English is changing all around us. We see this in new words such as “bling” and “email,” and from the loss of old forms such as “shall.” It’s a human impulse to play with language and to create new words and meanings—but also to worry about the decay of language. Does text messaging signal the end of pure English”? Why do teenagers pepper their sentences with “like” and “you know”?
By studying how and why language changes and the story behind the everyday words in our lexicon, we can learn a lot about ourselves—how our minds work and how our culture has changed over the centuries.
Beyond this, words are enormously powerful. They can clarify or obscure the truth, set a political agenda, and drive commercial enterprises. They have the power to amuse and to hurt. They can connect us to each other or drive us apart. Sometimes words are unsayable, and other times words fail us completely because, for all the vibrancy and breadth of English, we still have major gaps in the lexicon.
In The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, you’ll get a delightful, informative survey of English, from its Germanic origins to the rise of globalization and cyber-communications. Award-winning Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan approaches the subject like an archaeologist, digging below the surface to uncover the story of words, from the humble “she” to such SAT words as “conflagration” and “pedimanous.”
In this course, you’ll
- discover the history of the dictionary and how words make it into a reference book like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED);
- survey the borrowed words that make up the English lexicon;
- find out how words are born and how they die;
- expand your vocabulary by studying Greek and Latin “word webs”; and
- revel in new terms, such as “musquirt,” “adorkable,” and “struggle bus.”
Professor Curzan celebrates English for all its nuances and curiosities. By stepping back to excavate the language as a linguist, she shows you there is no such thing as a boring word.
Chart the Story of Cultural Contact
Why do most words for animals in the field—cow, sheep, pig, deer—come from Old English while most words for meat on the table—beef, mutton, pork, venison—come from French? It turns out that when the Normans invaded England in 1066, their language infiltrated ours, and English owes much to the Norman rulers of the 11th and 12th centuries.
As you’ll learn in The Secret Life of Words, English is an omnivorous language and has borrowed heavily from the many languages it has come into contact with, from Celtic and Old Norse in the Middle Ages to the dozens of world languages in the truly global 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed, the story of English is the story of cultural contact, as you’ll see when you
- meet the Norman-French rulers who gave us much of our language for government, politics, the economy, and law;
- encounter the infusion of Latin and Greek during the Renaissance, which provided English the language of science, the arts, music, education, literature, and linguistics; and
- take an A-to-Z tour of words from the world’s languages, from Arabic, Bengali, and Chinese to Yiddish and Zulu.
The world has never had a language as truly global as English, yet the language is not globally uniform. In addition to understanding the influence of cultural contact, you’ll learn about many of the regional differences within English, both inside the United States and throughout the world, with a specific look at British versus American English, the Midwest vowel shift, the synonyms of “y’all,” and more.
As Professor Curzan takes you through the centuries and around the world to reveal how our language came to be, she unpacks the myth that there was once a “pure English” that we can look back to with nostalgia. Even during the Renaissance, English purists were concerned about the infiltration of foreign words into English. You’ll delight in learning about the “ink-horn controversy,” named for the purists’ objections to long, Latinate words that required more ink to write.
This debate between the purists and the innovators has continued for centuries. Benjamin Franklin railed against using the word “notice” as a verb. Twentieth-century prescriptivists condemned the common use of the sentence adverb “hopefully.” And the stigma against the word “ain’t” is alive and well today. But are the prescriptivists right? Is English really in a state of decay?
See Why It’s an Exciting Time for English
Professor Curzan sympathizes with the impulse to conserve the old language, even citing the verb “interface” as one of the words she wishes would just go away. Yet despite this sympathy, she also recognizes the naturalness of change. Had the ink-horn purists had their way, we would be using Old English compounds such as “flesh-strings” for “muscles” and “bone-lock” for “joint.”
Because our language is always in flux, a study of English words allows you to trace
- technological innovations—“app,” “Google,” and the prefix “e-”;
- historical events—“chad,” “9/11,” and “bailout”;
- cultural changes—“flexitarian,” “unfriend”;
- human creativity and playfulness—“Googleganger,” “Dracula sneeze,” and “multislacking”; and
- conversational discourse markers—“um,” “well,” “now.”
In fact, Professor Curzan points out that with the rise of electronically mediated communication, future linguists may look back on the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a key moment in the language’s history, as revolutionary as the printing press. Throughout The Secret Life of Words, she reflects on such questions as these:
- Where do new words come from? Who has the authority to coin a word?
- How have text messaging, social media, and instant messaging affected our use of language?
- Who owns language? Can a corporation control a word?
- Is it possible to reform language?
Along the way you’ll look at gendered language and how words such as “hussy” and “mistress” have become pejorative; Internet communications and the nuance to acronyms such as “LOL”; technology-inspired new language such as “texting”; taboo words; and the language of sports, politics, love, and war.
You’ll discover that far from being a mere practicality, wordplay is a uniquely human form of entertainment. This course provides a wonderful opportunity to study slang and the creation of new words. You may not come away using terms like “whatevs,” “traffic-lighty,” or “struggle bus” in casual conversation, but you’ll love studying the linguistic system that gives us such irreverent—and fun—slang, from “boy toy” to “cankles.”
A Vibrant, Professional Guide
At the heart of this course is the wonderful Professor Curzan. With energy, enthusiasm, and a democratic approach to language, she takes you on a journey from Beowulf and the Battle of Hastings to modern-day blogs and chat rooms. She brings you teenage slang and Internet-speak, and she delves deeply into the history of English and the field of linguistics.
As an award-winning professor, a member of the American Dialect Society, and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, Professor Curzan knows her material, and she presents a wealth of information in this comprehensive course. But since the material is so enjoyable—“geektastic,” you might say—it hardly feels like learning.
By course end, you’ll come away with a new appreciation for the many varieties of English, and you’ll be equipped with the tools to build on these linguistic foundations. From the subtle negotiation of a word like “well” in conversation to the hidden relationship between “foot” and “pedestrian,” once you begin to explore the secret life of words, your understanding of English will never be the same.