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Unit information: The History of the Language of English Literature in 2020/21

Unit name The History of the Language of English Literature
Unit code ENGLM0081
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Putter
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of English
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The unit traces the evolution of the language of English literature. Beginning with Old and Middle English writers, we follow the development of a written standard, and consider how and why Standard English and other varieties have changed and will continue to change. Seminars will explore the social and cultural factors that have shaped English in different periods, and will examine past and present attitudes to different aspects of language, including pronunciation, spelling, dialects, and punctuation. We also consider the mechanisms that drive language change.

Seminars will broadly follow a chronological course, and texts from all periods will be examined (e.g. Caedmon, Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, DH Lawrence).

Unit Aims:

1)To give students insight into the characteristic features of the language in the medieval, Early Modern and Late Modern periods.

2)To encourage students to consider language from a diachronic perspective, and to improve their understanding of the hows and whys of language change.

3)To provide a historically informed understanding of the linguistic choices made by, and available to, writers from different periods.

4)To help students increase their awareness of the origins of English words and their changes of meaning over time.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. analyse texts in terms of the key linguistic features that characterize English from different periods.
  2. recognize and discuss a range of factors that explain language change.
  3. recognize and describe changes in the language.
  4. contextualize literary texts in the broader linguistic environment.
  5. compare and contrast writers from different chronological periods with reference to the range of linguistic possibilities at their disposal.

Teaching details

1 x two hour seminar

Assessment Details

One 5,000 word essay (ILOs 1-5)

Reading and References

J. Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay?, 4th edn (Cambridge, 2013)

A.C. Baugh and T. Cable, A History of the English Language (London, 1978)

David Burbley, The History of the English Language: A Source-Book (London, 2000)

S. Horobin, How English Became English (Oxford, 2016)

D.G. Scragg, A History of English Spelling (Manchester, 1974)