BA English Language and German

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Historical Syntax

Course unit fact file
Unit code LELA30962
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
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?


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.


 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.


Learning outcomes

See specific categories below.

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 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.

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.
  • Formulate constructive comments and feedback for peers.

Employability skills

Written report preparation; working to deadlines; data analysis strategies; confident use of computational text analysis; confident use of quantitative and statistical data analysis.

Assessment methods


Assessment task


Formative or


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Weekly exercises (corpus strategies) to be discussed with peers and assessed by the lecturer in the tutorial




Essay-based exam

1.5 hours




Corpus-based research report

4,000 words




Feedback methods


Feedback method

Formative or summative

Opportunities for oral feedback during office hours


Peer discussion and group assessment in weekly tutorials


Written feedback via Turnitin (assessed coursework)


Individual face-to-face discussion of exam (if desired)



Recommended reading

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

Harris, Alice C., & Lyle Campbell. 1995. Historical syntax in cross-linguistic perspective. 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 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 168

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Richard Zimmermann Unit coordinator

Additional notes



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