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Module QXL-3375:
Historical Linguistics

Module Facts

Run by School of Languages, Literatures, Linguistics and Media

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


The answer must be focussed and structured.
The answer must show a better-than-average standard of knowledge and understanding of the relevant areas of Historical Linguistics.
The linguistic examples used in the answer may be based upon examples from the literature but must also include original examples.
The answer must show evidence of background study with at least some from primary sources.


The answer must be highly focused and well-structured.
The answer must show comprehensive knowledge and detailed understanding of Historical Linguistics.
The answer must show some original interpretation, new links between topics and/or a new approach to a problem.
The answer must show evidence of extensive background study using primary sources.


The answer must address the question.
The answer must show a basic knowledge and understanding of the relevant key areas and principles of Historical Linguistics.
The student must show evidence of being able to apply the principles to the analysis of language and linguistic examples and/or data.
The answer must show evidence of some background study.

Learning outcomes

  1. Students will know how to compare languages and identify the similarities and differences between them, and how those factors illustrate the historical relationship between languages.

  2. Students will know what the central questions and aims of historical linguistics are by critically evaluating studies in the field.

  3. Students will understand the principles underlying language change and how these can be used to describe the history of languages like English.

  4. Students will understand how the etymology of words and grammar can be identified and analysed, particularly in the case of Celtic and/or Germanic languages.

  5. Students will understand the principles of reconstructive analysis in reconstructing languages and how this can inform us on the various mechanisms that occur in language change.

  6. Students will be able to perform reconstructive analysis using language data.

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
ESSAY Essay on a topic in historical linguistics

Essay on a topic in historical linguistics, involving examining and reviewing pertinent literature in the chosen area.

REPORT Analysis of etymology and linguistic reconstruction (take-home exam)

Take-home exam involving analysis questions on etymology and linguistic reconstruction.


Teaching and Learning Strategy

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 seminars (5 over the 11 weeks)


Weekly 2 hour lectures (for 11 weeks)


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.
  • 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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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

Optional in courses: