History of British English - LING5240

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2021 to 2022.


The module will begin with a consideration of what the term 'English' means, and of what other, potentially rival, languages have been spoken in the British Isles. It will then consider how successive waves of conquest shaped the sociolinguistic situation to one of di- or triglossia, with English one of a number of varieties used in a restricted set of socially determined domains. Using Haugen’s standardization model, we will examine the factors that led first to selection and later acceptance of English as the dominant variety, and consider the associated linguistic processes of codification and elaboration of function. Working with short texts from different time-periods, the module will then show how and why grammatical changes occurred in Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle English (e.g. loss of case marking, gender, weakening of the verbal paradigm) and their consequences for the modern language. We will also consider phonological changes (e.g. the Great English Vowel Shift) and their consequences for dialect differentiation. We will conclude by exploring ongoing change in contemporary English (notably koineization in major cities), and the likely consequences for future English in the British Isles.


Contact hours

Total Contact Hours: 30

Method of assessment

Essay (2,500 words) – 60%
Presentation (20 minutes) – 20%
In-Class Test (45 minutes) – 20%

Indicative reading

Indicative Reading List

Bragg, M. (2003) The Adventure of English. London: Hodder and Stoughton
Burnley, D (1992) The History of the English Language: A Source Book. London: Longman.
Culpeper, J. (2005) History of English. London: Routledge.
Fennell, B. A. (2008) A History of English: a Sociolinguistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

Confidently to use the basic terminology of historical linguistics (e.g. language shift, selection, elaboration of function, codification, acceptance, push/pull chain, reflex/etymon, phoneme merger/split);
Understand the socio-political reasons why English overcame its rivals to become the dominant language of the British Isles;
Understand the principles of language standardization, and be able to apply them to the analysis of specific languages;
Demonstrate awareness of the changes leading to dialect and language differentiation within the United Kingdom (e.g. the existence of a 'Celtic fringe'; the FOOT/STRUT split in southern but not northern England).


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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