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Inventing English: A Portable History of the Languageby Seth Lerer
Synopses & Reviews
Why is there such a striking difference between English spelling and English pronunciation? How did our seemingly relatively simple grammar rules develop? What are the origins of regional dialect, literary language, and everyday speech, and what do they have to do with you?
Seth Lerer's Inventing English is a masterful, engaging history of the English language from the age of Beowulf to the rap of Eminem. Many have written about the evolution of our grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, but only Lerer situates these developments in the larger history of English, America, and literature.
Lerer begins in the seventh century with the poet Caedmon learning to sing what would become the earliest poem in English. He then looks at the medieval scribes and poets who gave shape to Middle English. He finds the traces of the Great Vowel Shift in the spelling choices of letter writers of the fifteenth century and explores the achievements of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 and The Oxford English Dictionary of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He describes the differences between English and American usage and, through the example of Mark Twain, the link between regional dialect and race, class, and gender. Finally, he muses on the ways in which contact with foreign languages, popular culture, advertising, the Internet, and e-mail continue to shape English for future generations.
Each concise chapter illuminates a moment of invention-a time when people discovered a new form of expression or changed the way they spoke or wrote. In conclusion, Lerer wonders whether globalization and technology have turned English into a world language and reflects on what has been preserved and what has been lost. A unique blend of historical and personal narrative, Inventing English is the surprising tale of a language that is as dynamic as the people to whom it belongs.
"Lerer is not just a scholar (he's a professor of humanities at Stanford and the man behind the Teaching Company's audio and videotape series The History of the English Language); he's also a fan of English — his passion is evident on every page of this examination of how our language came to sound — and look — as it does and how words came to have their current meanings. He writes with friendly reverence of the masters — Chaucer, Milton, Johnson, Shakespeare, Twain — illustrating through example the monumental influence they had on the English we speak and write today (Shakespeare alone coined nearly 6,000 words). Anecdotes illustrate how developments in the physical world (technological advances, human migration) gave rise to new words and word-forms. With the invention of the telephone, for instance, a neutral greeting was required to address callers whose gender and social rank weren't known. America minted 'hello' (derived from the maritime 'ahoy'), and soon Twain enshrined the term in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Whether it's Lerer's close examination of the earliest surviving poem in English (the seventh-century Caedmon's Hymn) or his fresh perspective on Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech, the book percolates with creative energy and will please anyone intrigued by how our richly variegated language came to be." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"You've seen the movie, now read the book! Words like these have long been emblazoned across the paperback covers of newly reissued classics or the novelizations of blockbuster films. But genres continue to grow ever more permeable in these days of shape-shifting media, when the same handheld device can be, by turns, a telephone, computer, camera and body jewelry. So it shouldn't come as a surprise... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) that I was led to pick up this history of English not because I had read one of Seth Lerer's previous books but because I had heard him lecture on a set of audiotapes from The Teaching Company. As it happens, it wasn't his course on 'The History of the English Language' but one on the evolution of comedy. Not only were the talks learned and insightful, as might be expected, but they were also funny: When quoting, Lerer would put on various accents, from the snooty fruitiness of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell to the Yiddish angst of Philip Roth's Portnoy. That ear for what he has called 'the knells and nuances' of spoken English is probably a legacy from Lerer's mother, who we learn in a footnote in 'Inventing English,' worked as a speech therapist. As a young medievalist at Oxford, the New York-born Lerer — currently professor of humanities at Stanford — subsequently found himself drawn to the study of Middle English dialects. This resulting expertise in the aural, in the ways we pronounce our words, pervades 'Inventing English.' Readers who never learned the phonetic alphabet (explained in an appendix) or those (like me) who find it difficult to imagine how the mouth shapes various sounds will occasionally feel a bit at sea. But persevere — there's much to enjoy in this 'episodic epic,' this 'portable assembly of encounters' with English from 'Caedmon's Hymn' to Eminem's hip-hop. Near the end of the book, Lerer even shows how the loose, faux simplicity of an e-mail note of apology resembles the style and tone of a William Carlos Williams poem (the famous one about the plums in the icebox). The early parts of 'Inventing English' are likely to be the most difficult, since we begin with the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Between the sixth century and the Norman Conquest of 1066, much of Britain spoke the dark, brusque-seeming tongue of the Beowulf poet and the preacher Wulfstan. This is the time of 'kennings,' when the sea might be poetically described as the whale road or the swan road. Most Old English words look off-putting to us, though we can sometimes glimpse the down-to-earth roots of a modern term: A throne, for instance, was a gifstol since from it the king would bestow presents on his loyal retainers. Even more romance surrounds the lost word (BED ITAL)uht, which isn't precisely our dawn but that 'special time in Anglo-Saxon literature when the mist still clings and the sun has not fully risen.' While the Latin of the monasteries was an ongoing presence in Old English, the French of the 11th-century Norman conquerors soon overwhelmed Britain. Lerer naturally mentions the distinction — made much of by Walter Scott — in the verbal doubling that sometimes occurred in the names for food. 