English 3901a: History of the English Language (Spring 2021)

About this course

Why don’t we spell knight nite?

Where does ‘silent e’ come from?

Why is it book and books but not sheep and sheeps?

Do we say somebody is six foot or six feet tall?

All of us have asked questions like these about the English language. This course will teach you how to find the answers. It covers the history of the English language from its pre-historic beginnings to its current position as the lingua franca of the modern world.

We begin with a brief survey of some important linguistic and methodological concepts. We then cover the major periods in the History of English paying particular attention to aspects that affect the way we now speak and write. In doing so we will cover the historical development of English sounds, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and rhetoric. We will also be looking at changes in the attitude of speakers of English towards their language’s position and importance in daily life.

The course is of general interest. It may be particularly useful for students considering further study in language art education, linguistics, medieval or classical languages and literature, or English history. No special training in linguistics, foreign languages, or grammar is required.

Learning goals

By the end of this course you should have an understanding of the principles of linguistic change, particularly as this applies to the English language. You should be able to recognise the major external and internal influences on the development of the English language and know how to research interesting forms and constructions using standard reference works.

Time and location

  • Mondays and Wednesdays, 10:30-11:45
  • Zoom (please see the Class Moodle pages for link/meeting number).


Contact information

My email is daniel.odonnell@uleth.ca.

My office hours (starting January 19) are:

  • Tuesdays 11:15-12:00 (except the last Tuesday of each month: no office hour on Jan. 26, Feb. 23, and March 30)
  • Fridays 14:15-15:00

Please see the Class Moodle for location information (on Zoom).

If you can’t make my office hours, I am also available by appointment




[1]. All exercises under this category are of equal weight. I reserve the right to add or subtract participation exercises during the year.

[2]. All exercises under this category are of equal weight. Exceptional work may be eligible for badges.

[3] Up to three blogs published in any one week may be counted for credit (though you are welcome to publish more than three). If you publish more than one blog, then the first one counts for 1 point and the second and third 1/2 point each (i.e. a maximum of 2 points in any one week). For the purposes of calculating grades, the week ends Tuesday night at Midnight (i.e. anything published after 00:00 on Wednesday belongs to the following week. Please look at the about blogs page to see my (liberal and easy-going) policies on what is required and acceptable in blogs

[4] Creative/alternative work will be accepted for the final written assignment only with prior permission of the instructor. Proposals for creative/alternative work will be considered the week before Reading Week. If you are considering a creative or alternative project for your final written assignment, please ensure you prepare a proposal and book an appointment to discuss it with Professor O’Donnell.

[5]. If any your work is exceptionally high quality it may be eligible also for Badges. Badges can be applied to any piece of work and always have the same value, regardless of the underlying value of the assignment (i.e. a “Great Distinction” badge is worth 3% of your final grade whether it is on your final essay or your first essay.
Mondays and Wednesdays
Students may submit one piece of “Inappropriate” work for regrading, provided they accompany this with a letter explaining what changes have been made to the resubmission. Students who resubmit work for grading will receive a 2.5% penalty on their final grade.


The following policies will be followed in all my classes unless otherwise announced. You are expected to be familiar with the policies reproduced here and in the more general section on my website. These additional web pages are to be considered part of this syllabus for the purposes of this course. Failure to conform to any of these policies may result in your grade being lowered.

Grade scale

The University of Lethbridge keeps track of student performance using a letter and grade point system (See section 4 of the University Calendar). Instructors assign students a letter grade at the end of each course (the University does not issue or record mid-term grades). These letter grades are converted to a numerical value (a Grade Point) for assessing overall academic performance (a Grade Point Average or GPA). The University does not record percentage-type grades and does not have a fixed scale for conversion from percentage scores to letter grades and grade points. Each instructor is responsible for determining their own methodology for determining students’ final letter grade.

In my classes, I use the following letter-grade to percentage correspondences:

  Excellent Good Satisfactory Poor Minimal pass Failing
Letter A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
Percent range 100-94 93-90 89-86 85-82 81-78 77-74 73-70 69-66 65-62 61-58 57-50 49-0
Conventional value 100 92 88 84 80 76 72 68 64 60 56 49-0
Grade point 4.0 3.7 3.3 3.0 2.7 2.3 2.0 1.7 1.3 1.0 0

How your grade is determined depends on the type of work being assessed. Tests of specific skills or knowledge (such as identification questions in literature classes, or fact-oriented tests in my grammar and language classes) are usually assigned a numeric score which is easily converted to a percentage. Essays, presentations, and other performance-oriented tests are usually graded by letter. I convert letter grades to percentages by taking the median value in each grade-range, and rounding up to the nearest whole percent. The only exceptions are A+ (which is converted to 100%), and F (which is converted to an arbitrary percentage between 0% and 49% based on my estimation of the work’s quality). These scores can be found in the conventional value row of the above table.

