Research Papers On History Of English Language

ENG367Y: Some starting points for research papers.


Your first research paper is due on January 15th (note extension of deadline by a week) (in class or by 6 p.m. at the Wetmore Hall porter, New College). Your paper should be about 3,000 words in length (12 250-word pages). Please identify yourself only by your student number and by an appropriate and appealing title.

Here are some suggestions for subjects: you’ll need to focus them into topics and to find sources, and I’ll be happy to help you do this (though not at the last minute). You must choose a subject from this list, or submit a 500-word proposal and bibliography (not by email) to me by Tuesday, December 11th for my written approval.

I am looking for

(1)     resourceful collection and selection of appropriate primary source material (historical texts (newspaper extracts, grammar book prefaces, code-switching poetry, dictionary data, etc.),

(2)     your synthesis of patterns in your data,

(3)     your ability to interpret/draw conclusions from these patterns your data,

(4)     if relevant to the topic, your ability to contextualize your findings in a critical consideration of appropriate secondary sources (books and articles).

Finding articles: choose Linguistics & Language Behavior at


PLAGIARISM. It is an academic offence "to represent as one's own and idea or expression of an idea or work of another in any academic ... work" (Faculty of Arts and Science Calendar). If I encounter plagiarism I must report it to my department chair, who must report it to the Dean. The U of T Writing Home Page has invaluable advice on “How Not To Plagiarize”. Please consult me at any time if you remain in any doubt about if and/or how to acknowledge the assistance of others.


1.       Describe and interpret evidence for the competition between English and at least one other language (French, Latin) as international languages in and after the seventeenth century. Focus on particular contexts – education, diplomacy, science papers, natural history terminology (focus: botany?), etc.

2.       Is English really a “neutral” language in multilingual countries? Do a comparative and historical study of the functions of English in 2 or 3 countries (e.g. India, Malaysia).

3.       Do a broad comparative study of the relationship between standard and regional/non-standard varieties of English in two different countries (e.g. India, Jamaica, Scotland). Pay attention to specific registers: education, newspapers, etc.

4.       Do a comparative study of the literary use of two different non-standard varieties of English (e.g. one or two English creoles, Indian English, Scots English). You may wish to focus on two comparable poets.

5.       Write a history of the poetic use of one non-standard variety of English (e.g., Jamaican Creole; Scots; Indian English).

6.       Do a close analysis of the functions of different varieties of English in the poetic corpus of one author. You might consider Kamau Brathwaite, Robert Burns; Robert Fergusson; Louise Bernice Halfe; Langston Hughes.

7.       Explore how and why one literary author before 1900 reflects and/or rejects and/or exploits the linguistic resources available to her/him. You might consider Shakespeare, Milton, Fergusson, Wordsworth, Dickens, (Edward) Lear, Hopkins, Hardy, Tennyson …

8.       “African American Vernacular”, “Ebonics”, “Black English” are some of many different terms that have been used to denote the same variety. Write a history of this semantic field, interpreting the implications and motivations for the use of each term.

9.       Write an essay on the transmission of poetry in the early modern period in manuscript rather than in print. What are the differences between “manuscript” and “print” and what literary and cultural issues are raised by these differences? Focus on a particular poet (i.e. John Donne, Anne Finch) or coterie.

10.   Write an essay on the functions of typeface/font since 1500. You’ll have to use facsimiles or real rare books for this one! You may focus on (e.g.) italic font.

11.   Write an essay that describes and analyzes changes in biblical translation from 1611 until the present day. Pick a passage and compare and contrast at least 5 different translations of it. You can get your data from literature online (

12.   British and American Anglicans have updated the Book of Common Prayer. Comparing one of the modern versions with the original (or the 1662, if it’s easier to find), describe and interpret some of the changes.

13.   Write an essay that describes and interprets the use of the second-person singular pronoun (thou, thee) in eighteenth-century literature. (You’ll need to focus this further!) You can get your data from literature online (

14.   Write an essay that describes and interprets the historical and regional distribution of postvocalic /r/ since 1700. You might relate this history to a consideration of variation within a specific geographic region (i.e. the east coast of the US).

15.   Can I go to the bathroom?” “Yes, you may.” “It may rain.” “Yes, it might.” Write an essay that accounts for and interprets such variation in the use of modal verbs.

16.   Is there any connection between the loss of the subjunctive mood in the history of English, and the change modals underwent from real verbs to uninflected auxiliaries?

17.   Write a history of the suffix –ess or the suffix –ist in English.

18.   Identify, interrelate, and interpret denotations, connotations, collocations and associations of a word (and related words) of social/cultural interest in the early modern period. How does your “word study” illuminate scholarly debates about the concepts denoted by your word? E.g. for the C18th: fiction and/or novel, public, polit*, gent*, class, liberal, honour, manly, imitation, coffee & tea, barbaric. You can get data from the OED, literature online

19.   For what it’s worth, you can get the online OED2 to spit out a list of (for instance) all the words “first attested” in a particular year. Pick a decade that you’re interested in, and interpret the data. (How) do these words reflect `reality’?! You might synthesize and interpret a lexical “snapshot” of it, or focus on and interpret a specific phenomenon (e.g., for the 1770s: the extent to which loanwords reflect cultural contact with France; botanical terminology, Linnaean classification, English vs. Latin; the relationship between imperialism and natural history terminology; Josiah Wedgwood and the marketing of china).

