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August 20, 1998


BALTIMORE - Shawna Hemphill, a senior majoring in English at UMBC, admits that when signing up for English 490: The History of the English Language, the course description sounded a "little dry." Several weeks into the class, however, she has found herself pleasantly surprised. "It's certainly not what I expected," says Hemphill.

The reason for that is class instructor Soon Ai (Vicki) Low. Originally from Singapore, Low's areas of expertise include medieval literature, Old English linguistics and the history of the English language with special attention to English as a world language. "We're learning so much about a language that we've just taken for granted," says Hemphill.

"I have a passion for language," admits Low, an assistant professor who joined the English department this semester. Standing before her classroom on a recent Monday morning, Low reads identical passages in both Old English and Middle English in a flawless and melodious voice. When she is finished, she instructs her students to compare the two passages, looking for similarities. But as the class begins to discuss their findings, Low can't help but offer tidbits of information or "asides," as she refers to them - the origin of the word "nickname" or that the word "wif" in Old English meant "woman" and not wife. "She brings a personality to material that otherwise wouldn't have one," says Hemphill.

"I want to offer them a more historical awareness of how the language they speak every day developed," says Low of her students.

"I love telling people what I found out in class that day," says Hemphill. "For example, did you know that die was not an Old English word? There were words like swelter and starve, but no die. Then when the Vikings invaded and settled the word die was adopted from the Norse. It's amazing. Our language is a combination of so many other languages - French, Scandinavian and Latin."

"She's a dynamic and engaging teacher," says James McKusick, chair of the Department of English, of Low. "Her classes are already showing record enrollment. "According to McKusick, Low's class on the History of the English Language has doubled from less than 10 to more than 20 students. "Probably due to word of mouth about her strong teaching abilities," he says.

Low grew up in a bilingual household and in a country where four languages are officially recognized, with English being the "first among equals." "It was the one least identified with any of the ethnic groups and is the dominant working language," she says. Low's family spoke a mixture of Chinese and English. "We would begin a sentence in Chinese and end it in English," she says. She admits to being torn at times - wanting to embrace English, but not lose her own cultural identity. "I feel that I embody the sorts of language issues relating to post-colonial situations," she says.

She was fascinated by the structure of language early on. And when she went to school at Oxford University for her undergraduate education she took a course in the history of English. "I was hooked," she says.

After graduating with honors in 1990, she went on to receive her master's and her Ph.D. degrees at the University of Toronto's Centre for Medieval Studies. While there, she was also a research assistant working on "The Dictionary of Old English." Her research interests include exploring anthropological approaches to medieval language and literature; the expressions of emotions in earlier literature; and sociolinguistics in multicultural settings. Low can speak and/or read in a number of languages - German, French, Latin, Old and Middle English, Old Norse, Mandarin Chinese and Teochew, a language from Southern China, as well as English.

With English she remains fascinated by its constant change. "It's still evolving very quickly," she says. "Slang has always existed, but what is interesting now is the effort to institutionalize what used to be regarded as sub-standard varieties of English, such as Ebonics. Gender issues have also made a difference in the way that people use words like chairperson. These political movements are really effecting a change in the language."

And it is a language being spoken more and more frequently around the globe, a combination, she says, of the British colonial past and the rise of the United States as a world power. "I think the spread of English worldwide is a very amazing phenomenon," she says. "English is becoming the world's common language. This is taking place to an extent never seen before in history. Not even with Latin."

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Posted by dwinds1 at August 20, 1998 12:00 AM