Module QXL-4475:
Historical Linguistics

Module Facts

Run by School of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics

20 Credits or 10 ECTS Credits

Semester 1

Organiser: Dr Peredur Webb-Davies

Overall aims and purpose

Historical Linguistics is the study of how languages change over time. This module presents students with issues in language change, with a focus on how languages back in the mists of time developed to have the form they now have, but also considering how historical change is essentially not different to contemporary changes happening in the languages the students know and use.

Students will learn about both theoretical and practical aspects of this discipline. Topics to be studied include learning about etymology (the origin of words) and how to explain individual etymologies in detail. Students will learn about change across different parts of grammar, in particular sound change (like metathesis and syncopy), semantic change (like amelioration and pejoration) and morphological change. Students will learn about borrowings and cognates, and will gain in-depth knowledge about the relationships between languages and how this is crucial to our understanding of historical language change.

Students will learn about the comparative and internal methods of reconstructing old languages (with a particular focus on Germanic and Romance languages) and will be given the opportunity to do their own reconstructions. They will be encouraged to explore languages hitherto unknown to them, as well as learn more about the languages that they do know, so as to gain an appreciation of the differences and similarities across languages. Focus will be given to historical (i.e. older) forms of languages in most cases.

The module will focus on Proto-Indo European languages and in particular will explore the histories of Romance, Celtic and Germanic languages - and there will be sessions examining key issues in the grammar of historical English and historical Welsh - but students will also consider languages from other language families as a point of comparison (e.g. Basque, Finnish). Nevertheless, the terminology and concepts covered are presumed to be universal to all language, and so while familiar languages (e.g. English) will be used to introduce concepts to students, they will then be able to use this knowledge and apply it to other languages and to appreciate the universal and systematic nature of linguistic change.

Throughout the lectures and tutorials students will be given practical exercises and tasks, including group work, to test their understanding.

Course content

This module explores the field of historical linguistics and philology from both a theoretical and a practical viewpoint. Students will learn about theories of language change and will learn to critically evaluate studies of historical language change. They will also acquire practical skills in identifying the origins of words and grammar in languages that they know.

Lectures will introduce students to the big picture and will provide them with concrete and theoretical examples of the topics being discussed, while seminars will be an opportunity to go deeper into the topics in a student-led pedagogical manner.

While the lecturer will provide examples of language change (etc.) from his own experiences, students will be highly encouraged to explore languages of their own choice that they find interesting so as to find their own examples of the kinds of changes being learnt about.

The following types of topics will be covered in lectures and seminars:

  • Introduction to historical linguistics
  • Etymology
  • Exploring Proto-Indo European
  • Reconstructive analysis and the comparative method
  • Sound change
  • Semantic change
  • Morphological change
  • Issues in Germanic historical linguistics
  • Issues in Celtic historical linguistics
  • Issues in Romance historical linguistics

Assessment Criteria


B :
Data and/or review of literature must be collected, organized, and analysed with care and an appreciation must be shown of some of the problems involved with collecting data and/or preparing a review of literature.
The answer must show a better-than-average standard of knowledge and understanding of issues in Historical Linguistics.
The answer must show evidence of background of primary sources.
Assertions must be supported by reference to a theory and/or empirical research. The answer must show evidence of analytical thinking.
The answer must have a coherent structure that is adhered to in the most part; relationships between successive parts must be generally easy to follow.


A :
Data and/or review of literature must be evaluated critically in a logical manner.
The answer must have an originality of exposition and understanding; the author’s own thinking should be readily apparent.
The answer must show an advanced standard of knowledge and understanding of issues in Historical Linguistics.
The answer must show clear evidence of extensive reading of primary sources.
The answer must show a clear line structure in which each successive stage is explicitly linked and the reader is explicitly told why these parts are relevant to the study.


C :
The answer must involve the analysis of language data or the critical analysis of existing linguistic data and/or research from a historical linguistics perspective.
The answer must show evidence of some background study of primary sources going beyond material discussed in lectures.
The answer must be relevant to the research topic chosen.

Learning outcomes

  1. Students will be able to explain in detail the different types of sound/syntactic changes that have occurred in any given instance of language change, with critical and evaluative reference to relevant theory.

  2. Students will know and engage with a broad range of central and current questions and aims of historical linguistics are by critically evaluating studies in the field.

  3. Students will know how to compare diverse languages, identify and analyse the similarities and differences between them, and to critically evaluate how those factors illustrate the historical relationship between languages.

  4. Students will understand in detail the principles and theory underlying language change and how these can be used to describe the history of multiple languages.

  5. Students will have a deep understanding of how the etymology of words and grammar can be identified and critically analysed, particularly in the case of Celtic and/or Germanic languages.

  6. Students will understand in detail the principles of reconstructive analysis in reconstructing languages and how this can inform us on the various mechanisms that occur in language change and factor into their own research.

