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SEL8700 : English Historical Semantics

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Adam Mearns
  • Owning School: English Lit, Language & Linguistics
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


This module gives you the chance to explore a fundamental aspect in the history of the English language: the meanings of words and the ways in which they have changed across the centuries, from Old English (c.500-1100 AD), through Middle English (c.1100-1500), and into Early Modern English (c.1500-1750). We will examine both the evolving meanings of individual words and the crucial issue of how groups of related words work together in lexical and semantic fields, with changes in individual lexemes often having much wider implications for the way in which certain areas of life and human experience were conceived, discussed, and represented in the literature of earlier periods. To add depth to our investigation of these issues, we will also consider the sociohistorical contexts and their impact, e.g. in terms of the way in which key events established channels for loanwords from other languages to enter, and change, the vocabulary of English. As well as helping you to develop a detailed understanding of the English lexicon in its historical context, this module provides an opportunity for you to enrich your understanding and skills in the wider study of linguistics in two key areas. First, it will introduce you to current theoretical frameworks that inform not only the study of English historical semantics, but of lexical semantics in general and linguistic structures and features more broadly, enabling you to make a critical evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses as you apply them to the study of medieval and early modern English lexis. Second, with the module’s focus on empirical data, you will be further enhancing your general analytical skills and your familiarity in working with cutting-edge digital resources, in the form of the online dictionaries, thesauruses, databases, and corpora of historical English texts that will be at the heart of your research.

Outline Of Syllabus

Lectures introduce you to the principal topics and questions involved in the study of English historical semantics, examining the evolution of the English lexicon in relation to changes that can be traced in the meaning of individual lexemes and the organization of lexical/semantic fields. To provide a foundation for discussing examples of these changes, the lectures will also explore: (a) the unfolding sociohistorical contexts that played a part in shaping the diachronic development of the language from Old English to Early Modern English; (b) relevant theories and methodologies that can be applied to the description and analysis of lexical meaning, covering areas such as semantic change, the structural relationships between words and meanings in semantic fields, and central concepts of Cognitive Semantics; and (c) the digital resources that are central to modern studies of lexical semantics in the history of English. Small group classes focus on the discussion of core readings in lexical semantics and on analytical exercises examining data from the key resources (dictionaries, thesauruses and corpora of historical English texts, etc). In doing so, they give you the opportunity to develop your understanding of the topics introduced in the lectures and to practice the analytical skills that you will be applying in your summative assessments.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture221:0022:00Introducing key concepts and issues: (a) frameworks, techniques and resources for the study of historical lexical semantics; (b) the linguistic and sociohistorical contexts of developments in the English lexicon from Old English to Early Modern English.
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion166:0066:00Preparation and completion of mid-module and end-of-semester assignments.
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching111:0011:00Small group discussion focusing on: (a) core readings in historical lexical semantics; (b) analytical exercises examining data from dictionaries, thesauruses and corpora of historical English texts.
Guided Independent StudySkills practice130:0030:00Independent study using online resources identified in module materials.
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities145:0045:00Weekly preparation for lectures and seminars: selected readings and data analysis exercises.
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study126:0026:00General reading of relevant secondary literature.
Jointly Taught With
Code Title
SEL3441Medieval and Early Modern Meaning: English Historical Semantics
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

LECTURES support the Knowledge Outcomes summarized above by introducing key concepts and issues related to: (a) frameworks, techniques and resources for the study of historical lexical semantics in general and English words and semantic fields in particular [Knowledge Outcomes 1, 3, 4]; and (b) the sociohistorical contexts of developments in the English lexicon from Old English to Early Modern English [Knowledge Outcome 2]. In doing so, they provide overall coherence for the module and establish a foundation for the small group teaching sessions and guided independent study.

SMALL GROUP TEACHING SESSIONS (SEMINARS) provide students with the opportunity to: (1) consolidate their understanding of the topics and issues that are introduced in lectures and that reflect the module’s intended Knowledge Outcomes; and (2) practice and develop both the subject-specific and the general transferable skills outlined in the Skills Outcomes section above. They achieve these aims by focusing on: (a) the discussion of core readings in historical lexical semantics; and (b) analytical exercises examining data from dictionaries, thesauruses and corpora of historical English texts.

The STRUCTURED GUIDED LEARNING activities provide a framework for engaging with the lecture and seminar teaching, and through them with the intended Learning Outcomes, by identifying weekly preparation in the form of selected readings and lexical data analysis exercises. The GUIDED INDEPENDENT STUDY activities support students by identifying additional reading and online materials through which they can further develop their appreciation of the topics covered in teaching sessions and their familiarity with key resources, both of which will be central to the work they do in preparing and completing their summative assessments.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written exercise1M20750-word ‘lexical sketch’ (details below)
Essay1A803250-word essay (details below)
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

(1) The mid-module written exercise (20%, 750 words) involves a ‘lexical sketch’ outlining the treatment, representation and/or interpretation of a lexeme or concept (chosen from a list of options) in at least three of the digital resources (dictionaries, thesauruses, etc) that we will be working with in the module. This exercise is an opportunity to practice the kind of analysis that will form the basis for the end-of-semester assignment, as well as appropriate ways of presenting the results of such an analysis.

(2) The end-of-semester essay (80%, 3250 words) takes the form of a lexical/semantic field study, focusing on an area of English vocabulary chosen by the student (in consultation with the module leader). Using applicable theoretical frameworks and terminology associated with lexical semantics, and drawing on empirical evidence from appropriate sources, the study will analyse the range of related words/concepts involved in the composition of the field and – as appropriate to the chosen field – consider: (a) diachronic changes in the field within the period from Old English to Early Modern English; (b) the ways in which the composition of the field, or diachronic changes in it, were shaped by aspects of the sociohistorical context; (c) ways in which the interpretation of the meaning of words in the field refines or challenges existing definitions/classifications; and (d) ways in which the analysis has implications for the theoretical frameworks and/or methodological approaches that were applied. Guidance on ways of addressing all of these issues will be provided during the module.

The analytical exercises that constitute a key element of the seminar programme provide a basis for formative activities throughout the semester, promoting the skills in collecting, examining and interpreting data that will be a central component of both summative assignments.

Reading Lists