sample assignment

LING 150: Structure Of English Words (Assignment 4)


  This assignment aligns with the following course objectives:

  • Understand how social and power dynamics can contribute to language change, and how Standardized English reflects power dynamics.
  • Understand the basic principles of language change, such as sound change and meaning change.
  • Understand how the lexicon of a language reflects its history

SkillsThis assignment will help you practice the following skills:

           Course skills:

    1. Synthesizing social and historical facts with respect to language change
    2. Analyzing the (contemporary) social variation of words, and how new words come into the lexicon
    3. Discovering and describing the historical origins and development of words (etymology)

          General skills:

    1. Writing and thesis development
    2. Analysis and synthesis of content
    3. Connecting different course themes and information


    1. Etymology
    2. Internal and external pressures for language variation
    3. Sociological relationships between variation, power, and ‘standard’ language
    4. Creation of new words and new meanings


Throughout the term we have seen how words come into the language through innovations, borrowing, or take on new meanings through semantic shifts. Thus far we have discussed these changes in a more neutral way. However, language variation and language change are not always seen in neutral or positive ways and in fact have often been seen as “informal” or “incorrect” [note: scare quotes!]. Take for example this excerpt:

Desirability is a terrible word…Reliable is hardly legitimate. We do not rely a man, we rely upon a man; so that reliability does duty for rely-upon-able. “Trustworthy” conveys all the meaning required.” Dean Henry Alford (1875)

Here we see that Dean Henry Alford thought the word desirability (among other words) was not a worthy word to have in the English language. These ideologies are common, as seen in Chapter 7 of your textbook (e.g. p. 162 paragraph 2). As you all know, new words have great desirability to speakers and variation is a reliablesource of new words and meanings! However, not all words make their way into the dictionary, and even fewer may become viewed as “standard”. The purpose of this assignment is to have you reflect on this process with regard to recent innovations in English that are often seen as informal or “slang”.

As background for this assignment, I first recommend that you watch this watch this 17-minute TED talk by Dr. Anne Curzan: What Makes a Word Real? (Links to an external site.)

In the task below, you are given 3 “slang” words to practice the skills you have collected all term and see history in action!


  • Select one of the following words :
    • woke, tea, shade
    • If you would like to suggest a different word, first please talk to me!
  • Research the most “contemporary” definitions of the word you chose (both “standard” and informal or “slang”). You should be able to find a dictionary definition for most of these (e.g., (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)) but if not, consult other definitions on the web. [Note: if you’re having trouble finding the more informal definition or history of shade, try looking up throwing shade]
  • Research the history of the word. Using google is fine for this task but you should consult more than one source and be sure to include a dictionary with good etymological information (try to avoid urban dictionary)!
  • In one page do the following:
    1. Provide the a minimum of one “standard” and one “informal/slang” definitions of one of the words above. If the word is morphologically complex, also parse and gloss it.
    2. Briefly describe the origins and the history of the word. Discuss the origins of (a minimum of one) non-slang meaning, as well as the history of (a minimum of one) new sense of the word. Please address the following:
      • What social group did the new (informal, slang) meanings of the word begin in? How did it gain more widespread use? Has it changed since being used by more people? Has it been added to scholarly dictionary you use (be sure to state which scholarly dictionary you use)?
    3. The new senses of these words all took shape in specific social groups before they entered into mainstream American English. Identify and briefly describe one pressure external to language(e.g., geography, social identity, contact between different social groups) and one pressure internal to language (e.g. phonetic or semantic change) that took place in the history of the word.
    4. These words and/or their new senses are often labeled by non-linguists as “slang”. Reflect on the following questions and write a well-structured paragraph about what it means for something to be ‘slang’ and when it becomes the ‘standard’.
      • Define the concept ‘standard’ from Chapter 8 of your textbook. Be sure to include a discussion of the role of power in decisions about what words are included in the ‘standard language’.
      • What does it mean for a word to be labeled as ‘slang’?
      • What does it mean for the word to be “added to the dictionary”? What makes something “dictionary-worthy”?
      • Is being added to a published dictionary enough for a word to go from “slang” to “standard”?

Criteria for success:

  • Must meet length requirement
  • Writing, including citation of sources
  • Complete in addressing all four points numbered above

See the rubric for clear indications of criteria for success!