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BA Linguistics / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
The Changing English Language

Unit code LELA20401
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Linguistics & English Language
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


In this unit, we will explore some of the major changes to the vocabulary and morphosyntax of English, including changes in word meaning, the development of do-support, changes to pronouns, and the loss of impersonal constructions. We will discuss how semantic and grammatical changes are studied, modelled and explained. As such, this unit is also an introduction to Historical Linguistics and to the methods, theories and discussions in this subdiscipline of Linguistics.


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
History and Varieties of English LELA10342 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
English Word and Sentence Structure LELA10301 Pre-Requisite Compulsory


  • Study some of the major changes to the structure of English
  • Introduce students to (English) Historical Linguistics and prepare them for more advanced study as well as research projects in this area


The first weeks will be devoted to an introduction to (English) Historical Linguistics.
After that, the unit is organised thematically with a first group of topics centred around changes to vocabulary, a second group around changes to morphosyntax.
The final week sums up what students have learned about Historical Linguistics in these diverse case studies.
The seminars will introduce students to the current methods in Historical Linguistics: historical corpora, data collection, data analysis, reading and writing linguistic analyses.

Teaching and learning methods

  • Lectures 11x 2 hours
  • Seminars 11x 1 hour
  • Blackboard site
  • Homework including reading and data analysis
  • 2 x 1hr weekly consultation hours

Knowledge and understanding

  • Sophisticated understanding of a number of major changes to the structure of English
  • Insight into the workings and effects of language change over a long period of time
  • Knowledge of main terms, as well as some theories and debates in (English) Historical Linguistics
  • Good understanding of the data and methods used in (English) Historical Linguistics

Intellectual skills

  • Explain and apply key terms in Historical Linguistics to new data sets
  • Critical discuss different theoretical approaches to and debates about major changes affecting the structure of English
  • Understand main claims in research papers on semantic and grammatical change

Practical skills

  • Collect data to study semantic and grammatical changes in English
  • Analyse and interpret sets of selected examples evidencing change in English
  • Speak and write about semantic and grammatical change 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Skills in linguistic analysis that can be applied to the study and analysis of other languages 
  • Problem solving and analytical thinking skills, when faced with new data sets and grammatical puzzles
  • Oral and written communication skills, including essay writing and scholarly referencing
  • Attention to detail and precision in analysis and reporting

Employability skills

This unit equips students with skills of data analysis that can be applied in a wide range of contexts: students learn how to look for patterns and structures, and interpret change in terms of general cognitive, functional and structural pressures and constraints. These skills are relevant for all jobs that require data analysis. Students who go on to become teachers of English will have acquired the knowledge about earlier stages of English and about changes affecting English that forms the backbone for teaching modules on language change.

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)


Formative and summative

1000 words


Data question (in seminar)

Formative only



Exam including terminology questions, an essay question and a data question

Summative only





Assessment task


Coursework including essay, synthesis and data questions

4000 words


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Discussion and Q&A in lectures and seminars


Individual comments on essay

Formative and Summative

Seminar feedback on data question


Individual comments on exam (upon request)



Recommended reading

Main reference books:
Fischer, Olga, Hendrik De Smet & Wim van der Wurff. 2017. A brief history of English syntax. Cambridge: CUP.
Kay, Christian and Kathryn L. Allan. 2015. English historical semantics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Further reference:
Chapters from the different volumes of The Cambridge History of the English Language.
Chapters from Hogg, Richard and David Denison, eds. 2006. A history of the English language. Cambridge: CUP.
Barber, Charles, Joan C. Beal & Philip A. Shaw. 2009. The English language: A historical introduction, 2nd edn. Cambridge: CUP.
Selected chapters from the following handbooks for the introduction of terms, concepts, methods and theories in English Historical Linguistics:
Brinton, Laurel, ed. 2017. English historical linguistics: approaches and perspectives. Cambridge: CUP.
Kytö, Merja & Päivi Pahta, eds. 2016. The Cambridge handbook of English Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: CUP.
(Sections from) papers on individual changes will be added for each lecture.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 3
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 164

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Mary Begley Unit coordinator

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