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Inventing English: A Portable History of the…
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Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language (original 2007; edition 2007)

by Seth Lerer

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Member:sjkelk
Title:Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language
Authors:Seth Lerer
Info:Columbia University Press (2007), Hardcover, 320 pages
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Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language by Seth Lerer (2007)

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Yet another history of the language, this time approached through literature. It takes examples from the writing of the day, from Caedmon through Shakespeare to rap. The author goes into considerable detail on some points, including the Great Vowel Shift. Well worth reading, even if you have read many other histories of English. ( )
  annbury | Sep 5, 2010 |
Anyone interested in a concise, engaging history of English, look no further than Professor Seth Lerer's "Inventing English." This splendid little book (266 pages plus appendices) has superb, easily-digested detail when the subject warrants it, and glosses over long periods when they provide no instructive changes. I had the sensation while reading it, of flying over the subject at 35,000 feet, and then plunging to the surface of minute detail at strategic stops along the way.

We have a simple, straightforward section on Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), one of a family of Germanic and Scandinavian languages. I had not understood in such clear terms the extent of post-Conquest class difference which one's language indicated: if you spoke Anglo-Norman (William's language), you were privileged; if you spoke Anglo-Saxon, you were the newly bereft, untouchable. The chapter on Chaucer gave me a better understanding of this brillant and sardonic poet than any past study. He did not invent Middle English, but he did perform a stunning conflation of its mix of sources, syntax, politics, and mutability. While doing so, he hearkened back to some Old English structure and practices. He also understood the subject of post-Conquest language in England to be a highly charged political issue.

Prof. Lerer provides no dry, date-giving overview. He includes spicy, provocative exegeses along the way of anonymous Anglo-Saxon versifiers, and in turn, Chaucer, Shakespeare (to a somewhat lesser depth, however), Milton, Dr. Johnson and Emily Dickinson in a particularly head-turning juxtaposition, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison. (I will never think of the quote "I yam what I am!" in the way same again.)

Professor Lerer (he's the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Stanford) engages us throughout this book; this was its principal surprise for me. He takes his reader along for a joyous ride, full of wisdom and telling anecdote. I found myself assiduously taking notes, with a lot more enthusiasm than ever I did in linguistics class. Some exposure to linguistics, in fact, would be helpful as you approach this book, but is certainly not essential. This book is made for the language-loving lay person.

I generally get my books at the library. But his one, I'm thinking, I'm going to have to go out and buy. I'm going to want to return to it pretty often. It's full of intriguing information, engagingly presented. Lovers of the English language will love this. I did and do. ( )
1 vote LukeS | Dec 31, 2009 |
This took a while to finish--I read a chapter a day. Most of the chapters end like the grand finale of a book--Lerer writes in his intro that chapters don't need to be read in sequence. Lerer loves his subject and language in general, but sometimes I (maybe peevishly) think that his great enjoyment comes a little bit at his reader's expense. There is a glossary in back, but for me it could be twice as long. It doesn't include all the many polysyllabic words with Latin and Greek roots ending in "-ology", or "-graphy", or etc., that (for me) clog up the text and make reading sometimes have the cumbersome feel of translating. Lerer uses dramatic figurative language, and like early English poets he loves alliteration. (It's a lively lexical landscape!) His words bristle with so much life and almost self-aware purpose that sometimes his pages feel noisy and crowded. And then there are the sentences like, "Behind them lies a conception of vernacular character and the character of the vernacular." (P 116)

Those mild complaints aside, this is a fascinating subject and Lerer is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. I really love his Teaching Company lectures on the history of the English language and it's nice to have some of that information in book form. ( )
1 vote Jaylia3 | Aug 19, 2009 |
I am no linguist, and not particularly skilled at finessing the subtleties of sounds we humans speak into meaning: monopthongs versus dipthongs, vowels held long in the front versus short in the back. But I am a person endlessly fascinated by the English language, and the way its history reflects the greater history of the people who have spoken it and shaped it over the years. As a passionate non-specialist, then, I found Seth Lerer's Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language highly satisfying: Lerer's essays on English lingual history are clear and juicy, with just enough patient explanation of technical linguistic terms to enable the casual reader to follow along easily. More than that, he analyzes the unexpected ways in which social and political movements have influenced the course of the language's evolution.

The theme that struck me most, through all of Lerer's chapters, was how fundamentally political language is, and how double-edged. From the very beginning of our history as English speakers, we've been engaged in a complicated relationship with how (or whether) our language should expand to include outside influences, and what lingual "purity" would even look like. This may sound familiar: it's still being played out in the fight to establish English as the official language of the United States, a move motivated by fear of the growing Spanish-speaking populations here. But it's nothing new. In one early section I found particularly fascinating, Lerer discusses the first known rhymed poem written in English. Some background for those who don't know: Anglo-Saxon or Old English poetry didn't generally rhyme; instead, it was organized around principles such as alliteration, kennings (novel compound words that expressed a single concept, like the coinage "whaleroad" for the ocean), and numbers of stressed syllables per line. Rhymed poetry was typical of Latinate literature, and began to filter into English after the Norman (French) invasion of 1066. But what I found so striking was that this poem, which incorporated a brand-new verse technology learned directly from the French, was in content a protest poem against those very same invaders, a lyric composed on the death of William the Conqueror, which catalogued his atrocities:

Castelas he let wyrcean,

7 earme men swi∂e swencean,

Se cyng waes swa swi∂e stearc,

7 benam of his underþeoddan manig marc

goldes 7 ma hundred punda seolfres.