  7. Students will be able to perform reconstructive analysis using language data and be able to feed this into their own research projects.

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
REPORT Assignment 1: Data analysis report

This will be a take-home assignment consisting of some short-form answers on questions in historical linguistics and a linguistic reconstruction task.

ESSAY Assignment 2: Essay on a topic in historical linguistics

You will be given a choice of questions to answer in the form of an essay or essays, requiring you to discuss an aspect of historical linguistics based on what you have learnt via the module and your wider reading in the field.


Teaching and Learning Strategy


Weekly 2 hour lecture for 11 weeks.

Private study

In their own time, students will be expected to do required readings for each class, do further research/reading on the topics and prepare assignments.


Fortnightly 1 hour seminar.


Transferable skills

  • Literacy - Proficiency in reading and writing through a variety of media
  • Self-Management - Able to work unsupervised in an efficient, punctual and structured manner. To examine the outcomes of tasks and events, and judge levels of quality and importance
  • Exploring - Able to investigate, research and consider alternatives
  • Information retrieval - Able to access different and multiple sources of information
  • Inter-personal - Able to question, actively listen, examine given answers and interact sensitevely with others
  • Critical analysis & Problem Solving - Able to deconstruct and analyse problems or complex situations. To find solutions to problems through analyses and exploration of all possibilities using appropriate methods, rescources and creativity.
  • Presentation - Able to clearly present information and explanations to an audience. Through the written or oral mode of communication accurately and concisely.
  • Argument - Able to put forward, debate and justify an opinion or a course of action, with an individual or in a wider group setting
  • Self-awareness & Reflectivity - Having an awareness of your own strengths, weaknesses, aims and objectives. Able to regularly review, evaluate and reflect upon the performance of yourself and others

Subject specific skills

  • Research skills - students will be able to undertake advanced independent research, involving formulating a research question, identifying and deploying appropriate linguistic methodology (theoretical or empirical), data collection techniques (experimental or field-based), as well as the selection and application of appropriate theoretical frameworks in order to adequately analyse and interpret data.
  • Writing & scholarly conventions - students will be able to present data, argumentation, findings and references in written form in keeping with the conventions current in language science and English language studies to an advanced standard.
  • Oral presentation skills & scholarly conventions - students will be able to present data, argumentation, findings and references in oral form in keeping with the conventions current in language science and English language studies, to an advanced level.
  • Analysis & interpretation skills - students will be able to analyse and interpret data accurately and to draw appropriate conclusions based on the application of appropriate analytic and theoretical frameworks available in linguistics and English language studies.
  • Problem solving - students will be able to evidence sophisticated problem-solving skills in formulating problems (factual, empirical, theoretical) in precise terms, identifying key issues, and developing the confidence to address challenging problems using a variety of different approaches
  • Evaluation & reflection - students will be able to critically evaluate to an advanced standard a particular position, viewpoint or argument in relation to a specific area of investigation. They will be able to reflect on the efficacy of a particular approach, practice or performance, and moderate these as a consequence in order to achieve specific goals.
  • Independent investigation - students will develop the ability to plan, design and execute a highly original and significant piece of research or inquiry, either independently or as a member of a team in order to discover a specific solution to an outstanding issue or question through searching out and synthesising written, visual and oral information. Students will also develop skills of independent investigation, including interacting with peers and participants/informants.
  • Personal organisation - students will develop the ability to undertake self-directed study and learning with appropriate time-management
  • Learning to learn - students will learn to reflect upon, modify and improve their learning strategies
  • Information technology - students will develop the ability to use computing and IT skills in order to find, store, interpret and present information, to produce a range of electronic documents and to use software confidently
  • Effective communication - students will develop the ability to communicate effectively, appropriately and confidently, in a range of contexts, to different audience types, and making use of a range of supporting materials
  • Working effectively with others - students will develop the ability to work well with others as part of a group or a team
  • Awareness of and appreciation for linguistic and cultural differences - students will develop an awareness of and an appreciation for the range and nature of linguistic and cultural diversity.
  • Knowledge of the nature of language origins, change and use - students will demonstrate detailed knowledge phenomena and findings relating to the nature of language origins, the way language changes, and factors involved in and affecting language use.
  • Knowledge of linguistic theory and application - students will demonstrate a detailed knowledge of terms, issues, principles, aspects and best practices related to the study of human language and linguistics.
  • Understanding of the nature and organisation of language - students will demonstrate detailed knowledge of observations and findings relating to various aspects of linguistic phenomena and organization.
  • Understanding the nature of commonalities and differences across languages - students will demonstrate detailed knowledge of phenomena and findings relating to universals and diversity exhibited by and across languages.
  • Knowledge of the relationship between language and society, culture, and/or embodied experience - students will demonstrate detailed knowledge of phenomena and findings relating to the complex interdependent relationship between language, society culture and/or embodied experience.

Courses including this module

Compulsory in courses:

Optional in courses: