Teaching Historical Linguistics

Steen Schousboe, Copenhagen


In the course of the l9th century, English was established as an independent field of study in the University of Copenhagen. In l883 a fairly specific curriculum was introduced , and from the beginning the history of the English language as well as the reading of Old English and Middle English texts were obligatory disciplines and formed a substantial part of the curriculum as in most other European universities.

Historical linguistics and the reading of medieval texts were both abandoned as obligatory disciplines in 1976. Among the most important reasons were

  1. The growth in other linguistic fields
  2. The unrelenting nature of the work required in the historical disciplines
  3. The succinct (or even turgid) style of the textbooks
  4. The narrow scope of historical linguistics as it was taught then
  5. External reasons

Since 1976 very few people have graduated from my department who were knowledgeable about, let alone specialists in historical linguistics. A vast scholarly field (and one in which several Danish scholars have excelled) is dying out in Copenhagen University, and the end, the retirement of the last historical linguist, is now in sight. This brief historical outline will have a familiar ring to many people in other universities, and a considerable number of us feel that the present situation is intolerable. We must make a new attempt at teaching historical linguistics, simply because we are the last generation who will have the chance.

In the following I will discuss the negative influences listed as 1) - 5) above and suggest ways of overcoming them. The approach which I will present may be briefly characterized in the following manner:

I conclude by suggesting a course curriculum designed for a one-semester course.

1. The growth in other linguistic fields

The l960's and 70' s saw a dramatic growth in linguistic fields which were not intrinsically diachronic. Transformational grammar, speech act philosophy and/or pragmatics, and sociolinguistics, to mention only the most prominent. The growth in these areas has by no means abated since the 1960's, and other disciplines, like psycholinguistics and cognitive science, are claiming their share of the curriculum.

The effect of this development has been two-fold: It has influenced the way in which we teach some traditional linguistic disciplines, notably phonetics and grammar, and it has greatly reduced or eliminated, crowded out, as it were, others, namely historical linguistics and classical philology. A parallel development may be seen in literary studies, where the increasing emphasis on critical theory has led to a decay in literary history.

It seems obvious to me that in order to teach historical linguistics today we need to incorporate some of the basic assumptions of the "new” disciplines. While it may be hard to define the role of speech act philosophy within the field of historical linguistics, there can be no doubt that sociolinguistics offers important insights in the establishment of linguistic norms and the spread of linguistic change, or that cognitive science and psycholinguistics can both contribute to our understanding of the way in which language (vocabulary and grammar) is structured and restructured. Many recent publications in grammaticalization and the study of metaphor bear witness to this.

2. The workload

As in most other universities, the teaching of historical linguistics in my department was accompanied by courses in which Old and Middle English texts were studied. This approach must have seen natural, even inevitable, to scholars of the 19th century, but it has a serious drawback in that it increases the work required from the students enormously. Since the aim of the Old and Middle English courses was to enable students to read Old and Middle English texts, and since it takes long (certainly more than a year) for modern students to acquire the necessary reading fluency, historical linguistics took up a very considerable portion of the linguistic syllabus. Since there was little point in arguing for a reduced workload in these courses (what is the point of being able to read half a sentence of Old English or half a text of Middle English?), the defenders of historical linguistics felt obliged to adopt an all-or-nothing stance, a policy which may have postponed the reduction of historical linguistics in the syllabus, but did not prevent its final abo1ishment.

While I believe that it is possible and worth -while to teach historical linguistics without attempting to give students an ability to read Old and Middle English, l do not want to give the impression that such reading ability is useless. On the contrary , l think it can be extremely rewarding, but since it necessarily involves hard work over a long period, and work of a nature with which modern students are not too familiar, I think that it must be reserved for students who are willing to put in the many hours necessary. Thc constant use of a dictionary and a grammar to get through a text was something that students were familiar with fifty years ago, when Latin was obligatory in the Danish Gymnasium (High School) and modern languages were taught very differently from what they are now. To put it bluntly : the heavy reliance on reading of authentic texts became a millstone round the neck of historical linguistics, at least in Copenhagen, and it would be futile to try to revive the teaching of historical linguistics without ridding it of that millstone.

3. The style of the textbooks

As late as the 1970's Copenhagen students of Old English began with Wyatt's celebrated Anglo-Saxon Reader. The first line of the Preface reads: "The War has left its mark on this book. ” A former student once told me how surprised he had been when he realized that the war referred to was World War I, and for the rest of his student days he had as little to do with historical linguistics as possible. But of course there is nothing inherently wrong with an old reader. As long as the selection and the commentary are in order it may serve its purpose very well, and l believe that there are still many teachers who find Wyatt's Reader useful.