Det he name be wihte

7 mid mycelan unrihte

of his landloede

for littelre neode.

He waes on gitsunge befeallan,

7 graedinaesse he lufode mid ealle.

He saette mycel deorfri∂,

7 he laegde laga þaerwi∂

þet swa hwa swa sloge heort o∂∂e hinde,

þet hine man sceolde blendian.



[He had castles built

and poor men terribly oppressed.

The king was very severe,

and he took from his underlings many marks

of gold and hundreds of pounds of silver.

All this he took from the people,

and with great injustice

from his subjects,

to gratify his trivial desire.

He had fallen into avarice,

and he loved greediness above everything else.

He established many deer preserves,

and he set up laws concerning them,

such that whoever killed a hart or a hind

should be blinded.]


This poem strikes me as so poignant. The author (a monk at the outlying Peterborough monastery) must have consciously chosen to write it in rhyming form, as the vast majority of the English poetry of the period wasn't rhymed. I can't resist speculating on why, therefore, he didn't take the more obvious route of a defiantly Anglo-Saxon verse form to protest the Norman tyranny. Was it a melancholy gesture away from the poetic forms he felt were his own, looking toward a period of colonization? Or did the mixed messages of the poem reflect his own conflicted feelings, his resentment of Norman oppression battling with admiration of the new French styles in verse and culture? Lerer points out that the very first word in the poem, "castelas" or castles, was an importation from Norman French: Anglo-Saxons didn't build in stone, but in wood, and readers of Beowulf will remember their vast-timbered halls. The Normans, on the other hand, peppered English soil with stone castles as part of their program of commandeering the land for royal use. In this poem, then, we can see the simultaneous transformation of language, landscape, and ways of thinking. Fascinating stuff.

And this tension between the old and new, between expansive cosmopolitanism and protective nativism, continues through nearly every essay in Lerer's book. There are intriguing debates, in the centuries after his life, about whether Chaucer's popularization of so many French-derived words was a boon or a curse: Edmund Spenser wrote that Chaucer had tapped "the well of English undefiled," whereas early philologist Alexander Gil said that he "rendered his poetry notorious by the use of Latin and French words," going on to call the resulting English an "illegitimate progeny" and a "monster." Interestingly, in both these cases the "undefiled" English is perceived as of a higher class: to Spenser, the addition of the colonizer's French-derived words raises the language to new poetic heights, whereas by Gil's time it's possible to complain that "everyone [e.g., even the commoner] wishes to appear as a smatterer of tongues and to vaunt his proficiency in Latin, French (or any other language)." Gil, therefore, as a mark of educated difference, advocates a return to the "purity" of Anglo-Saxon-derived words. (The irony? His anti-Latinate treatise is written in...Latin.)

But Lerer makes the point, again and again, that attempts to restrict the growth of the language are both misguided and doomed to failure. From the huge influx of foreign-derived words during the commerce and exploration boom of the sixteenth century, to the formation of Atlantic creoles as a product of the slave trade, to the jargon introduced into our speech by the soldiers of successive wars, Lerer insists that our language reflects the way we live, and that to expect anything else is foolhardy. I strongly agree with this idea: modern English is not debased, any more than Anglo-Saxon English encapsulated some mythical "purity." We should revel in the richness and diversity of our language, not fight it.

One of the most touching chapters of Inventing English deals with Samuel Johnson's personal transformation over the course of writing his Dictionary. Beginning the task with the goal of "fixing" the language in place, of ascertaining proper usage and recording it for all time, he gradually came to appreciate the untameable flow of the English tongue:


[A]fter years of false starts, failures, and impediments - he was unable to complete the task in the three years he set himself; his wife died in the process; his amanuenses found his work almost impossible to follow; he abandoned Chesterfield's patronage - after all this he realized that it is impossible to fix a language. In the preface to the Dictionary that finally appeared in 1755, he saw a language not imperial but "sublunary," mutable and transitory. Like Caxton, who saw English living under the "domynacioun of the moon," Johnson found himself incapable of fixing usage. His purpose, now, had become "not to form, but register the language; not to teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts."


I was cheering Johnson on here. His journey was not an easy one - he spent eight years basically despondent - but to me, the outcome was so worthwhile: an appreciation of the strength, richness, and changeability of his mother tongue.

Inventing English was full of fascinating little tidbits; I was constantly reading this or that juicy anecdote out loud to David as I perused it. "Did you know," I would say, "that 'hubbub' was originally an onomatopoetic term based on what English people heard in the speech of the Irish and Welsh?" Or "Wow, did you know 'dude' originated as a term for a citified dandy? I always thought it originally described cowboys!' These little insights are fascinating and thought-provoking, but Lerer also does a good job of taking his history beyond the anecdotal, and tying these small examples into a larger context of social and political change. I ardently enjoyed it, and might even follow up a few of the chapters with some more in-depth reading.
1 vote emily_morine | May 21, 2009 |
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Seth Lererprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lewis, MarthaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Secondari, LindaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 023113794X, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:24 -0400)

"Seth Lerer's Inventing English is a 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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