It is an attempt to show you what English is through how it has developed over the centuries. Once you know how English operates, you will be able to take advantage of both the mechanics and the aesthetics of the English language to speak and write more effectively. The texts provided are intended to be read as examples, not as "greats." The outline and bibliography that accompany the course will give you a list of works that a well-read student of English should have read. You may consider this a lifetime list, to be worked at as long as the joy of reading remains with you.
Is is the premise of this course that English must be understood as a Germanic language. It has become almost a universal language, and its changes over the centuries have rendered it in many ways sui generis; nevertheless, in its basic grammar and vocabulary, it is as much a product of the Germanic world of late antiquity as modern German, or Dutch, or Danish. C.S. Lewis even argued* that the kinds of stories and poems that appealed to ancient English people, including especially their unique outlook on life and their literary taste, are still characteristic of modern English-speaking people. The ever-widening encounters of English with other languages and literary forms has given English writers much more to write about, but in the end what they write best is written in a way that conforms to the patterns of the English language and the viewpoint of the English-speaking peoples.
With such an approach, it is to be expected that charges of antiquarianism will be raised in some quarters. Nay, it is certain that in these early years of the Twenty-first Century, charges of racism and sexism (and who-knows-what-ism) will be leveled against this course. Proto-Indo-European, Germanic, Old English, Middle English, early Modern English -- to speak of these things is to many scholars and ideologues to conjure up the deadest, whitest, most patriarchal, most Euro-centric of all dead, white, male Europeans. But to pretend that English has somehow escaped its origins and can be freed from its fetters to become the sanitized, non-oppressive, liberating channel of communication desired by the devotees of diversity is to ask for what has never existed, and never will. Even the politically correct agitators' arguments are best expressed when they ignore their ideology and use their language in conformity to their language's own nature. Which is simply to say, that the rules of Rhetoric are not devised, but discovered.
English is a natural, organic thing, which grows and develops according to its own nature. No one knows why the Great Vowel Shift happened. No one planned it. No one guided it. Every parent understood one's child, and every child one's parents, yet within an astonishingly short time around AD 1400, the inhabitants of thousands of places all pronounced their vowels differently from the way their grandparents did. No matter what argument one had to make, the argument was now made with vowels that sounded this way, not the way they used to sound. An ideologue who came along and insisted that vowels should be pronounced yet some other way, in the name of some vision of justice that he was possessed of, would produce only ineffective gibberish, unless he used the vowels that everyone else used. His argument that we changed before, so we could change again, would be laughable, except for the real harm done by scores of reformers who have asked the ridiculous or the impossible of their followers and used the police power of the State (or Church, or School) to punish those who could not wrap their tongues around the new shibboleths imposed in the name of his god.