'The Anglo-Saxon raised the food, whereas the Norman Frenchman ate it. Thus our words for animals remain Old English: sow, cow, calf, sheep, deer. Our words for meats are French: pork, beef, veal, mutton, venison.' Language, as Lerer reiterates throughout his book, is never simply a means for communication; it is also an indicator of class, a political tool and a cultural weapon. Chaucer's 14th-century 'Canterbury Tales,' for instance, 'is always a poetry of the ear — in part, because it was performed; in part, too, because it is designed to capture the sound of the speech of people from a range of social strata. For in addition to the high style, there are stretches of colloquial dialogue that reach deep into the recesses of the obscene' — and Lerer goes on to quote from 'The Miller's Tale.' Chaucer wrote in a London-Kentish English, which is relatively accessible to the patient modern reader. But other dialects of Middle English contributed less to the development of our modern language and are now almost impenetrable. Still, Lerer's scholarship provides the usual mini-poems: A bochouse (book house) is a library, and yeldings (yieldings) is the evocative word for sins. In the 16th century, English exploded. Shakespeare alone coined nearly 6,000 new words, and during the six decades of his life 'more words entered the English language than at any other time in history. Science and commerce, exploration and colonial expansion, literature and art — all contributed to an increased vocabulary drawn from Latin, Greek, and the European and non-European languages. ... The history of the expanding English vocabulary is about more than numbers. It is about the idea of numbers: about a rhetorical and social ideal of amplification, about a new fascination with the copiousness of worldly things, and about a new faith in the imagination to coin terms for unimagined concepts.' This was an era of performance and theatricality — 'all the world's a stage' — but also an era when people started making dictionaries. Lerer discusses early modern linguistic scholarship, and how speech, diction and pronunciation succumbed to affectation and a growing sense of propriety. By the 18th century, Samuel Johnson's 'Dictionary' 'created the public idea of the dictionary as the arbiter of language use. ... It shaped the English of its time and for a century afterward. It regularized spelling and grammatical forms. It codified and sanctioned pronunciations. It broadened the vocabulary of everyday speech, while at the same time seeking to excise slang and colloquial expressions from polite discourse.' A subsequent chapter looks at the comparable importance for the United States of Noah Webster, who 'pares down the -our- spellings of England to the -or- spellings of America (color for colour; honor for honour). He eliminates the final k in words such as music, logic , physic and the like. He respells British -reendings into -er endings to reflect pronunciation (center for centre), and similarly replaces the British c in defence, offence, with an s (defense, offense).' Lerer then goes on to show how much Emily Dickinson's poetry owes to her study of Webster's dictionary and its style of definition. This periodic turn to close textual analysis — of a rape victim's testimony from the 16th century, of Mark Twain's use of dialect, of a Cab Calloway song — imbues 'Inventing English' with a distinct literary dimension, as Lerer teases out the less obvious meanings and implications of various documents. (Among Lerer's own books is a volume in honor of the great comparatist Erich Auerbach, whose 'Mimesis' employed this same analytic method to illustrate 'the representation of reality in Western literature.') Such insightfulness reveals not only Lerer's historical understanding and critical penetration but also his sympathy for even the more controversial aspects of modern English. He offers a brilliant and respectful short precis of African-American speech patterns; he discusses the beauty of military slang and obscenity; he quotes from Tupac Shakur and Don DeLillo. In his final comments about the lingo of the Internet, Lerer rightly insists that 'we should not see our language as debased. The history of English is a history of invention: of finding new words and new selves, of coining phrases that may gather currency in a linguistic marketplace, of singing to cowherds or to the burlesque theater of self.' 'Inventing English' isn't the easiest history of English — who now recognizes the dative case? — but it is written with real authority, enthusiasm and love for our unruly and exquisite language. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at)gmail.com" Reviewed by Kevin PhillipsKim EdwardsDiana McLellanRon CharlesBunny CrumpackerGeorge PerkovichMichael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this entertaining and highly readable book, Lerer delves into the history and evolution of the English language--pronunciation, grammar, and dialect--and wonders whether globalization and technology have turned English into a world language.
A masterful, engaging history of the English language from the age of "Beowulf" to the rap of Eminem, this book percolates with creative energy ("Publishers Weekly").
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