In a world overflowing with television advertisements, radio programs, newspapers, smartphones and the internet, modern humans are ceaselessly inundated with language; and yet, despite our constant experience with words, most of us have little if any knowledge about where these words come from or how they got the way they are. Providing answers to some of these questions is Centre College’s Charles J. Luellen Professor of English Mark Rasmussen and his class on the history of the English language.
“I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t interested in his or her own language — in the histories behind the words we use, or in the variations in dialect and the histories behind those,” Rasmussen says. “To study the history of our language is to learn more about who we are, because language is such an intimate part of our being.”
Rasmussen taught the course as early as 1989 after first arriving at the College, but had a decade-long hiatus before returning to it in 2012, when Centre approved a new minor in linguistics. As a result, the course is now offered every two years.
“While I enjoyed tremendously teaching it before,” says Rasmussen, “these last two times, it’s been especially pleasurable. The simultaneous spread of technology and globalization over the recent past has given a fresh relevance, I think, to the study of English and its history over time.”
The course begins with an introduction to the Indo-European language family (to which English belongs) before moving on to thorough explorations of Old English, Middle English, Renaissance English and Modern English.
“We consider issues like, ‘is texting the death of English as we know it?’ or ‘will English always be a world language?,’” Rasmussen explains. “I also have students complete a linguistic autobiography — an account of the ways that they speak and write and the influences on how they use language.”
At the end of the term, students will complete a final project on some aspect of language, such as gender and language use, the use of regional dialects or the history of obscene words.
“A lot has changed in the categories of what we consider to be obscene from Chaucer’s time to ours,” Rasmussen notes. “Like everything else having to do with the history of English, those changes tell us a lot about who we were and who we have become.”
For Amanda Ramsey ’15, the course was an intellectual cornerstone in her academic career.
“My favorite part of the course was the final project,” she says. “It was an excellent chance to use what we had learned and applying that to something which interested us. In my final project, I was not only able to use technical aspects of language such as grammar, but I was also able to incorporate historical and sociolinguistics; it’s actually what made me want to minor in linguistics.”
Indeed, by the end of the course, students will know more about origins of words like “O.K.” and how compound words like “stud muffin” and “ear worm” get created. The seeming mystery of why certain nouns are pluralized with “s,” while others like “mice” and “geese” are not, will be revealed. And students will also gain insight into some of the stranger quirks of spelling in English, including the reason behind the College’s British rather than American spelling of the word “Centre.”
Ultimately for Rasmussen, the course — while offering fascinating insights into how we view our world and communicate about it to others through language — has a value beyond the histories or meanings of words.
“Especially in my early years teaching the course, I would have students who were ashamed of speaking a local dialect that had been stigmatized as uneducated or uncouth,” he explains, “and I can’t tell you how liberating many of them found it to learn that everyone speaks a dialect, and that all dialects have a history, a story behind them that can tell us about ourselves.
“To be proud of your language and its history is to be proud of who you are,” he adds, “and in that sense, the course can be meaningful to students in a very personal way.”
Learn more about linguistics at Centre.
By Mariel Smith