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Evening Lectures Discuss “The Curious History of the English Language”

by Kate Croxton

The University of West Georgia’s College of Arts and Humanities hosts the first of several lecture series, this one entitled “The Curious History of the English Language.”

Evening Lectures Discuss “The Curious History of the English Language”

UWG Provost and Professor of English Dr. Micheal Crafton talks to a crowd gathered at UWG Newnan about how the English language has evolved over the years. During one of the discussions many light moments, he pointed out that the Chaucer character in the movie "A Night's Tale" was not quite historically accurate.

Over the course of four nights, four professors from UWG are discussing the English language and how it has evolved over time. The series will look at the Indo-European origins of the English language and follow its growth from the fringes of the European culture to its dominant position today. The professors cover various topics about the nature of English spelling, the differences between Old, Middle, and Modern English and the world of American dialects.

The first lecture, “Old English and Its Indo-European Roots,” was Tuesday, April 12, at 6 p.m. at UWG Newnan. Dr. Chad Davidson, director of the School of the Arts and professor of English, spoke about the origins of the English language in the British Isles and displayed literary works written in Old English.

“It’s so hard to lecture about this because it’s an entire class,” explained Dr. Davidson. “It has to be a bit of a whirlwind tour. I’m going to filter it all though what I know best, which is poetry. I’m going to put up the first poem ever written in English, which is Caedmon’s ‘Hymn’ from the 7th Century. I’m going to use that poem as a touchstone and pull vocabulary out of it to show different parts of our linguistic past.

“I want people to develop a bigger appreciation for the language that they take for granted every day,” continued Davidson. “Some of the words we speak every day come to us from thousands of years ago. It’s a richer appreciation for the language, and it’s a lot of fun to look at.”

The next lecture, Dr. Micheal Crafton’s “Middle English and Geoffrey Chaucer” discussion, took place on Tuesday, April 19, at 6 p.m. at UWG Newnan. Dr. Crafton, UWG’s provost, talked about how the Norman French conquest of England changed the language fundamentally and forever. He will utilize passages from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” to show how to make sense of and pronounce Middle English.

“I’m going to begin with the French conquest of England and talk about that event and how the French language was superimposed on the Old English language,” explained Dr. Crafton. “Those two languages intermingled over about 100 years and developed this new thing called Middle Language, which is the language of Chaucer. We’ll discuss all the literature of that period written in the Middle English language.

“It’s interesting, because it’s very Frenchy and, yet, it’s still English, and a lot of basic English words are still there,” continued Dr. Crafton. “Some aspects of English pronunciation and grammar are still there, but the spelling becomes very weird in Middle English. It’s a mess because basically three languages are mashed together: Latin, more than one version of French, and English.

The third lecture in the series is “The Renaissance and the Making of Modern English” by Dr. Meg Pearson. Her discussion will take place Tuesday, April 26, at 6 p.m. at the Carnegie Library in Newnan. Dr. Pearson, an associate professor and chair of the English department, will illustrate how William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Margaret Cavendish, and other Renaissance authors helped created the English language as we speak and write it today.

“My portion of the talk is less about grammar and more about syntax, the order in which words go,” explained Dr. Pearson. “We see a big change in the Renaissance from Latinate sentences – where the verb came at the end and there were a lot of various, complicated phrases – toward simpler spoken and written expressions. I’m going to use lots of interesting texts from writers during the Renaissance period to show how English is changing. I’m going to try and focus more on how those words get put together in English and how that influences how we speak today.

“I hope to show that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were actually simplifying language,” added Dr. Pearson. “They were forming the language that we think of as our own modern English. Ultimately, I want people to have a greater ease with Renaissance English and a greater understanding of where our language comes from and where it’s headed. Language is an incredibly fluid and dynamic thing.

The final portion of the series, entitled “Dialects of the American South,” takes place Tuesday, May 3, at 6 p.m. at the Carnegie Library. Dr. David Newton, professor and former chair of the English department, will explore the oral traditions and diverse dialects that have shaped the culture of the American South. He will discuss how the Southern drawl actually works and where the word “y’all” comes from.

“My specialization is historical linguistics, and I am focused on the English language in America, especially its historical development,” said Dr. Newton. “My presentation is going to really focus more specifically on Southern dialects and Southern speech. I’ll be answering questions, like ‘Where does it come from?’ ‘What are its characteristics today?’ ‘What is the Southern drawl?’ ‘Is it a real thing?’, during my lecture.

“I think people have a kind of natural curiosity about language in all sorts of ways,” continued Dr. Newton. “People are always paying attention to how other people speak. We make judgments about people all the time based on how they speak. I try and correct misperceptions about what language is and how it works. What I like to do is to try and talk about those particular kinds of perceptions, how they emerge and, to some extent, their inaccuracies. One goal of my presentation is to try to make folks aware about how it is that we need to think about language from a scientific perspective.”

The ultimate goal of the series is to make it a yearlong event and provide topics on various subjects. The English department has already received approval for two more lectures in the fall. The topic for the lectures is not yet determined because the department wants to take suggestions and see what people are interested in.

“It could be history, philosophy, art, music, or theater,” explained Dr. Davidson. “Basically, anything that our college does. We ultimately want this to become an item where everyone knows in the community that on Tuesday nights, they should look and see what’s going on at the Newnan center because there will be something interesting going on that is free and open to the public.”


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Posted: April 21, 2016

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