• 07811663361
  • kenneth.addison@spc.ox.ac.uk

Option 4: English Language, culture, clues & identity : fun with language across the Atlantic

Dr Caroline Cole


Our relationship with language is complex and many faceted; it is our most pervasive social function and the principal medium through which all other social functions take place. It is fundamental to the human condition. It defines us, and we use it to define the world around us. This introduction to topics in the English language will examine our daily use of English in various contexts and how this use reflects on identity and power in our communities.
In this five-week, co-taught course students will examine the function of language within a framework of socio-cultural analysis. After an introduction to the varieties of English, students will explore the codification of language through dictionaries and develop a nuanced understanding of how language is used according to context, function and effect. Students will consider ‘literary’ uses of language and ask the question whether there is such a thing as ‘literary language’ or whether this is a construct designed to differentiate a marketable commodity from our commonplace usage.

Weekly Tutorial & Seminar Programme

Week 1 ~ Standard English innit !

Students will use their personal use and understanding of the English language as a starting point from which to explore the varieties of language use, identify differences between oral and written forms, attune to the use of registers and codes in language, and describe some of the major ideological issues within current linguistic and popular debate.
Weeks 2 and 3 ~ Lexicography: ‘When I use a word . . . it means what I choose it to mean.’
(Humpty Dumpty in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass)

This component of the course, divided over two weeks, explores the development of the English language through the lens of lexicography, or the science of dictionary making. Students will address such questions as who ‘authorises’ the English language and what controls are exercised over neologisms and new usages? Who are dictionaries for, and is a truly descriptive record of the language ever possible?

Part I – This first session taking place in week two examines the evolution of the English dictionary from the ‘hard-word books’ of the early modern period to changing approaches to dictionary making in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, highlighting the practice of Samuel Johnson, Daniel Webster and the early editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. We will also look at ‘cant’ or slang dictionaries as reflections of their contemporary culture. We will round out this session by visiting the Oxford University Press Museum and a tour of the Oxford English Dictionary department at the Press.

Part II – In week three, we will turn to recent departures from traditional methods of lexicography. As the printed volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary and other large dictionaries become relics of the past, how do computerised language corpora and electronic media shape contemporary efforts to document and describe the language? With the advent of wiki-based open content dictionaries, can we theorise about a correspondence between democratic attitudes to language and (potentially) universal access to the resources of codification? In addressing such questions influencing modern lexicography, students will particularly look at online slang and text dictionaries and try their hand at composing sample entries.

Week 4 – Literary Language

Students will interrogate their preconceived notions about what represents literariness by attempting to articulate why certain texts/discourses are identified as ‘literature’ and why others are not. Having dismantled notions of definitive aestheticism they will then be in a position to attempt to determine for themselves what constitutes literary language.
Week 5 –Poetic Diction and Figurative Language

Building on the previous week’s work, we will approach a definition of ‘poetic language’ through discussing and challenging ‘qualities’ of poetic diction offered by poets and literary critics. Students will be alerted and attuned to the pervasiveness of metaphor in all kinds of discourse, and will be able to articulate and critique some of the theories associated with the deployment of metaphor in ‘literary’ texts.

Preliminary Reading

A short list will be sent out to all successful applicants for this Option.


© Dr Ken Addison, St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford: for 2022

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford