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Discussion Details

Title: To h*** with HEL: Discussion Results
Submitter: Stefan Dollinger
Description: To h*** with HEL, Language history in bachelor programmes: survey results

On 14 March 2006 a call for input from linguists of all persuasions
concerning the importance (or irrelevance) of a language history component
in linguistic or language bachelor programmes, with special emphasis on the
importance on the history of the English language (HEL) in English
linguistics programmes, was announced on LINGUIST List at:

The following is a summary of those who sent a reply to any of the three
questions proposed (see * to review these questions). It should also be
stated that the replies were in no manner solicited: the call went on
LINGUIST List, as did a reminder four weeks later, and at no stage any
selection of respondents was undertaken (for some views of historical
linguists on that subject see, for instance, Ritt and Fischer’s 1997 survey at:, 16 Apr. 2006).

The present results are therefore exclusively based on the answers of
colleagues who found it interesting and worth their time to reply to this
discussion. No special invitations were distributed at any point.

A total of 14 colleagues, from a total of ten countries (excluding one
undisclosed location) in four continents replied. My thanks go to those
colleagues, who found the time to respond (in order of submission):
Christian Mair (D), Peyton Todd (unknown), And Rosta (UK), Laura Callahan
(USA), John Phillips (JP), Andrew Linn (UK), Rachele de Felice (UK), Janet
M. Fuller (USA), Rémy Viredaz (CH), Anna Fenyvesi (HUN), Johanna L. Wood
(DK), Attila Starcevic (HUN), Fay Wouk (NZ) and anonymous researcher from

* Questions asked:

1) Do you, as linguist of whatever trade or school, think that a language
history component (e.g. the history of the Dutch language in Dutch
programmes) should be part of the B.A. language curricula? If so, why, if
not, why not?

2) What are the practices in relation to diachronic linguistics at your
home department? (Please briefly describe your department in a sentence)

3) What would be most beneficial for the advancement of your discipline
(whichever strand of linguistics you work in) in relation to diachronic
studies? This could range from getting rid of historical linguistics and
teach other areas to focussing on diachronic studies. Does historical
linguistics (socio-historical, descriptive-historical, historical corpus
linguistics etc...) have any bearing to your field at all?


The cumulative feedback will be reported mostly qualitatively. However, it
needs to be stated that, since the call was neither designed nor intended
as a proper survey, this can only serve as a more diversified feedback on
some of the opinions in the field. It is to be hoped, however, that some
new impetus is offered by this kind of summary. The responses are presented
as largely anonymized extracts from the ‘feedback pool’ to emphasize the
amalgamated nature of this concise summary of opinions in the scientific
community. Question (1) is treated first, with questions (2) and (3)
collapsed under the second heading.


Of the 14 replies, 13 were in favour of teaching diachronic linguistics in
bachelor programmes in linguistics and language. In literature programmes,
one respondent suggested an optional language history course. One reply
suggested that, if the sole goal of a B.A. is “a high degree of [language]
competence, fluency and accuracy”, then language history is “of little use
and could be dropped or reduced to the mere basics”. Another opinion stated
that a diachronic course should be compulsory in any bachelor degree in
linguistics. In this sense, ALL replies saw at least some “usefulness” in
the teaching of language history, while the vast majority of replies,
however, 12 out of 14, went much farther than that. As a well-known corpus
linguist put it:

“As any sociolinguist knows we must use the past to explain the present and
the present to explain the past”

and therefore

“a language historical minimum ‘fig leaf’ covering the pre-1500 history of
English is necessary orientational knowledge for everybody branching out
from linguistics into cultural studies […] or medieval literature [or any
other English language-related discipline]”

Other reasons for the inclusion of a language history component are listed
below. A component of diachronic language study…

a) makes the “case (to students who often arrive with deeply prescriptive
attitudes) for the objective study of language change and synchronic
b) promotes “an understanding of the modern language”, including
dissimilarities and relics.
c) enables students to “understand, and in some measure forgive, the
irregularities in English spelling”.
d) teaches students, in many contexts exclusively, “some sort of context
for the facts and observations [students] have made about language [be it
their L1 or L2s]”.
e) allows for the “de-politic[ation] (ie removing the partisan rhetoric
[sometimes taught in secondary schools] of attitudes towards their own and
other languages”, which is, at least in a Turkish, western Asian context,
“the most important long-term effect of the history of the language courses”.
f) helps students “to understand and appreciate variation and how it arises
[and helps them] to understand ‘standard’ languages and how they arise […].
[A history of the language course] pulls together different levels of
linguistics and shows that language is a system”.
g) is “an important part of the BA curriculum, since it is important that
students get some insight into the diachronic aspect of English in addition
to several other aspects (social, SLA, etc.)”, as one sociolinguist put it.
h) is, in the case of English, “admittedly useful, because the Great Vowel
Shift and a few other phenomena have left omnipresent traces in the
(terribly complex and arbitrary) relation between spelling and
pronunciation in that language”, and is also useful for other languages
“insofar as it helps understand [features] of a given language”.
i)provides a more complete picture of language: “Knowing a little bit of
history of the language helps students integrate linguistics with the study
of history, culture and literature. Regardless of which aspect is their
main interest in the study of the language, these connections are essential”.
j) teaches students “that [the] discipline [i.e. language study] is
relevant to everyday talk not just to an abstract theoretical construct”
[…], “it makes you a well-rounded linguist, whatever your speciality”.
k) ensures familiarity with linguistic core concepts without which “one can
hardly claim to have studied linguistics without having studied this basic
facet of language [i.e. language change]”.

