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Philology: The Language of Wills


Admission requirements

A relevant BA degree, with an interest in language and sociolinguistics, and basic linguistic skills.


Wills are an interesting text type: they all have a personal story to tell. What is more, their format and language changed remarkably little between the Early and the Late Modern English periods. In this course, we will focus on Wills by well-known people produced between 1700 and 1900. We will analyse the contents of these Wills with a view to reconstructing the testator’s social network, and the language to determine to what extent it is typical of the text type and different of other text types such as letters. Though being remarkably similar across time, Wills nevertheless show a number of idiosyncratic features, some of which throw light on the testator’s own language. Another point we will consider is the question of how stable the formulaic language of Wills is through the ages and in particular during the Late Modern English period, and from what time onwards it can be called conservative. An important program to use for this will be WordSmith Tools, which will allow us to study Wills as part of a larger corpus of texts. At the end of the course, we will have a collection of papers dealing with the Wills (content as well as language) of a selection of famous English people, men and women alike.

Course objectives

This course aims to equip students with tools and methodologies to study the language of one particular Late Modern English text type, i.e. Wills. Building on insights gained during BA programmes in English language and literature studies, particularly in relation to developments in the history of the language, a critical and objective approach will be adopted that will enable students to study topical questions in historical sociolinguistics. One such question is why the the language and format of wills has remained stable across the centuries. After completion of the course, students will be well equipped to write a master’s thesis in a topic of central interest to this field.


The timetable will be available by June 1st at

Mode of instruction

A two hour seminar per week.

Assessment method

Presentation and active course participation (30%), final essay (70%).


This course is supported by Blackboard.

Reading list

  • Stuart A. Raymond (2004), Words from Wills and Other Probate Records. Bury: The Federation of Family History Societies. (NB. This publication is rare, and is occasionally available from e.g. at £8.00.)

Additional background reading.


Students should register through uSis.

Contact information

Departmental Office English Language and Culture, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144; mail:
Coordinator of Studies Master: Ms. K. van der Zeeuw-Filemon, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 103C.


For the purpose of studying Wills as a text type, students will be expected to download a Will of their own choice from the National Register of Archives (£3.50).