ENGL 320 (6 cr): History of the English Language


Course Description

This course surveys the development of the English language from its Indo-European past to the present day. The course begins with a discussion of attitudes towards language change and of motivations for and mechanisms of linguistic change. Considering next the prehistoric changes from Proto-Indo-European to Germanic, the course then examines the structure and vocabulary of English through its major periods: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English. The course focuses on changes in sounds (phonology), in forms of words and their endings (morphology), in sentence structure (syntax), in spelling (orthography), in meanings of words (semantics), and in vocabulary (lexicon). In the course of study, some attention is also given to social and political factors affecting the language.

Intended Audience

This course is addressed to all students interested in the English language, including those whose primary area of interest is English language, English literature, theoretical and applied linguistics, stylistics, the Middle Ages, English as a second language, or secondary English education. The course does not assume any background in language or linguistics; all necessary terms and concepts are taught in the course. English 320 is a fact-based course. There is a body of factual information, a set of grammatical concepts, and a technical vocabulary to be learned. You are required to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). There is a wealth of detail which requires memorization. Third-year standing required for Arts students.

Course Objectives

Upon completion of English 320, you should have acquired the following:

  • a comprehension of the mechanisms of language change and an acceptance of the inevitable nature of language change;
  • a knowledge of the origins of English and its place in respect to other languages of the world;
  • a recognition of the major stages in the language and important changes in the development of English from a synthetic to an analytic language; and
  • an understanding of how the current state of the English language has resulted from historical change.

Course Overview

Lesson 1: Beginning with reasons for studying the history of English, this lesson then offers a definition of language and surveys its component parts. It then gives an overview of the recognized periods in the history of English. It then explores the popular notion that language change entails linguistic corruption, and it analyzes reasons for such an attitude.

Lesson 2: This lesson introduces the sound system of English and principles of phonetic transcription. The second part of the lesson looks at the history of writing systems and the development of the English alphabet.

Lesson 3: This lesson examines causes and processes of linguistic change in general.

Lesson 4: This lesson examines the typological and genealogical systems used for classifying languages.

Lesson 5: This lesson concerns itself with grammatical, lexical, and phonological changes which took place in the common Germanic period and which distinguish Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European.

Lesson 6: This lesson begins by considering the writing system used for Old English. It then turns to the phonological system of Old English and an introduction to the word stock of Old English.

Lesson 7: This lesson introduces the grammatical categories of the noun and verb and describes the grammar of Old English. The chapter also discusses the grammatical process of concord and the use of cases. It ends with a consideration of Old English syntax.

Lesson 8: This lesson presents an overview of the linguistic situation in England between 1066 and 1500 C.E. and the social and political events which contributed to the increased use of English after the mid-12th century and its restoration as the national language of England by the early 15th century.

Lesson 9: This lesson traces changes in inflections in Middle English and identifies the origin of modern endings.

Lesson 10: The first half of this lesson examines sound changes and spelling reforms from Middle English to Modern English. The second half of the lesson examines changes in inflections from Middle English to Early Modern English.

Lesson 11: This lesson begins by looking at changes in verbal constructions in Early Modern English. The lesson then examines the effects of prescriptivism on the English language.

Lesson 12: The lesson examines some of the consequences of the spread of English over a wide geographical area in the modern period.

Course Work

English 320 is offered over an 8 -month period. Please consult with your instructor if your are wishing to accelerate your course work.

  • Self-Testing Exercises
    The course presents a variety of self-testing exercises. At relevant points in each lesson, you will be assigned specific exercises. Because of difficulties involving phonetic symbols and other special characters, the exercises are not to be completed on-line. You should print off the exercises and fill in the answers (by hand) in the blanks provided. You may then check your answers against those given on-line.
  • Graded Assignments
    There are twelve written assignments, one of which is completed at the end of each lesson. The assignments are similar in format to the self- testing exercises, consisting of objective problems, identifications, definitions, and short-answer questions. The course lessons and dictionary will provide the information necessary for the completion of most assignments.
  • Final Examination
    The course requirements are completed by writing a comprehensive final examination during the period indicated on the course schedule. A sample final examination is provided. The questions on the actual examination will be almost identical in format to those on the sample examination.

Course Grade

For English 320, the following percentages will be given to the assignments and final examination:

Twelve Assignments (@5% each) 60%
Final Exam 40%
Total 100%

In order to pass the course it is necessary to pass the final examination. Failure of the exam will result in a failing grade for the course.


Laurel J. Brinton and Leslie K. Arnovick, The English Language: A Linguistic History. 2nd ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dictionary: this is necessary for you to complete the self-testing exercises. You have access to the Oxford English Dictionary online through the UBC Library but it is recommended that you purchase a hardback dictionary such as The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Toronto 2004).

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