Teaching the history of the English language 2: changing attitudes and expanding opportunities

English language

Pedagogical implications

Because of recent developments in Linguistics, then, it appears that the history of English has regained some of its status and stature. The subject is increasingly seen as an area where things come together and where students can see linguistic processes in action (whether they are syntactic, phonological, pragmatic or sociolinguistic) and can observe their consequences. Moreover, students can engage with materials that are close enough to present-day English to look accessible yet sufficiently distant from it to call for real focus and concentration before full understanding is achieved. From a didactic perspective, such materials are in a sense ideal to develop students’ ability to pay close attention to form in order to arrive at accurate descriptions. It seems to me that a key idea in teaching the subject today is therefore simply: ‘connect’ – connect with students’ native knowledge of present-day English and their ability to make sense of many texts in earlier varieties; connect with the knowledge and skills that they are taught in other modules; connect with findings from recent research in other areas of linguistics; and lastly connect with the internet.

Example: first-year lectures on the history of English

Let me give some concrete examples of what can be done in this way. Suppose there are a few hours available to teach the history of the language in a first-year general module on English linguistics, which at several universities in the UK is how the subject is first introduced to undergraduates. One of these lectures could then be devoted to general processes of lexical innovation in present-day English – through borrowing, compounding, derivation, blending and other methods.

timemagThe lecture would also be used to show students the online TIME Magazine corpus (Davies 2007- ) and the way this repository of journalistic language from the 1920s till today can be searched in simple ways to trace the development of words coined in this period (with example words being drawn from sources like Ayto 2007, Dent 2007 or RDUES 2009). As an assignment for a seminar session (or the next lecture), students would be given the task of doing some exploration of the TIME corpus themselves, on the basis of a specific set of words prepared for this purpose. As part of the assignment, they could be asked to establish how soon and how widely these new words came to be used as input to (further) compounding, derivation or conversion – or indeed inflection.

In a second lecture (and seminar, if available) students would be shown how to apply their new knowledge and skills, acquired with the help of present-day data, to processes of lexical innovation in Early Modern English. The lecture could discuss features of these processes that stand out in this period, introduce students to EEBO and demonstrate some of its display and search options.

eeboAgain, there would be an assignment for a follow-up session, where students could be asked to present their findings from EEBO with regard to a data set consisting of ‘inkhorn’ terms, archaising items or words borrowed within this period from one specific language. These would have to be compared with regard to the extent and speed of their integration in the language, linguistically and textually. If there is a third lecture hour available, this could be used to discuss features of Early Modern spelling, with EEBO being used to illustrate and with selected phenomena being traced to their origins in historical processes. One of the topics discussed could be the early printing practice of justifying lines of text by adding or omitting double consonants and silent <-e> at the end of words. A follow-up assignment would ask the students to identify examples of this practice in EEBO themselves (in any words they care to pick) and then use the facsimile images of the relevant pages to determine whether the adding and omitting indeed appears to result in better justification of the lines.

Example: an introductory module

In programmes having a separate introductory module on the history of the language, the subject can of course be approached more systematically and dealt with more comprehensively. There is a wide range of recent textbooks (a new one appears roughly every year; see Haeberli 2009 for a review of three recent ones and Hickey 2009, section 4.1, for an up-to-date list) and many of them connect in the ways described above. Some of them have their own accompanying websites with sounds, pictures, texts, notes and further explanations, and for many of the sub-periods and standard topics in the history of the language, there are independent web materials. To give just some examples of what could be done with these to enliven lectures and/or seminars, Freeborn (2006) has a Middle English reading of a fifteenth-century Valentine’s letter, which makes an ideal text for a lecture in the first half of February (during which students could be taught how to pronounce some of the crucial phrases and sentences, in a five-minute Middle English speed-learning session). Menzer (2000) has readings of a simple dialogue the way it might have sounded before, midway through and after the Great Vowel Shift, as well as clickable words representing the vowels in a vowel diagram at each of these times (a helpful gadget in teaching this topic, and possibly giving rise to an assignment where students have to reconstruct the pronunciation, halfway through the vowel shift, of a couple of lines from Shakespeare – with Crystal 2005 as background reading).

Then there is ECCO, which represents a stage of the language that is close enough for students to do real independent work on. At a very humble level, it can act as a source of texts in their original eighteenth-century spelling (see the T3 tip elsewhere on this website). At a more advanced level, it can serve as material to probe the extent of the OED’s under-representation of eighteenth-century material (Brewer 2009). For teaching students how to carry out empirical work on grammatical change, a convenient source is the OED’s quotation database, a splendidly unbalanced but nevertheless invaluable historical corpus. In it, students can trace the rise or decline of constructions over the past five centuries, such as the use of the active versus passive infinitive after ‘easy’ adjectives (the plan is easy to implement/be implemented), the passive progressive (your money is being counted), demonstrative adverbs (herein, therein) or relative clauses of various kinds (such as those featuring the highly Latinate than which/whom or those with the which). No great amount of prior preparation or explanation is required for any of these and they all allow issues to be pursued at varying degrees of depth, either tapping into concepts and terms already familiar to students or introducing them to new ones.

Example: teaching Old and Middle English

Even for the teaching and learning of Old or Middle English, a cause of some student headache in the past, there are now good materials available. In the wake of the realist movement in second language teaching, several textbooks have recently been published that approach these stages of the language as instruments used for real communication by real people – a far cry from the dusty philology of a couple of decades ago. For Old English, Atherton (2006) and Hough and Corbett (2007) do a fine job at presenting the language in this way and for Middle English, Horobin and Smith (2002) is an excellent guide. With the widening of the field of linguistics since the 1980s, the idea that linguistic study of earlier English can contribute to students’ understanding of its literature has also now become a realistic proposition rather than the largely promissory note that it used to be (except in the small number of books that did seriously address the language-literature interface, the work by Norman Blake being particularly significant here). A recent example is Horobin (2007), which introduces students to the use of modern techniques of stylistic analysis in reading Chaucer, based on a sound knowledge of his language overall. At the same time, texts from the older stages of the language still invite constant reference to the social, historical and cultural background of the Middle Ages – a redeeming aspect of English historical linguistics in the past which can now be explored with even greater ease using the many sites devoted to these topics on the internet.

The ultimate aim…

The above examples could be multiplied. Every programme will have its own constraints and every lecturer will have their own interests and theoretical slants, but the range of available materials for teaching the history of the language is now so wide that practically all demands and tastes are catered to. This is true not only for incidental lectures but also for semester-length introductory modules as well as more specialised teaching, also to postgraduates. If proper use is made of these opportunities, we can offer students an integrated experience, where study of the history of the language draws on and feeds into their other modules, connects up with the rest of their increasingly virtual lives and extends their understanding of language of the present and the past. The ultimate aim of all this of course is and remains…….. that they should exercise their grey little cells and have a good time doing so.