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Columbia University Press
Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language / Edition 1

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language / Edition 1

by Seth Lerer
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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231137942
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 04/10/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the former Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. He is known nationally for his audio and videotape series, The History of the English Language, for the Teaching Company.

Table of Contents

A Note on Texts and Letter Forms
Introduction: Finding English, Finding Us
1. Caedmon Learns to Sing: Old English and the Origins of Poetry
2. From Beowulf to Wulfstan: The Language of Old English Literature
3. In This Year: The Politics of Language and the End of Old English
4. From Kingdom to Realm: Middle English in a French World
5. Lord of This Langage: Chaucer's English
6. I Is as Ille a Millere as Are Ye: Middle English Dialects
7. The Great Vowel Shift and the Changing Character of English
8. Chancery, Caxton, and the Making of English Prose
9. I Do, I Will: Shakespeare's English
10. A Universal Hubbub Wild: New Words and Worlds in Early Modern English
11. Visible Speech: The Orthoepists and the Origins of Standard English
12. A Harmless Drudge: Samuel Johnson and the Making of the Dictionary
13. Horrid, Hooting Stanzas: Lexicography and Literature in American English
14. Antses in the Sugar: Dialect and Regionalism in American English
15. Hello, Dude: Mark Twain and the Making of the American Idiom
16. Ready for the Funk: African American English and Its Impact
17. Pioneers Through an Untrodden Forest: The Oxford English Dictionary and its Readers
18. Listening to Private Ryan: War and Language
19. He Speaks in Your Voice: Everybody's English
Appendix. English Sounds and Their Representation
References and Further Reading

What People are Saying About This

John Hollander

This is an excellent introduction to the history of our language for readers without knowledge of linguistics or even of early English language and literature itself. Lerer uses his engaging format to present and elucidate the considerable number of issues and concepts involving the study of usage, which have become part of the matter of the history of English.

Christopher Cannon

Lerer pays particular attention to some of the more important passages in the central texts of English literary history, but he is equally at home when analyzing more immediately popular works and always capable of discovering deep and general interest in the most startlingly simple places.

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Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
LukeS on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 somwhat 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 Standford) 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.
Jaylia3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
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Savagely_Cheerful More than 1 year ago
This was my textbook for a college class and I was impressed with how clear and straight-forward the writing is. After being dragged thriugh the desert of traditional textbooks, this was a breath of fresh air! I don't even plan on getting rid of it now that the class is over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The possibilities of this title caught my eye (ear?) while listening to Professor Lerer discuss it and its subject on C-Span. Reading it proved interesting - he provides a number of pieces of information and discusses a number of topics which I found new or unfamiliar - but it fell short of its promise. First, disclaimers to the contrary, a basic knowledge of linguistics is necessary to appreciate the information it provides. Second, the professor does indeed know his English, but fails repeatedly and annoyingly when he strays into Latin. Enough so that his invitation to sing along with him at the end of his first chapter prompted me to say, 'not if you keep hitting these sour notes.' Third, while he celebrates the changing character of modern English and invites his reader to do the same, his text is a standard popularization of the language in which he teaches, reflecting little of what he claims is going on. Perhaps because his book would otherwise never have seen print? Fourth and last, like many of his academic contemporaries, he shows himself ready and eager to question or challenge the mental worlds in which his predecessors thought about the language, but unable to question his own, e.g., his assumption about the fluidity of the language which cannot be 'regulated' by anyone. All in all, the book is an interesting way to pick up information about the history of English if you're unfamiliar with it, less so if you are and are familiar with the wider field of linguistics.