ENG-G 301: History of the English Language

This course examines the history of the English language from Old English to the present day, with a particular focus on its recent changes—many would say “mutations”—in the digital age. Course content covers the macro-history of the English language and the Indo-European family of languages, various local cultural histories of English, dialectical variation, and some of the basic concepts of structural linguistics (phonemes, morphemes, grammar, and syntax).

Originally, when I was first asked to teach this course, it was because of student need: a student in another degree program was getting ready to graduate and s/he needed a course in linguistics to complete the program’s degree requirements. I was happy to oblige, particularly since researching and developing this course gave me the opportunity to reach back to the early days of my graduate training. Then, as a young MA student, I briefly thought that I would perhaps pursue a career in sociolinguistics. Studying under Tom Nunnally, a linguist and scholar of Southern speech at Auburn University, I took several seminars in both the history of the English language and linguistic diversity in the Southeastern US; I even presented a research paper at SECOL at the University of Alabama—the first conference presentation of my career.

So I was excited to teach and develop this course, though I knew it would need to perform several crucial pedagogical functions: students would likely have never taken a course in linguistics or language history prior to this one, even among the English majors, so I decided to spend the first several weeks of the semester acclimating students to the basic tools and concepts of language study. I also wanted to give students an overall framework for the course that would make sense to virtually any second- or third-year college student; I chose to arrange the bulk of the rest of the term as a more or less strict chronology of the history of the English language, from Old English to the present day. Students also developed teaching demonstrations in pairs that allowed them to explore some specific concept in linguistics or in the history of English.

Finally, it was important to me that students have the tools and the space to reflect on how language and power are inextricably connected in practical ways in society, especially as it relates to the ongoing war(s) over Standard American English (SAE) and various “English-only” movements in US culture. To this end, and using a wide variety of exercises and multi-modal texts (including podcasts, film, and an essay by the late David Foster Wallace on language, power, and the politics of dictionary-making), we examined linguistic variation in contemporary English speech patterns via the documentary film Do I Sound Gay? (Dir. Thorpe, 2014), Rosina Lippi-Green’s analysis of linguistic prejudice in animated Disney feature films, and an historical overview of the so-called “Ebonics” debates from the 1990s over students’ rights to use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the classroom.

Learning Outcomes

  • Develop an understanding of the history of the English language, from its origins to the digital age, and explore its spread over the globe in the 20th century;
  • Learn the basic concepts of structural linguistics;
  • Explore an area of linguistics scholarship in more detail;
  • Develop active reading and study skills that transfer to other college-level courses.
  • Explore the sub-field of sociolinguistics and linguistic/dialectical variation;
  • Develop an understanding of how language and linguistic variation (i.e., differences in how we speak) can be mapped onto power-relations among people and groups of people throughout history and today.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

The highest possible score in each category is a 5.00 = “Strongly Agree”; the lowest possible score is 1.00 = “Strongly Disagree.”

ENG-G 301: History of the English Language Spring

2017 (33411)

1.)    The course was well organized. 3.80
2.)    The course objectives were clear to the students. 4.00
3.)    There was general agreement between announced course objectives and what was actually taught. 4.20
4.)    The instructor explained the subject clearly. 4.50
5.)    The instructor summarized the major points in lecture or discussion. 4.90
6.)    The instructor made effective use of class time. 3.70
7.)      The instructor was well prepared for class meetings. 4.10
8.)      The amount of reading was appropriate for the course. 4.20
9.)      In relation to other courses of equal credits and level, the workload in this course was appropriate. 4.20
10.)   The amount of material covered in the course was reasonable. 3.80
11.)   The course required more time and effort than others at this level. 3.60
12.)   The grading system for the course was clearly explained. 4.40
13.)   Grades were assigned fairly and impartially. 4.10
14.)   The instructor collected enough evidence for valid grading. 4.20
15.)   The exams accurately assessed what I have learned in this class. 3.80
16.)   The instructor showed a genuine interest in students 4.00
17.)   The instructor was readily available for consultation with students. 4.20
18.)   The instructor stimulated my thinking. 4.00
19.)   The instructor stimulated class discussion. 4.30
20.)   The instructor promoted an atmosphere conducive to learning. 4.30
21.)   Compared to other instructors I have had, this instructor is outstanding. 4.10
22.)   Compared to other courses I’ve taken, I learned more in this course. 3.90

Course Evaluations (Qualitative)

Spring 2017

“I liked the content matter and the instructor’s enthusiasm about the subject. The instructor was always encouraging of class discussion and was incredibly knowledgeable.”

“The syllabus was out of sync with what was taught for most of the semester.”

“I learned about new ways to conceive of language and English.”

“I liked the origin of the English language the most.”

“I liked the amount of reading the least.”

“The most valuable thing I learned was how to break down large chunks of reading much easier.”

“The ideas were stimulating.”

“Somewhat weak [illegible].”

“I learned the power of the English language.”

“A lot of the info was interesting.”

“He’s a bit condescending.”

“I really loved the modern subjects that we covered in this class. I understand the need to begin with OE [Old English], but most of the discussion was about older English.”

“Dr. Cook is very harsh and is not very good at responding to an incorrect response without making the students feel stupid.”

“I thought pretty much everything we covered was the most valuable, because language builds upon itself and it was all new content for me.”

“Dr. Cook is the most disrespectful instructor I’ve had at IUK. His comments are past the line and NOT professional. If someone works with the accessibility office you do NOT speak of the matter out loud in front of other students. Also, he puts people down and makes them feel stupid. He has power and he knows it; he puts people down who don’t have PhD. He is disorganized, rude, and made me NOT want to finish the course. He is not a good asset to the university. He needs a reality check to understand that people have feelings and making harsh statements hurt. Who cares if he has a PhD or not. Don’t be a condescending asshole.”

“The course has a lot of information that is very useful for education majors and English majors, and Dr. Cook delivers a knowledgeable and charismatic account of that information.”

“The readings are very dense when combined with a full-time schedule of all 300-level classes, it is nearly overwhelming.”

“The information helped pass my content test for education certification.

“[What I liked most about the course and/or the instructor was] how open-ended the class was.”

“[What I liked least about the course and/or the instructor was that] the grading was not clearly explained.”


Click here for the Course Syllabus; click here, here, and here for sample assignments and other materials. 

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