MA Linguistics

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Historical Syntax

Unit code LELA60692
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Linguistics & English Language
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Syntax is often thought of as being one of the more stable areas of any language. Nevertheless, syntactic change frequently occurs. This course aims to provide students with the means to investigate it, drawing for the most part on data from the history of English. Key questions include: How do we analyse the syntax of dead languages without access to judgement data? Why does syntax change? Is syntactic change a ‘random walk’, or does it follow fixed pathways? To what extent does syntactic theory shed light on change?


Pre-requisite units

No formal prerequisite, but some background knowledge of either historical linguistics or syntax or both is desirable in order to get the most out of this course – if in doubt, please consult with the course convenor.

Co-requisite units




The principal aims of the course unit are as follows:

·                Familiarize students with the key issues in diachronic linguistics, with specific reference to syntax.

·                Build bridges between linguistic theorizing and historical linguistic argumentation and evidence.

·                Challenge students to critically assess existing theories and proposed explanations for syntactic change.

             ·     Provide a springboard for independent engagement with the research literature as MA students make the                      transition to postgraduate study.


Topics to include:

1. Reanalysis

2. Analogy in syntax

3. Grammaticalization

4. Pathways of change

5. Competition

6. Challenges for historical linguistics

7. Socio-historical syntax

8. Typology and syntactic change

9. Contact and syntactic change

Teaching and learning methods

One 2-hour lecture per week; four enhancement meetings (to be arranged)

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Assess different approaches to syntactic variation and change.
  • Recognize attested pathways of syntactic change.
  • Assess appropriate methods of data collection and quantitative and qualitative analysis.
  • Relate syntactic change to other linguistic subdisciplines such as syntactic theory, corpus linguistics, sociolinguistics, contact linguistics, and typology.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Apply syntactic theory in diachrony.
  • Draw appropriate conclusions from linguistic evidence of syntactic change.
  • Contribute to the discourse on the history of languages and the nature of language change.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Read and  critically assess primary research literature, and present their findings orally.
  • Construct an argument and/or present research findings with bearing on current debates in historical linguistics.
  • Interpret historical corpus data and assess it for completeness and coherence.
  • Contribute to the discourse on the history of languages and the nature of language change.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  •  Analyse data from historical texts and corpus sources.
  •  Condense, summarize and present written material on a complex topic – both orally and in writing.
  • Formulate constructive comments and feedback for peers.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Data analysis strategies; Confident use of both quantitative/statistical and qualitative analysis.
Targeted presentational skills; written report preparation.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 70%
Oral assessment/presentation 30%

Feedback methods

  • Written feedback sheet for each candidate (presentation)
  • Written feedback via Turnitin (assessed coursework)
  • Opportunities for oral feedback during office hours and enhancement meetings

Recommended reading

Harris, Alice C., & Lyle Campbell. 1995. Historical syntax in cross-linguistic perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McMahon, April. 1994. Understanding language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Ian G. 2007. Diachronic syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further reading will be suggested during the semester.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Seminars 4
Independent study hours
Independent study 124

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