John M Webster
Wide-range introduction to the study of written and spoken English. The nature of language; ways of describing language; the use of language study as an approach to English literature and the teaching of English.
English Language Study introduces students to the most extraordinary thing human beings do: speak. Indeed, this fact of human behavior is so central to our lives that we paradoxically tend to take it for granted. We speak our words so much, so easily, and so automatically that we hardly even think about what we are doing when we do it.
But even if we are not thinking much about what we do when we speak English, in fact we are doing a lot. We look for words to fit our thoughts, and we judge them for how well they fit the context in which we use them. We put the sounds of the words we select together in carefully articulated ways, and we slot the resulting words into different structures, each of which creates different meanings even when we are using the very same words. And we do all these things at speed, not even noticing our actions.
How do we do it? How can all the tweaks, moans and pops that human beings so easily cast out into the air cause others to laugh or grow angry or reach out to take a hand?
It is actually all pretty amazing, and it sets us the problem: how can we capture even the basic facts of this extraordinarily ability to communicate?
All of which means: this class will introduce you to a range of language issues, like why grammar is your friend (and not boring at all), or how in spite of the fact that all the words we say English are made up of only about 40 distinct sounds, speakers can nevertheless say millions of completely different things. You will find out, too, why English spelling is so confusing, and how language change has caused enmity and war, or (with Shakespeare) how making language into poetry is often to take a first step towards making love.
Most important, you will learn something about yourself—about the ways language can control you much more than you control it, and about how knowing more about that control can give you at least some of the power with which to fight back.
Curzan and Adams Works, 2nd ed., 2009. How English Works, 2nd ed. 2009.
Student learning goals
Students will understand key dimensions of human language: what it is, in fact; how we produce it; how it has enabled us to surpass our natural limits; how it also constrains and limits us.
Students will learn elements of phonology (the scientific study of the sounds of speech), morphology (the scientific study of word forms), syntax (the scientific study of phrases, clauses and sentences), and semantics (the scientific study of how words and locutions mean).
Students will understand how language use takes on ethical dimensions when used in social situations. We'll study enough about American dialects enough to ensure we have the means to challenge conventional takes on regional and international Englishes.
We'll have a short excursion into the history of English, learning how English counts not just German and Norwegian as its relations, but Polish, Greek and Hindi.
Students will have reflected on their own language and how it does and does not "fit" conventional assumptions about how language works.
One primary goal here is to have fun with all of this. Some of this course seems hard to many English types, but it shouldn't. After all, if we can do English, who can?! So we'll do our best to enjoy what we do, find the comic as well as the serious in the story of the English language.
General method of instruction
Some Lecture, lots of exercises and low stakes writing, a certain amount of group work and cookies.
Basic intelligence and an open mind.
Class assignments and grading
Frequent exercises, response papers and an occasional quiz. Two midterms, a final, and a final project.
Success with graded exercises. No curve. Median grade in the class will likely, but not necessarily, be 3.3.