DOI: 10.1017/S0266078403001056
44 English Today 73, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 2003). Printed in the United Kingdom © 2003 Ca...
HEL: an interdisciplinary field?
Perhaps one reason we are not engaged in
active formal discourse on the teaching of the
Hi...
Germanic linguistics, in sociolinguistics, in
morphology, in 17th and 18th century litera-
ture, and so forth. The special...
TEACHING THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN OUR NEW MILLENNIUM 47
proper balance between what may be called
internal h...
48 ENGLISH TODAY 73 January 2003
pronouncing the language of different peri-
ods; it teaches them to notice language, to
l...
TEACHING THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN OUR NEW MILLENNIUM 49
questions to revisit in all our work. In writing
thi...
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
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Why and how teaching the history of the english language in our new millennium

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Why and how teaching the history of the english language in our new millennium

  1. 1. DOI: 10.1017/S0266078403001056 44 English Today 73, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 2003). Printed in the United Kingdom © 2003 Cambridge University Press [Portions of this paper were presented at the 35th International Congress for Medieval Stud- ies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 4 May 2000.] ‘It is no wonder that first-time educators feel daunted by such a survey course that encompasses historical linguistic theory, modern linguistic theory, and textual and historical studies over a thousand years.’ A few years ago, when I began considering what would be most useful to discuss concern- ing current issues in pedagogy and the History of the English Language, I did a quick search through the on-line MLA Bibliography and then through Linguistics and Language Behav- ior Abstracts and finally through the ERIC database to see if I could find just a few pub- lished articles on the history of pedagogical traditions of such a course over perhaps the last forty years. To my surprise, I uncovered nothing in my search. I did find a few articles on the teaching of Old English specifically but nothing on the History of the English Language related to ped- agogy. I subsequently, posted a query on the on-line discussion group for the History of the English Language (HEL) asking if anyone could point me to pedagogical sources in the field. I received a few replies and I quote them here directly (hel-l, 14 Jan 2000). One respondent, from the University of Que- bec, made the following reply: I submitted a post some months back in which I suggested that a history of the English language course for non-specialists should de-emphasize the linguistic detail and add importance to the related historical, sociological, and cultural aspects. This provoked no response. Further, I have found there to be little to no interest in such pedagogical matters – perhaps because most members are specialists – unlike myself. I have also found no articles on the matter though doing one might be an idea. A second respondent from the University of New Orleans informed me that there was some time back, perhaps nine or ten years ago, “a collection of articles under preparation” in the MLA Approaches to Teaching Series, but to date the volume has not appeared. No one was able to name the editors of that volume. An Assistant Professor from New Mexico State University replied that he “would love to hear from anyone else who may know where this book stands currently.” He says that “such a collection would surely be of immense value, particularly to those of us (that is, me, at least), facing the prospect of teaching his first HEL course next year.” So we may conclude from all this that we are not, for reasons which I would like to explore, engaging in active formal discourse on the teaching of this course, nor are we providing beginning teachers with written resources to help them consider different approaches, philosophies, strategies, and rationales in teaching the course. Thanks to on-line discus- sion groups, we do at least have available now an informal vehicle for such discussion. Hel-l was created in 1996 at Virginia Tech and still consists of active participants. The list cur- rently totals around 400 subscribers, mostly educators, but a fair number of non-academic addresses are included as subscribers as well. Why? and How? – Teaching the history of the English language in our new millennium R. A. BUCK A discussion of the difficulties that beset teaching ‘HEL’ in American universities
  2. 2. HEL: an interdisciplinary field? Perhaps one reason we are not engaged in active formal discourse on the teaching of the History of the English Language is (contrary to what the first respondent suggests) precisely the fact that most of us who teach the course see ourselves rather as non-specialists in the field and therefore learners rather than experts to offer advice. If we stop to consider it, who indeed are the people who actually specialize in the History of the English Language? Most educators who teach this course at the univer- sity level in the United States, at least, are in English departments and generally have a background either in linguistics or medieval studies, and yet, although both fields offer suf- ficient background for the teaching of this course, few of us from either field consider our- selves expert at such a far-reaching subject, that is, the linguistic and non-linguistic factors that have contributed to the development of the English language over 5,000 years. For most of us who are linguists teaching the course, few can attest to a