, or other type of origin (for last name: occupation names, place names etc.) Highlight some names with interesting origins.

© 2001 Suzanne Kemmer