20.   Use the OED2’s “quotation searches” mode to generate a list of quotations from the 1770s and 1780s and 1790s containing the string slav. Describe and interpret the language used in the (anti-) slavery debates of the period.

21.   Describe and interpret patterns of lexical expansion and semantic change in an area where there has been significant change in recent centuries: household technology, social or racial attitudes, clothing fashion …

22.   Describe and analyze changes since the nineteenth or early twentieth century in the language of sports news (focus on a sport!) or of women’s magazines (zero in on descriptions of fashion?) or of advertisements in newspapers/magazines (focus further: kinds of ads). Collect 4 or 5 samples of the same topics through time from Robarts’ newspapers on microfilm.

23.   Pick a very specific register of English with which you are somewhat familiar and which has terminology particular to it. If this field has a magazine or journal devoted to it, draw your data from one issue of that journal and summarize that register’s primary strategies for augmenting its vocabulary (past and present). You might consider: sociolinguistics, computing, waste business, the stock market, military terminology, advertising, chemistry, medicine. Narrow down? sexually transmitted diseases, useful plants, military euphemisms.

24.   Compare and contrast the motives, means, and ends of two “Plain English” movements or two attempts at spelling reform. Pick comparable topics!

25.   Write a history of the marking of the possessive case (singular and plural, nouns and pronouns) since 1600, paying particular attention to the use and misuse of the apostrophe. You might want to focus on and to account for patterns in usage at particular periods in time, culminating in an explanation of methodically-collected PDE data.

26.   Describe and interpret variations in the spelling of words like hono(u)r since 1600 in British and American and Canadian English.

27.   What assumptions about language and lexicography conditioned the compilation of dictionaries at any one period (Renaissance, C18th, C19th, C20th)? [If you focus on the Renaissance, use Professor Ian Lancashire’s Early Modern English Dictionary Database!] You might compare the entries for words beginning with (for instance) ec-, or focus on dictionaries’ treatment of a particular subject (words denoting language, women, etc.).

28.   Compare and contrast the title pages and prefaces of at least four eighteenth-century grammar books: Lowth, Buchanan, Priestl(e)y, Fisher, Devis (some of these are on microfilm). Do the authors agree about why and how should English grammar be studied? How do they “market” their grammar? To what extent do the contents of the grammars reflect the emphasis in their prefaces? You may further focus the paper by considering one of these authors in more detail.

29.   Write a history of the codification of Canadian English: compare and contrast some well-selected entries from past and present dictionaries of Canadian English.

30.   A topic of your own choice. You must submit a 500-word proposal and bibliography in person (not by email) to me by Tuesday, December 11th for my written approval. I will not accept papers on topics that have not been approved.

31.   New! Identify and interpret conventions in the spelling of foreign proper names since 1600. You should focus your topic – on one non-Indo-European language, perhaps (e.g. Chinese).

This paper runs in alternate years and is available for the academic year 2017-18 (suspended in 2018-19).

This paper is available as Linguistics Tripos Part II: Paper 13,MML Tripos Part II: Paper Li.13,ASNC Tripos Part II: Paper 15 or English Tripos Part II: Paper 29.
Note: Students wishing to take this paper should have some elementary knowledge of Old or Middle English or another older Germanic language. Students who do not already have this are strongly advised to study first-year Old/Middle English either as self-study over the summer or (in the case of MML students) as a course on their year abroad.

English has changed enormously over the past 1500 years of its historical development: while Shakespearian English is comprehensible, albeit with some difficulties, to a casual reader, the gulf between today's English and the Middle English of Chaucer is considerable, and Old English is accessible only after careful study of the language. This paper examines the processes by which today's English, including nonstandard varieties of English, has emerged. It is concerned with how we establish historical change in the structure of the language by careful examination of textual and dialectal evidence and with how those structures and changes have been analysed and explained by different linguists. We ask what factors caused particular innovations to arise at particular times: for instance, why do we no longer have sentences where the verb follows the object? We look at the relationship between the language and the societies in which it was used: why were some forms chosen to be part of a prestige standard or why has differentiation arisen in the English of different parts of the English-speaking world.

The Michaelmas Term lectures will cover topics in the historical development of English grammar (development of auxiliaries, negation, loss of case, emergence of do-support, changes in word order, drift towards analyticity etc.). These lectures will examine the textual evidence for each of the changes in question, considering a range of explanations that have been put forward for the emergence and diffusion of these changes. Students will be encouraged to look at primary sources for the development of the language and will be introduced to searching the various electronic corpora available for the history of the language.

In Lent Term, the focus will shift to the emergence of variation in English. While much variation is longstanding and can be traced to the multitude of dialects in Middle English, other aspects are the result of recent innovation, whether due to internally motivated change or to language or dialect contact. We will consider the current state of dialect variability in English (e.g. variation in syntax of auxiliaries and modals or in patterns of agreement) and the historical processes by which that variation has arisen.

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