dissertation topic related to the History of the English Language. Moreover, we would probably concur that, in our doctoral programs, we were lucky to have had one course in historical linguistics and cer- tainly no courses in Old or Middle English or even the diachronic development of English specifically. Current doctoral programs in lin- guistics without a doubt concern themselves with present-day spoken English out of its his- torical context. Most linguists who teach the History of the English Language, then, proba- bly regard their area of specialization as soci- olinguistics or pragmatics or linguistic stylistics or discourse analysis or semantics or syntax, and so forth, rather than historical linguistics. Medievalists, too, may find themselves in an awkward position teaching such a course. Their doctoral studies are often consumed by literary rather than language studies with per- haps some training, but not extensive training, in linguistics. Furthermore, sociolinguistic issues that arise after the medieval period are not what they have studied particularly, nor do they find themselves expert in the linguistics of Early Modern English. Even Middle English specialists may face Old English grammatical aspects with trepidation. So educators from both fields come into the teaching of this course feeling secure in certain aspects and a bit insecure in others. If we consider who indeed is a true specialist in the History of the English Language, our characterization of such a person then becomes a bit more evasive, for researchers in the field generally focus on particular periods of the language and therefore identify them- selves more as specialists in the period rather than as specialists in the History of the English Language. Researchers who investigate lan- guage issues related to Middle English, in other words, present themselves as Middle English specialists; the same holds true in Old English. In fact, if we look through a handful of recently published volumes of research in the History of the English Language, we find that most authors capture particular grammatical aspects of a particular time period rather than consider these aspects diachronically over suc- cessive periods of time. In a recent (1998) vol- ume edited by Stein and Sornicola, we find the following articles: ● Grammaticalisation, Textuality and Subjec- tivity: The Progressive and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ● The Language of ‘wit’ in Piers Plowman ● Relative Sentences in Middle English: The Paston and the Cely Letters. We find this same representation in To Explain the Present: Studies in the Changing English Language in Honour of Matti Rissanen, a 1997 volume where, for instance, we find an article “Speaker Innovation, Textual Revision and the Case of Joseph Addison”, although a few articles do attempt larger diachronic studies. Historical Linguistics 1995, a volume edited by Richard M. Hogg and Linda Van Bergen focusing on research in Germanic Linguistics, is perhaps more specifically centered on language change. We find modern language studies in sociolin- guistics(dialectandattitudinalstudies),arange ofarticlesonthe theoryoflanguage change,and articles focused on aspects of language within a particular historical period but that take into consideration other historical periods in their analysis: for example: “The Development of Secondary Stress in Old English”; “Post-verbal Complements in Old English”; “Morphological Restructuring: The Case of Old and Middle English Verbs.” My point here is that these volumes of cur- rent research in the field reflect the interests of specialists in the History of the English Lan- guage; that is, specialists in Old English, in Middle English, in historical linguistics, in TEACHING THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN OUR NEW MILLENNIUM 45
  3. 3. Germanic linguistics, in sociolinguistics, in morphology, in 17th and 18th century litera- ture, and so forth. The specialist in the History of the English Language, in other words, is most often indeed a specialist in a related field and so we must conclude that the History of the English Language is actually an interdiscipli- nary field rather than one that is narrowly defined. This interdisciplinary nature enriches the field, yet paradoxically educators as a result do not view themselves as expert and therefore shy away from pedagogical discussion. The student audience Now that I have considered who the educators are, I would like to characterize our audience, the students who by chance or by design appear in our classroom for such a course. At Eastern Illinois University, the History of the English Language is available to seniors and graduate students. The mix is generally mostly undergraduates with a few graduate students pursuing a master’s degree. There are no pre- requisites for the course so most students enter the course without having taken even one lan- guage or linguistics class. The Structure of the English Language and Introduction to Linguis- tics are offered in the department at the sopho- more and junior levels, but most students in the History of the English Language course, have, for some reason, been able to avoid such classes. Most students are fulfilling a language requirement for English education or are sim- ply general English majors. Most undergradu- ates as well as the graduate students have had little or no training in reading or examining medieval or historical texts. In addition, stu- dents come to my class with very little training in English history, nor do they reveal a confi- dent sense of literary history. It is no wonder, then, that first-time educa- tors feel daunted by such a survey course that encompasses historical linguistic theory, mod- ern linguistic theory, and textual and historical studies over a thousand years. And yet it seems that, in teaching such a course, the biggest challenge for us as educa- tors is to attempt to define specifically what we believe are the goals of such a course, what skills or knowledge we want to be able to develop in our students, and how we wish our students to use this knowledge after they leave our classrooms. The difficulty lies in the fact that in considering common goals for such a course we must consider a mixed audience: one that includes elementary education seniors and secondary education English majors who will be out of the classroom as stu- dents and teaching themselves very shortly, and one that as well includes graduate stu- dents, who, though they might not yet have considered specializing in medieval studies or linguistics may now be introduced to such an idea or may even already have decided that this is an area they are likely to pursue and may have some knowledge already about his- torical language study. Graduate students who like the History of the English Language tend to then choose a concentration in medieval studies, so the History of the English Language course is an excellent beginning background course to recruit and interest students in fur- ther medieval courses. Textbooks and topics In some respects, the textbooks we have avail- able to us for teaching the course dominate our way of viewing our goals for the course. Pyles and Algeo’s The Origins and Development of the English Language and C. M. Millward’s A Biog- raphy of the English Language are perhaps the most widely used textbooks, along with their accompanying workbooks. Both books provide a descriptive linguistic approach to the field, the focus of which is, as Pyles and Algeo state in their Preface, a description of “the internal his- tory of English – its sounds, grammar, and vocabulary” (v). Millward states the difficulties of writing such a textbook, for it is “impossible to do justice to both the theory and the sub- stance of the history of English, even in a two- semester course,” (v). Millward, as a compro- mise, focuses on a description of the internal history of the language but provides additional short discussions on the “political and cultural events” that have influenced language change (v). Millward also states that the aim of pre- senting the internal history of the language is to show that “languages and language change are systematic” and that “nearly everything in the history of English has left its traces on the English of today, (v). In contrast, Baugh and Cable in A History of the English Language, another widely used text- book, emphasize in the Preface “the full atten- tion paid [in their textbook] to the historical and cultural setting of the development of the language” (xiii). Their aim is to present “a 46 ENGLISH TODAY 73 January 2003
  4. 4. TEACHING THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN OUR NEW MILLENNIUM 47 proper balance between what may be called internal history – sounds and inflections – and external history – the political, social, and intellectual forces that have determined the course of that development at different peri- ods” (Baugh in first edition quoted in Baugh and Cable xiii). Baugh and Cable, however, even though attempting to strike a balance, fall short on the linguistic material, leaving unex- plained important chunks of the language’s internal history. It is difficult to decide, then, in a one-semes- ter course with such a mixed audience, which material to leave out and which material to foreground. How essential is it for education majors to learn major changes from Indo-Euro- pean to Germanic, comparative reconstruction methods, and Grimm's Law and Verner’s Law? Likewise, am I as concerned that my students can identify and characterize linguistic features of British English and Scottish and Irish dialects as I am that they study features of African-American English, understand a little of its history, and read about current contro- versies that surround its use in the classroom? In other words, from a purely descriptive view- point, there is no doubt that reading and exam- ining and analyzing British, Scottish, and Irish dialects is enriching and demonstrates colorful variety, yet ultimately I wonder how we want our students to use this material in their futures. Are not the study of language attitudes that surround the use of dialects more valuable to their future experience? It seems, too, that our textbooks fail to make connections to current modern language con- troversies. What our textbooks do not fore- ground, and what is especially relevant today, is that many current language issues are bound to the history of prescriptivism that the stu- dents see unfolding from the 18th century onward. Students, sometimes for the first time, realize that standard variety is chosen for social reasons and tied to the society’s attitudes about people who speak those and other non-stan- dard varieties. Language and gender issues, and also second language issues (especially as they relate to xenophobia and nationalism in the United States) in addition can be explained in terms of that history, and Standard Ameri- can English today exemplifies these issues in conflict and in transition. Studying the history of the language enables us to see clearly how these issues, at a linguistic level, are not natu- rally inherent to internal grammatical systems but are rather imposed on them and sustained by particular groups of people. Likewise, what is one to do with chapters that include long lists of vocabulary items such as we find in Chapter 12 in Pyles and Algeo, “Foreign Elements in English Word Stock”? Each section includes long lists of words