An equally long service life cannot be expected from a textbook (or coursebook), since scholarly findings and methods are constantly changing while historical texts remain more or less the same. And yet the scholarly style of the 19th century was still fashionable in historical linguistics in the 1960,s and 70's. Anyone familiar with Sievers, Brunner, Luick or Sweet will recognize this style immediately: The book is divided into short numbered paragraphs, the information is given as succinctly as possible, and running text, in which presentation, exposition and discussion may take place, is extremely rare. In short: The books are unreadable, and that is equally true of their successors, e.g. Pinsker (1959) and Campbell (l959). But they were never designed to be read in the way one reads ordinary books. They were meant to be reference books, and as such are still extremely useful. But in an age in which excellent textbooks appeared in many other linguistic fields, the limited use which was made of readable textbooks in historical linguistics in some universities, Copenhagen among them, became a factor against the discipline itself. And yet such readable textbooks did exist, witness Jespersen's Growth and Structure of the English Language (first ed. 1905) and Baugh & Cable's A History of the English Language (195l).

Today there is no shortage of textbooks in historical linguistics. Two eminently readable introductions appeared in l993 : Fisiak's An Outline History of English and Barber's The English language: a historical introduction. The latest book which I have seen, Blake's A History of the English Language (1996) , with its unconventional design, will be the choice of many teachers, and l must not omit the admirable book and TV-serial The Story of English.

4. The narrow scope

In Copenhagen as well as in several other universities, the teaching of historical linguistics was centered round historical phonology. In fact, the dominance of phonology was such that many students left the university with a conviction that S equaled L . This is hardly surprising in view of the heavy reliance on the scholarly tradition referred to above, Sievers, Brunner, Luick, etc. , but it meant that the discipline was not as strong as it could have been when it came under attack. There can be litt1e doubt that among students the proportion of phonologists vis-à-vis linguists of all other descriptions lumped together must be approximately the same as with graduates: they are a minority, as are all other sub-branches of linguistics. Even a short modern coursebook, e.g. any one of the three mentioned above, contains much more external history , and much more about non- phonological aspects of language, than the old tradition, and this is a great advantage for the contemporary teaching of historical linguistics. The discipline no longer presents itself as being almost sui generis, but is openly related to other disciplines like sociolinguistics and syntax. Historical linguistics can be used to test the validity of a sociolinguistic hypothesis or throw light on a common grammatical error. At the risk of sounding over-optimistic I should go as far as to say that historical linguistics, rather than standing apart from or taking time from the other linguistic disciplines, can in fact enhance the linguistic insight and awareness gained in other disciplines. I think it is fair to say that in the 1960, and 70's, many historical linguists were too slow to recognize the potential importance of work done in other branches of linguistics, and the apparent or real isolation of the discipline made it an easy target when new subjects demanded their fair share of the curriculum.

Yet the self-imposed iso1ation of many historical linguists at the time went further than the mere disregard of contemporary work in sociolinguistics, grammar and psycho- linguistics. Phonology itself, the backbone of the classical tradition in historical linguistics, was studied in a way which seemed to have very little to do with general phonetics. Copenhagen may be an extreme case, but I was not the only student to wonder at the terminology used. While we talked about phonemes and allophones in phonetics classes, the teachers in historical linguistics more frequently referred to letters. The Prague School and the Copenhagen Glossematics were never mentioned, and when two teachers finally taught a course using Chomsky & Halle's The Sound Pattern of English (l968) it was felt to be too little and too late.

5. External reasons

I believe that the scholarly and didactic problems which I have described above are sufficient to explain why the position of historical linguistics in our curriculum was threatened in the 1970's, but I do not think that the discipline would have been ousted completely without additional forces from the outside. These forces were of a political nature, partly economic and partly ideological.

Due to an economic recession, unemployment rose dramatically. This was also true of academics. There was no longer any guarantee of a job once students had taken their degree. This led to a general loosening of the curriculum. The reasoning was that since our set curriculum could not guarantee our candidates a job, why not let them choose their own subjects and specialize in fields where they thought they would have better chances of finding employment? Out went the obligatory courses in historical linguistics and with them most other restrictions on the free choice of courses. A degree was no longer defined as a fixed s of courses but as a fixed number of courses. The idea of a core curriculum was abandoned in the upper level (3rd through 5th year) of our programme.

