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Section C

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI13: History of English

This paper is alternating with Li11. It is running in 2023-24.

This paper is available as Linguistics Tripos Part II: Paper 13, MML Tripos Part II: Paper Li.13, ASNC Tripos Part II: Paper 15 or English Tripos Part II: Paper 29.
Note: Students wishing to take this paper should have some elementary knowledge of Old or Middle English or another older Germanic language. Students who do not already have this are strongly advised to study first-year Old/Middle English either as self-study over the summer or (in the case of MML students) as a course on their year abroad.

English has changed enormously over the past 1500 years of its historical development: while Shakespearian English is comprehensible, albeit with some difficulties, to a casual reader, the gulf between today's English and the Middle English of Chaucer is considerable, and Old English is accessible only after careful study of the language. This paper examines the processes by which today's English, including nonstandard varieties of English, has emerged. It is concerned with how we establish historical change in the structure of the language by careful examination of textual and dialectal evidence and with how those structures and changes have been analysed and explained by different linguists. We ask what factors caused particular innovations to arise at particular times: for instance, why do we no longer have sentences where the verb follows the object? We look at the relationship between the language and the societies in which it was used: why were some forms chosen to be part of a prestige standard or why has differentiation arisen in the English of different parts of the English-speaking world.

The Michaelmas Term lectures will cover topics in the historical development of English grammar (development of auxiliaries, negation, loss of case, emergence of do-support, changes in word order, drift towards analyticity etc.). These lectures will examine the textual evidence for each of the changes in question, considering a range of explanations that have been put forward for the emergence and diffusion of these changes. Students will be encouraged to look at primary sources for the development of the language and will be introduced to searching the various electronic corpora available for the history of the language.

In Lent Term, the focus will shift to the emergence of variation in English. While much variation is longstanding and can be traced to the multitude of dialects in Middle English, other aspects are the result of recent innovation, whether due to internally motivated change or to language or dialect contact. We will consider the current state of dialect variability in English (e.g. variation in syntax of auxiliaries and modals or in patterns of agreement) and the historical processes by which that variation has arisen.


Loss of case; development of verbal morphology; tense and modal auxiliaries; word order; do-support; negation; interpretation of Old and Middle English written sources; dialect syntax; North American English; Celtic Englishes; language contact.

Preparatory reading: 

Denison, David. 1993. English historical syntax. London: Longman.

Fischer, Olga, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman & Wim van der Wurff. 2000. The syntax of early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hogg, Richard & David Denison (eds.). 2006. A history of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hogg, RIchard (ed.). 1992–2001. The Cambridge history of the English language, 6 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kemenade, Ans van & Bettelou Los (eds.). 2006. Handbook of the history of English. Oxford: Blackwell.

Teaching and learning: 

You will receive sixteen lectures in total, eight in Michaelmas Term and eight in Lent Term. You will also have eight supervisions, normally three during Michaelmas Term, four in Lent Term and one in Easter Term. The Department will also be providing four hours of practical classes. 

The paper's Moodle site can be found here.


This course is assessed through a three-hour written examination.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Marieke Meelen