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Part I

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI4: Linguistic variation and change

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

This paper focuses on contemporary variation and historical change in English. It uses English, a language known by all those taking the paper, as an introduction to the linguistic analysis of variation and change.

One part of the paper looks at variation from different perspectives: social and typological. It presents and analyses variation in English today, encompassing both the well-established varieties in England and the newer varieties that have emerged as English has spread to become a world language. We consider the linguistic features of a range of these varieties, covering most areas of linguistic description, including pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon. The study of geographical variation raises various more general issues: how do such differences arise? Do all varieties of English share the same basic grammar? Do differences reflect major structural differences in the linguistic system? This leads on to consideration of typological variation: how do linguistic systems differ? What patterns and regularities can be found?

The other main part of the paper looks at earlier stages in the history of English, from the emergence of Old English as a distinct language in the early Middle Ages right down to ongoing change at the present day. English is a West Germanic language within the Indo-European family of languages: we begin by looking at what this means and how linguists establish the place of English within the Germanic languages and beyond. For the attested history of the language, we review the extensive changes that English has undergone at all levels. We consider how linguists interpret written texts and other sources to infer past stages of English, and go on to look at how we can understand and account for the changes which have taken place and are taking place in various aspects of the structure of English. We see how language change can be both internally and externally motivated: internally, for instance, as perhaps a drive towards 'simplification', and externally as English has come into contact with and been influenced by other languages throughout its history - from Old Norse influence on Old English to the emergence of English-based creoles in the past few centuries.

Far from being distinct from the study of contemporary variation in English, the history of English may hold the key to how current variation arose; and, conversely, current variation and short-term change, together with knowledge of typological variation, can enable us to venture predictions on future directions of change in the language.


Please see further information on the Moodle course for this paper (link below).

Preparatory reading: 

Crystal, D. 2003 [2001]. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge: CUP.
Crystal, D. 2002. The English language. London: Penguin.
Denison, D., and Hogg, Richard. 2006. A history of the English language. Cambridge: CUP.
Graddol, D., Leith, D. & Swann, J.. 2002 [1996]. English: History, diversity and change. London: Routledge.
Hughes, A., Trudgill, P. & Watt, D. 2005. English accents and dialects. London: Hodder Arnold.
Kortmann, B. & Upton, C. 2008. Varieties of English: The British Isles. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Song, J.J. 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Gelderen, Elly. 2006. A history of the English language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Whaley, L. 1997. Introduction to Linguistic Typology. The Unity and Diversity of Language.  London: Sage Publications.

Teaching and learning: 

Learning outcomes

  • A good knowledge of contemporary variation in English
  • Experience applying the techniques of linguistic description to a particular language
  • Familiarity with the methods of historical linguistics
  • An ability to analyse texts as evidence for historical change and contemporary variation
  • An understanding of how some historical developments in language can be explained
  • An understanding of the connection between contemporary language variation and historical linguistic change in English, and how this can be generalised to other languages
  • An understanding of typological variation

The paper's Moodle site can be found here.


Assessment will be by a combination of take home coursework and in person written exam

(i) In person 2 hour written exam to answer 2 data questions.

(ii) Take home coursework assessment: one essay up to 1500 words to be submitted online during the exam period.

Each answer contributes a third of the total mark.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Marieke Meelen (for 'Change')
Dr Anna Tristram (for 'Variation')