In marking work I try to keep the University’s official description of these grades in mind (a description can be found in the University Calendar, Part IV.3.a). If you get an A it means your work is excellent; a B means your work is good; a C means it is satisfactory; a D that it is barely acceptable (minimal pass); and an F that it is failing to meet University-level standards.

I have prepared rubrics for most types of qualitative assignments (assignments that do not expect the student simply to provide a correct factual answer). These can be found in my Academic Policies section: http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/Academic-Policies/

Submitting Work

Tests, Exams, and Quizzes

Tests and Exams will be written on Moodle. Quizzes may be presented on Moodle.

Essays, Reports, and Posters

Essays and reports will be collected on Moodle. Unless prior permission has been given, all essays, reports, and posters must be submitted in PDF format.


This course uses plagiarism detection software. Any plagiarism will be treated very seriously: you can expect to receive a grade of 0 on the assignment as well as other penalties depending on the seriousness of the offence.

Class schedule

This schedule is a work in progress and will be updated over the next few weeks.

Week Date Topic Readings Recommended Exercises
1 11/1 Syllabus and Administrative Questions
13/1 The History of English in Overview
  • Ch. 1: Read all sections but concentrate on the following (we’ll go into the sections not mentioned here in detail next week)
    • Overview
    • Objectives
    • Why Study the History of English?
    • Linguistic Change In English
    • Attitudes towards linguistic change
    • Resources for studying the History of English
2 17/1 First homework submission (continues weekly)
19/1 Weekly Blog starts
20/1 Language and language change
  • Ch. 1: Reread more carefully the following sections:
    • A definition of language
    • The components of language
    • The nature of linguistic change
    • The origin of language
  • Ch. 3 Causes and mechanisms of language change (complete)
3 25/1
  • 1.1 Morphological and semantic concepts
  • 1.3 Analysing Shakespearean English
  • 3.2 Mechanisms of morphological and syntactic change
  • 3.3 Mechanisms of Semantic change
  • SE 3.1 Causes of change:“SE 3.2 Mechanisms of morphological change”:https://learninglink.oup.com/access/brinton-3e-student-resources#tag_study-guide
  • SE 3.3 Mechanisms of Semantic change
27/1 English phonology
  • Ch.2 Sounds and Sound changes in English (complete)
4 1/2
  • Ch.2 All exercises and all supplemetary exercises
2/2-8/2 First Term Test
3/2 Indo-European
  • Ch. 4 The Indo-european language family and Proto-Indo-European
5 8/2
  • Ch. 4 All exercises and supplementary exercises
10/2 Germanic
  • Ch. 5 Germanic and the Development of Old English
13/2-21/2 Reading Week
6 21/2 First essay due
  • Ch. 5 all exercises and supplementary exercises
24/1 Old English
  • Ch. 6 The words and sounds of Old English
7 1/3
  • Ch. 6 all exercises and supplementary exercises
  • Ch. 7 The grammar of Old English
8 8/3
  • Ch. 7 all exercises and supplementary exercises
10/3 Middle English
  • Ch. 8 The rises of Middle English: Words and Sounds
  • Ch. 9 The Grammar of Middle English and the Rise of a Written Standard
9 15/3
  • Ch. 8 and 9 all exercises and supplementary exercises
16/3-22/3 Second term test
17/3 early Modern English
  • Ch. 10 The Words, Sounds, and Inflections of early Modern English
10 22/3
  • Ch. 10 all exercises and supplementary exercises
  • Ch. 11 Early Modern English verbal constructions and eighteenth-century Verbal Prescriptivism
11 29/3
  • Ch. 11 all exercises and supplementary exercises
31/3 Present Day English
  • Ch. 12 Modern English
12 5/4
  • Ch. 13 Varieties of English
  • Ch. 12 and 13: all exercises and supplementary exercises
13 12/4 Conclusion
Final Essay Due
15/4-23/4 Final Exam

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