ENGL 507 English Historical Pragmatics

Studies in the History of the English Language: English Historical Pragmatics

Course Description:
Language critics decry the use of forms such as I think, I guess, and you know as empty fillers, as signals of disfluency, and as evidence of the decline of speech today, as in:

It wasn’t – quite honestly, you know, once you’re – I think I guess it might have been – you know, all of us sort of were aware of it, (spoken on NPR “Fresh Air”)

In contrast, linguists see these forms as serving important roles in structuring discourse and in establishing and maintaining social ties. They treat them under the rubric of “pragmatics”. What are we to make, then, of Chaucer’s I guess, I think, and I know?

He may nat be deceived, as I gesse
Poverte a spectacle is, as thynketh me
I am, thow woost, yet of thy compaignye

Those interested in Historical Pragmatics seek to discover whether similar or different pragmatic principles are at work and whether similar or different pragmatic forms are used at different stages in the language and how they develop over time.

This course is an introduction to the field of English Historical Pragmatics, which lies at the intersection of historical linguistics (language change) and pragmatics (meaning-making processes). It is a relatively young field, arising in the mid-1990’s with the publication of Jucker (ed.), Historical Pragmatics (1995) and Brinton, Pragmatic Markers in English (1996). In 2000, the Journal of Historical Pragmatics was launched.

The expansion of pragmatics itself (for example, in the recognition of the status of written texts as “communicative acts” and “legitimate objects of study in their own right”) and of the discipline of historical linguistics (for example, with a new focus on usage, including everyday and ephemeral usage, the recognition of varieties and genre-specific conventions, the evoking of pragmatic and inferential explanations of change, and the acknowledgment of the importance of context) have all contributed to the development of the field of Historical Pragmatics. The field has now reached a state of maturity, with, for example, the publication of Jucker and Taavitsainen’s large (700+pp.) Handbook of Historical Pragmatics (Mouton, 2010) and the first textbook of the field.

This seminar will be concerned with exploring the nature of Historical Pragmatics and its application to English. Topics of study will include inter alia pragmatic forms (discourse markers, address terms, connectives, interjections); interactional pragmatics (speech acts, (im)politeness); domains of discourse (scientific and medical discourse, newspapers, religious discourse, courtroom discourse, literary discourse, public and private correspondence). We will sample a broad range of articles treating these topics in the history of English.

Jucker, Andreas H. and Irma Taavitsainen, English Historical Pragmatics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013; selections from Laurel J. Briton, Pragmatics in the History of English. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.
Readings and case studies: A selection of articles and papers on English historical pragmatics (available on Canvas) – see Reading List

Course Requirements:
Students will be asked to:

  • lead the discussion on one of the assigned articles
  • present a seminar on the topic of the research paper (c. 20 minutes)
  • make four discussion postings on Canvas
  • write a research paper (of approximately 15 pages) – possible topics include:

1)         a study of a pragmatic form in an historical period or over time (in which case the use of available historical corpora of English could be used) (e.g., the rise of you know in Middle English, the use of you and thou forms in Early Modern English);
2)         a study of pragmatic forms in a literary or non-literary text from any period before Present-Day English (e.g. use of I gesse in Chaucer; the use of you/thou in a Renaissance play);
3)         a study of how a particular pragmatic function is realized in an historical text, an historical period or over time (e.g. the speech act of cursing or blessing, salutations, politeness phenomena);
4)         the genre conventions used in an earlier period (e.g., the conventions of scientific writing in the Early Modern English period).

Grade break-down

Discussion of reading                20%
Discussion postings                   12%
Seminar presentation                18%
Paper                                             50%

No background in linguistics is required, although at least one course in the English Language (English 320/330/331 or its equivalent) would be helpful. Knowledge of Old or Middle English is not required, but students will be expected to study a period of English prior to Present-day English (i.e., pre-twentieth century). Instruction in the use of historical corpora will be provided for students who wish to take such an approach.

All materials of this course (course handouts, lecture slides, assessments, course readings, etc.) are the intellectual property of the Course Instructor or licensed to be used in this course by the copyright owner. Redistribution of these materials by any means without permission of the copyright holder(s) constitutes a breach of copyright and may lead to academic discipline.