English and its Evolution

A lit­tle some­thing for the lan­guage buffs among us. The Struc­ture of Eng­lish Words (iTunes) is anoth­er Stan­ford course. To be exact, it comes out of the Stan­ford Con­tin­u­ing Stud­ies pro­gram (my day job), and we’re open­ing enroll­ments for our Fall term next Mon­day. (If you live in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, give our offer­ing a look. If you live out­side the Bay Area, then you may want to check out our pop­u­lar series of online writ­ing cours­es.) You can find the course descrip­tion for The Struc­ture of Eng­lish Words, taught by Pro­fes­sor Will Leben, direct­ly below. To find hun­dreds of oth­er free cours­es, then check out our col­lec­tion of Free Online Uni­ver­si­ty Cours­es:

Thanks to his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and lin­guis­tic fac­tors, Eng­lish has by far the world’s largest vocabulary—leading many of us to have greater than aver­age dif­fi­cul­ty with words, and some of us to have greater than aver­age curios­i­ty about words.

Our his­tor­i­cal and lin­guis­tic study will cov­er both eru­dite and every­day Eng­lish, with spe­cial atten­tion to word mean­ing and word use, to both rules and excep­tions. Most words orig­i­nat­ed with an image. “Reveal” = “pull back the veil,” “depend” = “hang down from.”

Change is con­stant. “Girl” once meant “a young child of either sex;” an ear­ly syn­onym for “stu­pid” was “nice.” Despite resis­tance to change among some experts and some mem­bers of the gen­er­al pub­lic, new words are enter­ing at an accel­er­at­ing rate, from “Franken­food” to “ungoogleable.” Are there good changes and bad ones? And who gets to decide? Explor­ing the his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary rich­ness of Eng­lish will sug­gest some answers.

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