Subject Advice

English Language and Linguistics

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About Me

I’m an ex-English teacher (of course!), but a slightly unusual one in that I loved teaching grammar as much as literature. It didn’t start that way at school, when I all but failed my ‘O’ level English Language – I suspect because of the compulsory clause analysis… But later when the college where I was working took the (then) revolutionary step of introducing an ‘A’ Level syllabus in English Language, I jumped on board. I went on to teach the subject in a  variety of courses up to degree level, doing my PhD along the way into trainee English teachers’ attitudes to teaching grammar – mostly not happy to start with, but I think I managed to change a few minds along the way!

Modern Linguistics

One of the first things I learnt was that the study of Language and Linguistics is not about laying down rules, because language changes all the time. The modern approach is descriptive not prescriptive, so we don’t ask ‘What is the correct way to speak?’,  but ‘Who is speaking?’ ‘Who are they speaking to?’ and ‘For what purpose are they using language?’ Descriptive linguists don’t spend too much time agonising over  ‘pet hates’ or grocers’ apostrophes – fun though that can be. They see all language use as interesting and worthy of study.


The subject area is extremely broad and diverse, which means it offers endless topics for members and groups, including historical change, dialects and accents, political correctness, jokes and riddles, place names,  language and gender, language in the media, global English, spelling, and yes – even those  ‘pet hates’! Some members prefer a more general approach to Linguistics, so they might look at where  language began; similarities and differences among languages; whether the language you speak influences how you think about the world; how animals communicate; sign language, bilingualism, etc etc. I’ll be putting together a more detailed list of possible topics, so please send your suggestions.


My u3a group is called ETHEL – Exploring the English Language. We’ve been going since a few months before lockdown, when we continued on Zoom. Other group names across the u3a community include Aspects of Language. Mind Your Language, English – An Evolving Language, Exploring Language, or simply Linguistics. So lots of possible group titles and lots of possible approaches.


For members who would like to start a group or if, as a u3a member, you are interested in the subject area, there are lots of resources in print and, of course, on the internet. I’ve listed some of the sources I’ve found useful and it gives some ideas of the range of approaches to the subject, but the list is definitely a work in progress and I’d love to hear from members what materials they’ve found useful, informative  - and entertaining. Language is a  favourite standby for the media, so there’s often an article to pull out for discussion. The annual Word of the Year from the major English dictionaries is always interesting, while a recently reported piece of research showed that swearing can actually be good for you. And when thinking of books, you can’t go wrong with anything by David Crystal (see below).

The internet is a great source of material and offers lots of opportunities for members to do their own research. I’ve listed just a few of the sites I’ve found, but do let me know of any others you come across. YouTube has discussions on practically any area of the subject you can think of as well as recordings of English dialects across the UK and English speakers around the world, while ‘Word of Mouth’, (BBC Radio 4) has a long and varied list of topics on their website.

But however many resources you collect, the most important source will be the members themselves. Everybody has a wealth of language experience to share.

Do get in touch if you want to know more about starting a group in your u3a or if, as a member, you want to explore one of the many topics. And do let me know if your u3a already has a group. In the meantime, I’m very happy to help with questions, resources, materials and ideas for topics.

Pam Upton

Books to read, to dip into, to discuss

Introduction to Linguistics, Loreto Todd, York Handbooks, Longman, 1987

Linguistics: Why it Matters, Geoffrey K Pullum, Polity, 2018

Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction,  P.H. Matthews, Oxford University Press, 2003

The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, (3rd ed) David Crystal, Cambridge University Press 1987

The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, David Crystal, Cambridge University Press, 2019

English as a Global Language, (2nd ed) David Crystal, Cambridge University Press, 2012

How Language Works, David Crystal, Penguin Books, 2006

Making a point: the Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, David Crystal, Profile 2001

Rediscover Grammar, David Crystal, Longman, 1988 and later

The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson, William Morrow Paperbacks; Reissue edition,2015

Through the Language Glass; Why the world looks different in other languages, Guy Deutscher, Arrow Books, 2011

An Atlas of English Dialects, Clive Upton and J.D.A Widdowson, Routledge, (2nd ed) 2006

Language Myths, (eds) Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, Penguin Books 1998

The Prodigal Tongue: The love-hate relationship between British and American English, Lynne Murphy, One World Press, 2018

Child Language: Acquisition and Development, Matthew Saxton, Sage, 2017

Words and Minds: How we use language to think together, Neil Mercer, Routledge, 2000

Living Language: Language, Power and Identity, Michael Butler and George Keith, Hodder and Stoughton, 1999

Don’t Believe a Word: The surprising truth about language, David Shariatmadari, Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2019

The Language of Newspapers, (2nd ed) Danuta Reah, Routledge, 2002

Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, or why can't anybody spell?  Vivian Cook, Profile 2004

Spilling the Beans on the Cat's Pyjamas: popular expressions, what they mean and where we got them, Judy Parkinson, Michael O'Mara 2020

Talking For Britain: A Journey through the Nation’s Dialects, Simon Elmes, Penguin Books, 2005

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, (2nd ed) John Aylo and John Simpson, Oxford Quick Reference, 2010

The Language Lover's Puzzle Book, Alex Bellos, Guardian Faber 2020

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? the amazing adventure of translation, David Bellos, Allen Lane/Penguin 2012

Slang Down the Ages, Jonathon Green, Kyle Cathie, 1994

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, Daniel Everett, Profile 2009

My Grammar and I (or should that be 'me'?): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English, Caroline Taggart & J. A. Wines, Michael O'Mara 2011

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, Gaston Dorren, Profile 2018

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Mark Abley, Arrow 2005


Omniglot - the encyclopedia of writing systems and languages

Not forgetting – Wikipedia… 

List of dialects of English - Wikipedia

History of English - Wikipedia

Language acquisition - Wikipedia

And lots more!

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