Clearly, these assessments of the importance of language history components
come from a wide array of backgrounds, ranging from theoretical linguistics
via anthropological linguistics to foreign-language instruction
backgrounds. As such, these statements provide insights into what may be a
common core, the shared benefits of historical linguistics and it is
remarkable to see what benefits historical linguistics offers across the
subdisciplines of language study in the broader sense.

The outcome of this peer assessment comes really as a surprise. While a
balanced and neutral call for input (the convenor in this discussion is a
language history proponent) was adopted, with the exception of perhaps one
self-entitled “advocatus diaboli” response, *all* replies emphasized - in
varying degrees - the importance of diachronic language study in linguistic
and language curricula today.

(Questions 2 & 3)

Based on the input provided, the following tendencies were gleaned from the
feedback pool in respect to departmental recognition of historical
linguistics. One department, Sheffield, expanded their history models,
Freiburg explicitly includes those components, and the Yamaguchi department
realizes that more diachronic teaching would be beneficial, Oxford has
compulsory language history elements in some B.A.s, while in Southern
Illinois *all* anthropologists agree that “historical linguistics is one of
the essential courses in the program” and a closer connection of historical
and sociolinguistic teaching is desirable. In Aarhus, HEL is a required 2nd
year core course, in Auckland (in a linguistics and TEFL department), my
informant would find it necessary to convert the elective historical
linguistics course into a requirement, while in a Turkish department of
foreign languages, the informant would like to see “a compulsory course in
HEL and sociolinguistics”, which are now only electives. One scholar in
England suggested the inclusion of a “very small compulsory component” that
is largely based on internal changes, while a larger one, also compulsory,
would detail language external developments. Clearly, again, one’s
educational goals decide one’s focus.

Some schools reported apparent reservations against language history
components, while at the same time a lack of expertise in diachronic
linguistics was perceived as pressing. It seems that the zeitgeist works
against diachronic linguistics, as a certain unwillingness to admit or even
see the relevance of historical language study, in its broadest sense,
within the many linguistics of today, lies at the core of this problem. One
school, however, the University of Sheffield, has again not only recognized
this state but also managed to be heard in academic committees as they are
now “completely committed to this element of study of English language and
linguistics [HEL], as we [Sheffield faculty] believe that historical
understanding underpins all our efforts to understand language, and we have
also found that students are responding particularly enthusiastically to
historical topics”.

Two Hungarian universities report as not having a compulsory language
history module in their brand-new B.A. programmes (they offer electives),
while in M.A. programmes a HEL course is a requirement. In one case,
however, a B.A. programme without HEL seems be the result of a lack of
expertise in the field (no faculty member has a HEL specialization), while
HEL is still considered “an important part of the BA curriculum”. The
suspension of HEL in the other school is linked to a new “BA programme
[that] will be open for virtually anybody” and the constraints one has to
operate within, such as selecting the more apt students for the higher
semester courses. In both cases suboptimal constraints (lack of faculty,
lack of entrance requirements) seem to have dictated the reduction of HEL
and not content-based decisions.

It is interesting to point out that even in one Japanese school, the lack
of expertise (no historical linguist on staff) compromises the goals of the
faculty to *increase* the language history component.


What should we make of these results that almost exclusively provide
positive feedback for diachronic linguistics in bachelor programmes,
although, at times the constraints operate against historical linguistics?
Where are the opponents of diachronic language studies in this survey, as
no one even remotely suggested the irrelevance of the discipline, or may
the feedback even be a sign that historical linguistics must be perceived
as an integral part of modern-day linguistics? While it will be up to the
reader to decide this, I personally would wish that many of the schools
which are currently restructuring their academic programmes (including my
alma mater in Vienna) may adapt the way that Sheffield or Freiburg have
chosen, i.e. the integration of diachronic language study in their degrees,
to their specific needs and situations *including* bachelor programmes.

As one linguist put it: “Our students are the teachers of the future, I
think they should know about language, power and identity”, which, for her,
explicitly includes diachronic developments. And if our students won’t
become teachers, what kind of linguists would they be without *any* idea,
i.e. the proverbial fig leaf, of the history of one’s object of study? It
is certain that their deficiencies would go far beyond a few missed chances
to impress guests at dinner parties with the one or other intriguing word
Date Posted: 24-Apr-2006
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
LL Issue: 17.1234
Posted: 24-Apr-2006

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