bor- rowed from Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Ital- ian, German, the Near East, India, Iran, Africa, Native American, and so forth. Our textbooks have a way of divorcing language from the peo- ple who use it. Might it not be more engaging to summarize briefly the cosmopolitan nature of our modern vocabulary and explore ways that people use the language and vocabulary to express various identities and voices in their texts? The same approach applies to chapters on Other Englishes. My point here is not to politicize the field. However, in taking a traditional descriptive lin- guistic approach, our textbooks fail to make relevant why it is important to study language history in the first place. My view just expressed here primarily concerns treatment of the language from 1800 onward. Language, text, and an evolving subject As far as the early material is concerned, I ques- tion too the way our textbooks list paradigms of the grammar of each period without engag- ing students in examining and discovering why it is useful to learn such a tool. And, as a lin- guist, I do recognize this aspect of the course as valuable to our students, for, without examin- ing the grammar, the students’ critical aware- ness of language remains undeveloped and unchallenged, and our students are left with only a general sense of our language history. Without the paradigms and descriptive fea- tures, it is impossible to develop a critical awareness in students that allows them to ana- lyze and recognize elements in historical texts on their own. This relation of language to text is what is missing in our textbooks. I would like to see more discovery of textual elements in the material rather than activities and exercises that simply reiterate aspects of grammar. I do believe that one important goal for the course that gets overlooked is, after all, textual. The course offers a way of introducing students, sometimes for the first time, to the notion of historical text: it engages them in hearing and
  5. 5. 48 ENGLISH TODAY 73 January 2003 pronouncing the language of different peri- ods; it teaches them to notice language, to look very carefully for features of language that are familiar and also not-so-familiar to them; it shows them different visual represen- tations of text and helps them to identify and recognize graphic conventions of different historical periods. These are all skill-building exercises that train the mind in ways that not all literature classes do. The course also challenges the stu- dents’ very notion of book and text, especially relevant in today's ever-changing technological environment. Dennis Freeborn’s (1998) text- book, From Old English to Standard English, is a recent attempt to bridge this gap. I have titled my paper here very closely to M. J. Toswell’s (1995) article, “Teaching Old English in the Next Millennium: Why? And How?” for several reasons. First, I would like to purposely link the arguments Toswell articulates on why the teaching of Old English remains important to the English curriculum to arguments for teaching the History of the English Language, for many of those arguments indeed apply just as well. For instance, in order to understand our language of today, “we must consider the issues … of yesterday” (81); in order “to place our own culture in any kind context, we need a sense that is more than superficial of at least one culture” (81). The History of the English Language, like Old English, provides students with “a sense of the rich historical tradition that is literature” and develops in students a careful “attention on details of the language” (81). But I would also like to purposely link the concerns the author raises that center on the changing place of Old English in the current English curriculum to concerns faced by the language and linguistics courses within that same curriculum. Toswell states that the field of Old English studies “is, or is about to be, under the most sustained attack it has ever faced” (80) and laments the fact that “the study of Old English/Anglo-Saxon has been margin- alized by the mainstream world of English studies …” (80). I would like to quote here Toswell’s conclusion: For the first time in its century-long history, the study of English will in the next few years be compressing another century into its curriculum. There will be some who argue that Old and Middle English should include the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well and that lately the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been acknowledged as having unexpected common territory – in order to make room in the academic timetable for a wide selection of twentieth-century literatures. My incipient paranoia is not entirely unfounded because the subject in which I teach and learn remains the least understood subject in an English department. In a recent article (1999), “Marginalizing Grammar,” I too have expressed these same concerns for the language courses in English departments, namely The Structure of the Eng- lish Language, Introduction to Linguistics, and the History of the English Language. I point out in that article that non-traditional curricular courses have put expanding pressure on tradi- tional requirements in the major. And it is true that the language courses are being perceived more and more (because they are not in the political mainstream) as old-fashioned, tradi- tional, and even conservative when looked at side-by-side with new courses being proposed into the curriculum. As a result, there is increasing pressure to justify why English majors should be required to take a language course at all, since the elim- ination of the language tier of classes would help to get other much-needed courses in. Like- wise, much