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The Language of Late Modern English 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, and they are still to an important extent similar to wills today. 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 as well as their 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 on a topic of central interest to this field.


Time and date on which the course is offered or a link to the website. The administration will complete this with the link to the website.

Mode of instruction

A two-hour weekly seminar.

Course Load

Attending the weekly seminars: 26 hours
Studying the compulsory literature and doing weekly assignments: ca. 125 hours
Prepare for a presentation (ca. 40 hours); giving feedback on a fellow student’s work for their paper (10 hours); and writing a paper on the basis of that presentation (ca. 80 hours): ca. 130 hours

Assessment method

Presentation and active course participation (30%), final essay (70%). Resit of each item whenever required (i.e. in any case when individual marks are lower than 5).


There will be a Blackboard module for the course, which contains relevant course information such as the weekly reading and assignments. Since Blackboard makes use of umail for communication, students are advised to forward their umail to their regular email address:

Reading list

Grannum, Karen, and Nigel Taylor (2009). Wills & Probate Records. A Guide for Family Historians. 2nd edition. Kew, Richmond: The National Archives. £12.99. Available through:

Spence, Jon (2001). A Century of Wills from Jane Austen’s Family, 17051806. Paddington: The Jane Austen Society of Australia. $15.00 Available through:

Additional reading (available from the relevant reading in the University Library.

IMPORTANT: please note that it takes time for these books to arrive, and that we will use them from Week 1 onwards.


Students should register through uSis. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or

When registering, students that are registered for the specialisation that this course belongs to, or the Research Master, take priority. The deadline for registration is August 15 (first semester) or January 15 (second semester). All other students should contact the coordinator of studies

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte via:
Registration Contractonderwijs via:


Master Linguistics student administration, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;


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). Details to be provided during the course.