BA Linguistics and Portuguese

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Historical Syntax

Course unit fact file
Unit code LELA30962
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Historical Syntax investigates mechanisms behind changes in word order patterns (e.g., an object-verb language turning into verb-object language), constructions (e.g., the loss of to in help someone (to) do something) and grammatical items (e.g., the emergence of complementisers). It draws on related areas of linguistics, such as morphology (e.g., variation between the endings –th and –s), pragmatics (e.g., relevance of politeness and power in the variation between thou and you) and socio-linguistics (e.g., propagation of changes along social networks). Most illustrations in this course will come from the history of English, but other languages will be considered occasionally as well. Students will make use not only of theoretical concepts for the description and analysis of grammatical changes but also their practical corpus skills to extract textual evidence in the absence of judgement data from native speakers.


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 (e.g., LELA10342 History and Varieties of English, LELA 20022 Analysing Grammar). If in doubt, please consult with the course convenor.


The principal aims of the course unit are:

  • To familiarise students with key issues in diachronic linguistics with specific reference to syntax.
  • To build bridges between theorising and evidence-based argumentation in historical linguistics.
  • To challenge students to assess existing theories and proposed explanations for syntactic change critically.



A range of topics, including:

  • The concepts of reanalysis and analogy in syntax
  • Grammaticalisation and pathways of change
  • Applications of formal syntax to syntactic change
  • Cycles
  • Competition and the constant rate effect
  • The intersection between word order typology and syntactic change
  • The relevance of contact and borrowing for syntactic change
  • Pragmatic and socio-linguistic influences in syntactic change
  • Propagation, causation and other challenges for Historical Linguistics

Teaching and learning methods

One 2-hour lecture per week

One tutorial per week

Lecture and supporting materials available on Blackboard

Optional individual consultation during office hours

Knowledge and understanding

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

  • Assess different approaches to syntactic variation and change.
  • Use appropriate methods of data collection and quantitative and qualitative analysis confidently.
  • 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.
  • Construct an argument based on research findings.
  • Interpret challenging historical data.
  • Assess the quality of empirical evidence as it relates to a theoretical problem.
  • Apply statistical techniques to complex data.


Transferable skills and personal qualities

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

  • Analyse historical textual data.
  • Use historical corpus resources.
  • Condense, summarise and present written material on a complex topic.

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 Summative


Weekly tasks to be discussed with peers and assessed by the lecturer in the tutorial






Corpus-based Research Report









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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