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BA English Language and French

Year of entry: 2020

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Course unit details:
English Phonology Past and Present

Unit code LELA30442
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Linguistics & English Language
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course unit deals with the prosodic structure of English words: i.e. how the vowels and consonants that make up English words are organized into higher phonological constituents, particularly syllables and rhythmic units called ‘feet’. We will be addressing this topic from both a synchronic and a diachronic perspective, looking first at the situation in present-day English, and then exploring its historical background. In addition, the course unit has another equally important aim: to help you to understand how linguistic theories work, and how linguists go about building and testing those theories. 


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
Phonology LELA20012 Pre-Requisite Compulsory


The principal aims of the course unit are as follows:

  • to provide students with an advanced critical understanding of the main theories of syllabification in present-day English;
  • to introduce students to the generative analysis of present-day English stress;
  • to explore the way in which synchronic and diachronic explanation interact in phonology;
  • to survey a wide range of empirical evidence (segmental processes, psycholinguistic experiments, versification patterns, etc) bearing on the prosodic structure of English words;
  • to equip students with advanced skills in theory evaluation and testing (distinguishing between empirical and conceptual arguments, detecting ad hoc hypotheses, appraising empirical content, etc).


The course is divided into two major thematics parts: Part I focuses on the syllabification of English intervocalic consonants; Part II deals with the rules governing the location of primary and secondary stress in English words. Each part consists of two or three related units of unequal length. Individual units will typically last for more than one session, and some (notably Unit 1) will take up several weeks. For a class-by-class workplan, consult the table on pages 4-5.

Part I: Syllabification

Unit 1        Syllabification in present-day English: the ambisyllabicity debate.

Unit 2        Phrase-level resyllabification in English: a historical perspective.

Part II: Stress and the foot

Unit 3        Word stress in present-day English (I): phonological, morphological, and lexical factors.

Unit 4        Word stress in present-day English (II): trochaic shortening, lexical redundancy rules.

Unit 5        The history of word stress in English: continuity and change.

Teaching and learning methods

  • Two 90-minute plenary sessions per week over 11 weeks
  • One or two 20-minute individual consultation sessions on coursework

Summaries of class discussions and homework assignments will be posted weekly on Blackboard. The Blackboard site also provides copies of class materials, advice on coursework, and further resources.

Knowledge and understanding

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

  • understand the precise conditions for the application of a range of phonological processes in present-day English;
  • understand and critically assess the main theories of syllabification in present-day English words;
  • explain the location of primary and secondary stress in present-day English words;
  • understand the evolution  of syllabification and stress assignment in the history of English

Intellectual skills

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

  • distinguish between conceptual and empirical arguments in linguistics;
  • assess the strengths of linguistic theories according to criteria such as restrictiveness, simplicity, and learnability;
  • detect ad hoc assumptions in linguistic arguments.

Practical skills

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

  • apply theories of syllable and foot structure to the analysis of phonological processes;
  • use various types of empirical evidence to assess  theories of prosodic structure;
  • incorporate synchronic and diachronic insights into phonological explanations.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

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

  • assess theoretical models on conceptual and empirical grounds;
  • understand the sources of rational disagreement in debates involving competing (scientific) models;
  • appreciate the interaction between creativity, logic, and evidence in the development and testing of (scientific) theories and models;
  • design a focused piece of research bearing on a larger theoretical debate;
  • produce a succint, coherent, and persuasive synthesis of a complex technical argument;
  • write an essay in the appropriate style and format.

Employability skills

See transferable skills.

Assessment methods

Assessment task


Weighting within unit


4,000 words



Feedback methods

Comments made during class discussion regarding the relevance and coherence of student responses or participation in discussion. (In other words, you should be able to judge from the discussion which ideas are better or worse.)

Global feedback (delivered orally in class) on a non-assessed mid-term practical assignment.

Written comments on the assessed essay, plus face-to-face discussion if desired (on the understanding that this deanonymizes the marking).

Recommended reading

There is no textbook for this course. Useful reference works for several of its units include:

Giegerich, Heinz J. (1992). English phonology: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jensen, John T. (1993). English phonology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ricardo Bermudez-Otero Unit coordinator

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