as Toswell laments, the language and linguistics courses in English departments are perhaps the least understood by members of English departments. English professors in general have little extensive training in linguis- tics. Lodged in English departments, language courses have theoretical foundations in the field of linguistics, not English. Not being entirely convinced of the value of learning the workings of grammatical systems, many department members are disinclined to come forth passionately in support for the study of language, especially when there is less room for luxury now, less room for courses perceived as nice-to-have but not essential. Conclusion I believe this debate, however challenging, is productive. Being able to articulate the useful- ness of what we do, being able to articulate the goals we set out to achieve with our students, and being able to explain how particular skills and knowledge we develop in our students will help them in their futures are essential
  6. 6. TEACHING THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN OUR NEW MILLENNIUM 49 questions to revisit in all our work. In writing this paper, I realize that I am reluctant to admit that I am not sure how I justify the importance of the History of the English Language course to elementary education majors. I cannot change the fact that we have no pre- requisites for any of the English courses in our department. That is a simple economic issue. Without prerequisites we ensure greater num- bers of students to enroll in classes; prerequi- sites simply limit enrollments. In light of this, all I can do is suggest to Elementary Education advisors that they steer students into the Struc- ture of the English Language or Introduction to Linguistics before suggesting the History of the English Language as a possibility simply to meet upper-division requirements. After all, how does the History of the English Language course give elementary education majors skills they will use in their upcoming teaching? I would like to be able to say that just introduc- ing any student to a new area of language study, as the History of the English Language does, may perhaps spark some interest in them later in their lives and end up being meaningful to them at some later date. However, in our new millennium, this goal of study of language for its own sake is no longer acceptable. And, when put to the task, how does one defend the language tier against literature courses that specifically aim to develop social and political critical awareness in our students, whose direct purpose is “a commitment to social betterment of a troubled world (Radavich 112)”? Although clearly the History of the English Language course achieves a fair amount of this, can we honestly say that this is its primary aim? Much of the time spent in the course is devoted simply to how internal grammatical systems work. That this is time well-spent and valuable to students and offers them an analytical tool to help disci- pline their minds in unique ways is, to me, evi- dent. But in the large scheme of today's English curriculum, where do we place this realm of language training? This linguistic knowledge has historically assumed an unchallenged posi- tion, but in today's market this can no longer be taken for granted. It seems to me that it is especially important at this time in our history of teaching the His- tory of the English Language that those of us who teach medieval and language courses involve ourselves formally and actively in this debate. We need to articulate among our- selves, but also to our colleagues, what we do as professionals; otherwise, we may find one day that the language courses in the depart- ment have all been quietly subsumed into a composition course with a three-week unit called Language and that Old English is offered once every ten years. Ⅲ References Algeo, John. 1993. Problems in The Origins and Development of the English Language. 4th edn. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace. Baugh, Albert C., & Thomas Cable. 1993. A History of the English Language. 4th edn. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. Buck, R. A. 1993. “Marginalizing Grammar.” In English Today 15 (October) pp. 31–35. Cable, Thomas. 1993. A Companion to Baugh and Cable’s ‘History of the English Language. 2nd edn. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. Freeborn, Dennis. 1998. From Old English to Standard English. 2nd edn. Ottawa: University of Ottawa. Graddol, David, Dick Leith & Joan Swann. English: History, Diversity, and Change. New York: Routledge, 1996. Hogg, Richard M., & Linda Van Bergen. 1998. Historical Linguistics 1995. II: Germanic Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998. Millward, C. M. 1988. A Biography of the English Language. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace. —. 1990. Workbook to Accompany ‘A Biography of the English Language.’ Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart. Nevalainen, Terttu, & Leena Kahlas-Tarkka, eds. 1997. To Explain the Present: Studies in the Changing English Language in Honour of Matti Rissanen. Helsinki: Societe Neophilologique,. Pyles, Thomas, & John Algeo. 1993. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 4th ed. Fort Worth, Harcourt Brace. Radavich, David. 1999. “Creative Writing in the Academy.” In Profession: 106–112. Stein, Dieter, & Rosanna Sornicola, eds. 1998. The Virtues of Language: History in Language, Linguistics and Texts. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Toswell, M. J. 1995. “Teaching Old English in the Next Millennium: Why? And How?” In Profession: 79–84.
  7. 7. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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