The first part of this course is about the meandering diachrony (i.e. historical development) of the English language from its prehistory to the 21st century. English started its life as a Germanic language local to England in about the sixth century. This only changed around 1600, when the first colonizers settled in New England. Despite its local status for about a millennium, English has continuously been in close contact with other languages and cultures, resulting in what may be called a series of “historical Englishes”. When the Angles and Saxons met the indigenous Celts upon their arrival in Great Britain, their contact may have led to such famous traits of English as periphrastic do or the progressive. But Celtic was only the first in a long row: Old Norse, the Anglo-Norman and Parisian French dialects, Latin, even Dutch all left lasting traces in the English language. By means of a close look at the history of England, this part of the course aims at shedding light on how these historical Englishes are interconnected, raising interesting theoretical questions such as: Some changes in the English language have been surprisingly longitudinal and yet systematic (e.g. the Great Vowel Shift, or the convergence of new modal auxiliaries such as gonna, wanna, gotta). How can we account for this? This also requires attention to the underlying causes and motivations – be they communicative or physiological. What information can we derive from the written sources with regard to how English was spoken in the past? What is the relation between contact-induced and language-internal change? What was the role of dialect variation in the history of English? Is influence from another language any different from influence from another dialect?
The second part of the course considers synchronic (i.e., contemporary) variation in what is now commonly referred to as “World Englishes”. This implies a focus on variation that is not so much dialectal, concentrating on substandard varieties on the British Isles (or in, say, North-America), but rather global, looking at emerging indigenized varieties, partly though by no means exclusively in a (post-)colonial context. We will discuss settler varieties, so-called New Englishes and their relation to learner varieties, as well as English-based pidgins/creoles (which are not as marginal as one would think; e.g., Nigerian Pidgin English counts about 30 million native speakers). This part of the course raises interesting theoretical questions about the relation between diachrony and synchrony (can some varieties be called more conservative or progressive?), the sociolinguistic status of a standard language vs non-standard varieties (when does something count as an error?), and the causes and locus of creolization (is it a universal bioprogram causing children to develop a grammar from imperfect input, or primarily a contact phenomenon?). It also addresses such socially relevant issues as the status of World English (a violent predator preying upon local languages?), the definition of a mother tongue (in a multilingual context), and the symbolic struggle of localized varieties for recognition and normative autonomy.