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Winter Quarter '21

English 560: The Nature of Language

Professor John Webster

TuTh 3:30pm-5:20pm

Online via Zoom and Canvas

Office Hours: to be set up, and by appt

Assignments and Updates


Course Overview | Texts | Syllabus | Reading Schedule

Assignments and Updates | Blackboard

Course Overview:

The Nature of Language

The Nature of Language: or What Pops, Hums, Nasal Resonances and Precise Stuttering have Done to Make Human Civilization Possible 

Language is the most powerful and useful invention of the human species—even more important than learning to walk upright (which is still pretty amazing--see Bill Bryson's The Body!) and oppose one’s thumb and forefinger. There are trillions of words spoken every day around the world (linguists have estimated that the average human being speaks 15-17 thousand words a day—do the math for 7+ billion of world population!) in more than a thousand languages, and whether they are words of cooperation or words of war, they are still the primary way by far with which we connect with others.  More to the point here, they are also what enables any form of literary discourse, which most of us in an English department will be working with all of our lives. 

To be sure, the fact that our linguistic knowledges are almost always unconscious enables us to ignore how language works even when we are teaching books that are rich in every kind of linguistic practice.  This course would thus like to play a significant role within any of the many kinds of language the English Departments of the word employ. 

That said, this will be a course in a range of different linguistic directions, some more deeply considered than others:

The Linguistics of Linguistics (an introduction of the field to those who don’t yet have much knowledge of the field, along with explanation of why these matters are especially helpful for literature teachers)

Social Linguistics (including gender, race and world Englishes)

Philosophical Linguistics (including Austin and Grice along with the social/political linguistics of Robin Lakoff and George Lakoff)

Pedagogical Linguistics in English Department Classrooms, including implications for Stylistics, Cognitive Science, and L1/L2 classrooms (which are not the same thing as TESOL classrooms.)


Recommended: A good hardcover collegiate dictionary. You will also create your own textbook/portfolio via internet and other sourced readings. Along with those texts I will also provide a range of materials, either in class, on-line or through library reserve. And finally we'll also use How English Works, 3rd ed., Curzan and Adams. (This book in hardcover is expensive, and we won't read the whole of it. So you might want the e-version, priced at 39.99 for 6 months of rental, available at Pearson. If you prefer hard copy you might find someone to share the book with once you meet in class or try for a used copy on


(Much of what is given below is taken from syllabi I've written for my undergrad teaching. We'll do here some things I do with undergraduatates, because among the goals of this course is to think about why and how these materials can be taught to undergraduates.)

The subject of this class is pretty much what you've read above. Your main work will be to develop a research topic within parameters set by the class, and to explore that topic in order that you will be able both to submit a term project and to present the gist or value of that project to the class over the last week(s) of the class. I'm not yet sure how that would best be set up; we will determine that over the first few weeks of the quarter. In any case, to enable you to do the reading and research for this project effectively we'll spend the first half of the course ensuring that everyone has a substantial understanding of English phonology, morphology, syntax as well as their connections to other languages you know. Some of you have already have a deep grasp of at least some of these issues; if this all sounds as if it is all only review for you, then you have probably signed up for the wrong class!

Why so much writing? This is a question undergraduates ask. I tell them: First, writing is the single most effective way almost any of us have to make our learning active. The mere reading of assignments, by contrast, is an essentially passive process. Though your mind goes through steps enough to make the reading make sense, it rarely goes much beyond that point, nor is it forced to build connections to the conceptual frameworks you already have with any kind of strength or resilience. Writing can do that.

Second, the writing you do will prepare you for our time together in class. With your having been actively writing, class sessions will move faster, group work will be much more interesting and efficient, and every person in the class will actually have read the assignment and be able to contribute to the whole. Our work together will be better because you will have already made progress on the day’s work before class even begins.

Third, writing well truly is central to anyone's college education. It is, after all, a skill others expect you to have after a successful college career. So even if you haven't done so until now, you really SHOULD be writing constantly—so much so that it doesn’t feel like quite such a big deal in the first place!

What I want. My criterion for the response papers is ECI: “engaged critical intelligence.” You don’t have to be “right,” and you don’t have to be polished. You don’t even have to solve entirely whatever problem I give you. But I do insist on real effort, even if it’s only to narrate for me the difficulties you are having as you try to come to grips with the assignment.

How Much Time Should You Spend Writing? In the past some students have spent more time and anxiety on these responses than is necessary. Please understand: though I genuinely do want you to take this writing seriously, I’m not asking for a series of “English papers.” I call them “response papers” to suggest that their purpose is to be responding with an Engaged Critical Intelligence both to the reading and to my question(s) about it. In specific terms that means: I expect from you either TWO double-spaced typed pages, or ONE FULLY ENGAGED HOUR of writing. If you want to spend more time than that—fine. Just don’t go over two pages, or, when posting on line, over the word-limit.

My response to your responses. I certainly do want your papers to be coherent, but the daily response papers are not supposed to be fully finished works. And because they are informal in this way, I will also rarely read them with the same close attention I will give to your formal work. In fact, some of your writing I won't read at all. The primary usefulness of such writings is in the writing itself. I take it as axiomatic that you will get substantially more from this class by having written regularly throughout than you otherwise would—and end-of-quarter evaluations from earlier classes confirm that most students agree.

Moreover my intent is that these exercises will be useful to you whether I actually read them or not. Indeed, I will not collect every set of papers at the time you write them (though you will be collecting them as you complete them, and turning them in as part of the course portfolio at quarter’s end). And when I do collect them, my comments will be of the “OK,” “good,” or “I’d like to see more thinking going on here” variety. (If you want more specific response to your work, you are welcome to come talk with me during my office hours.)





Course Overview | Texts | Syllabus | Reading Schedule

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