Naturally, some academic disciplines thrived on the new freedom which students were given in their choice of courses while others suffered. Historical linguistics suffered more than most, a fate shared by literary history. This was not coincidental. The ideological trends of the 1970's were heavily in favour of concentrating on our own time, and historical studies were not considered relevant or worthy. I think it is fair to say that for many students, taking an interest in historical studies came close to being reactionary. How could you study a Middle English dialect rather than the contemporary speech of Brixton and remain politically correct?

The anti-historical trends of the 1970's are now much abated. It remains to be seen whether historical linguistics may be resurrected in Copenhagen. Below, I have outlined a course which I intend to teach next year. While I do not believe that there is much controversial in what I have said above, the course description below is open to all kinds of criticism. l shall be very grateful for your comments.

6. A course description

The course is designed as a one-semester course for 3rd, 4th or 5th year students. This means that there will be 14 classes of two hours each, and that the work required will be one quarter of the usual annual workload.

The course presupposes a full command of English, one year of English phonetics, two years of Modern English grammar, and a brief general introduction to some linguistic disciplines, notably historical linguistics, semantics, sociolinguistics and pragmatics. Ideally, most participants will have some additional training in these disciplines. This can be obtained in a separate introductory graduate course taught each year.

Core reading will consist of one general book, say Barber, mentioned above. For their exams, students are required to hand in a list of their reading, amounting to at least 600 pages. Of those 600 pages, not more than half may consist of elementary teaching material. Barber would fill that half, and would take up approximately the first 6 weeks of the semester. In the remaining 8 weeks, texts of a more specialized nature are to be read. Typically articles from scholarly journals and extracts from books which are not intended as textbooks.

In addition to the common and obligatory reading covered in class, there will be a list of suggested reading. This list will be given to students at the beginning, and they will be encouraged to choose a field in which to specialize. The list will be divided into areas: Historical phonology, grammaticalization, historical syntax, historical semantics, and historical pragmatics.

At each class meeting there will be a presentation from one or sometimes two students. They will present a text (a paper or a chapter from a book) which is not part of the core syllabus, and two discussants (who have also read the week's text) will lead the discussion. A colleague and I have found that only by naming two discussants beforehand can we ensure that a proper discussion will actually take place. Nothing is so counterproductive as speaking to an uninformed and hence unresponsive audience, and the general willingness of students to prepare texts which are not part of the curriculum is not to be trusted. The presentation and the ensuing discussion will normally take about half an hour. All participants must undertake at least one presentation in the course of the semester. I believe that the value of such an experience is very considerable. Students perform better in exams if they have tried something similar in class.

For their exams, then, the students will present a reading list, half of which consists of the set text(s), the other half of reading which they have chosen individually, and which is not in the nature of course books or teaching material. Scholarly papers, intended for specialists, are the norm. This means that in a class of 20, there may be 20 different exams to set, but this complication is compensated for by the increased enthusiasm of the students. A Danish proverb says that det er lysten der driver værket, willing hands make light work, or, as Shakespeare puts it (Othello, II, 3): Pleasure and action make the hours seem shorter. Under our regulations, there are three ways to take an exam. Regardless of the form, the examiner must set a question which is based on the reading list of each student. Since this reading list is individual, and comprises at least 300 or 400 pages of specialized material, the student is required to move well above the introductory and general level in his or her performance.

  1. Oral exam, 45 minutes, with another 45 minutes for preparation. Students are expected to present a coherent discussion of the set question, and be ready to answer questions from the examiner afterwards.
  2. Written exam, 5 hours. Students are expected to write an essay about the set question. Usually they hand in between 10 and 20 pages, but there is no official upper or lower limit.
  3. Home paper, also known as term paper. As the title suggests, this is a longer essay, 7 - 8.000 words (20 pages) written at home.


  1. Barber, Charles: The English language: a historical introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1993
  2. Baugh, Albert C. & Thomas Cable: A History of the English Language, Routledge, London, 195l
  3. Blake, N.F. : A History of the English Language, Macmillan. 1996
  4. Campbell, A: Old English Grammar, Oxford University Press, 1959
  5. Chomsky, Noam & Morris Halle: The Sound Pattern of English, Harper and Row, New York, 1968
  6. Fisiak, Jacek: An Outline History of English, Kantor Wydawniczy Saww, Poznan, 1993
  7. Jespersen, Otto: Growth and Structure of the English Language, Teubner Verlag, Leipzig and Stechart, New York, 1905
  8. McCrum, R. , William Cran & Robert MacNeil: The Story of English, Viking Penguin, New York, 1986
  9. Pinsker, Hans Ernst: Historische englische Grammatik, Max Hueber Verlag, München, 1959
  10. Wyatt, Alfred J.: An Anglo-Saxon Reader, Cambridge University Press, 1919