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Inventing English

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language

Seth Lerer
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 320
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    Inventing English
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51076-9
    Subjects: Linguistics, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Finding English, Finding Us
    (pp. 1-11)

    I grew up on a street full of languages. I heard Yiddish every day from my parents and grandparents and from the families of my friends. There was Italian around the corner, Cuban Spanish down the block, Russian in the recesses of the subway station. Some of my earliest memories are of their sounds. But there were also words of what seemed to be my own family’s making and that I have found in no dictionaries: konditterei, a strange blend of Yiddish and Italian calibrated to describe the self-important café set; vachmalyavatet, a tongue-twister used to signify complete exhaustion; lachlat...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Caedmon Learns to Sing Old English and the Origins of Poetry
    (pp. 12-24)

    Some time in the seventh century, probably between the years 657 and 680, a Yorkshire cowherd learned to sing. Social gatherings among the peasantry were clearly common at the time. Often, laborers and herders would gather in the evenings to eat and drink, and a harp would be passed among them. But when the harp came to Caedmon, he could not sing. Shamed by his inability, he avoided the gatherings, until one evening an angel came to him in a vision. “Caedmon,” the angel called to him by name. “Sing me something.” “I cannot,” replied the cowherd, “for I do...

  6. CHAPTER 2 From Beowulf to Wulfstan The Language of Old English Literature
    (pp. 25-38)

    The song of the anglo-saxon scop sounded for six centuries. From Caedmon, through Beowulf, to the monastic scribes who copied down the legacy of poetry well into the twelfth century, Old English alliterative forms and formulae filled halls and cloisters with their sound. The techniques of that poetry could be applied to any subject matter: Germanic myths, Christian Creation stories, acts of martyrs, Old Testament narratives, current political conditions. Biblical characters, at times, take on the quality of old Germanic heroes. At other times, figures out of the past seem remarkably like contemporary scholars. How does Old English literature refract...

  7. CHAPTER 3 In This Year The Politics of Language and the End of Old English
    (pp. 39-53)

    William the conqueror landed in england in October 1066, and though he and his people spoke the dialect of Norman French, Old English was not wiped out overnight. Prose history, poetic lyrics and encomia, and a range of sermons, homilies, and prayers continued to be copied in manuscripts well into the thirteenth century. In the Midlands and the North of England, in particular, linguistic life seemed to go on much as before, with little evidence of French words, syntax, or literary form impinging on the old, alliterative metrics of the Anglo-Saxons. At Peterborough Abbey, about thirty miles northwest of Cambridge...

  8. CHAPTER 4 From Kingdom to Realm Middle English in a French World
    (pp. 54-69)

    By the middle of the thirteenth century, the English language of both script and street was palpably different from the English at the time of the Conquest. The Old English vowels and consonants had, for the most part, changed into the forms we now recognize as “Middle English.” The grammatical system had simplified; word-order patterns were the primary determiners of meaning in a sentence; and the lexicon was filling with words from Norman and, later, central French. Though there were many regional dialect variations, speakers and writers of English two centuries after the Conquest largely thought of themselves as having...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Lord of This Langage Chaucer’s English
    (pp. 70-84)

    Almost from the moment of his death in 1400, Chaucer came to be revered as the inventor of a new, poetic language. His earliest imitators, the poets John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve, saw him as “purifying” English from the “rudeness” of the Anglo-Saxon. At the end of the fifteenth century, England’s first printer, William Caxton, considered Chaucer the “first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in English,” while at the end of the sixteenth century, the poet Edmund Spenser could praise his forebear as “the well of English undefiled.” Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, poets, historians, and critics found...

  10. CHAPTER 6 I Is as Ille a Millere as Are Ye Middle English Dialects
    (pp. 85-100)

    When i arrived at oxford in the fall of 1976, I was assigned to a tutorial in Middle English dialects. I had enrolled in Course II of the English Honours School, a degree program centered on the history of the English language, medieval literatures, and what was then and there called “linguistic theory.” Expecting to read deeply in Old and Middle English poetry, I was baffled at the structure of instruction and, in particular, at the attention paid to early English dialects. My bafflement was only enhanced at the meeting of my first tutorial with the distinguished scholar of late-medieval...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Great Vowel Shift and the Changing Character of English
    (pp. 101-114)

    Google the “great vowel shift.” Though there are almost fifty thousand returns, the information is remarkably consistent. The Great Vowel Shift, you will learn, was the defining moment in the history of English pronunciation. It made modern English “modern.” It was the systematic raising and fronting of the long, stressed monophthongs of Middle English, and it took place roughly from the middle of the fifteenth through the end of the seventeenth centuries. This was the change that made the language of the age of Chaucer largely opaque by the time of Shakespeare. While scholars of English from the Renaissance onward...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Chancery, Caxton, and the Making of English Prose
    (pp. 115-128)

    “In the modern and present manner of writing,” wrote John Hart in his Orthographie of 1569, “there is such confusion and disorder, as it may be accounted rather a kind of ciphering, or such a darke kinde of writing, as the best and readiest wit that euer hath bene could, or that is or shal be, can or may, by the only gift of reason, attaine to the ready and perfite reading thereof, without a long and tedious labour” (2). By the middle of the sixteenth century, English writing had effectively divorced itself from speech. True, personal communication still went...

  13. CHAPTER 9 I Do, I Will Shakespeare’s English
    (pp. 129-140)

    Shakespeare. the very name evokes the acme of the English language. Even people who have never seen his plays know phrases such as “sound and fury,” “the most unkindest cut,” “ripeness is all,” and, of course, “to be, or not to be.” His tragic characters have helped the modern age define just what it means to be a human being. His comic episodes make audiences laugh four centuries after their first performance. His sonnets still stand as the benchmarks of love poetry. More than any other writer in the language, Shakespeare used the resources of English to their full. He...

  14. CHAPTER 10 A Universal Hubbub Wild New Words and Worlds in Early Modern English
    (pp. 141-152)

    During the six decades of shakespeare’s 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. While the lexicon of Old English took only 3 percent of its vocabulary from elsewhere, nearly 70 percent of our modern English lexicon comes from non-English sources (Lass, Cambridge History, 3:332). Recent statistical analyses of loan words throughout history affirm, too, that the bulk of this borrowing came in the late sixteenth and early...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Visible Speech The Orthoepists and the Origins of Standard English
    (pp. 153-166)

    As a young man, Isaac Newton became fascinated by phonetics. In a few pages in a notebook dating from his eighteenth or nineteenth year, Newton came up with a system of presenting English sounds. He arranged the vowels and consonants by means of their articulation; tried to describe the workings of the mouth and throat; and speculated, somewhat obliquely, on whether there could be something like a universal language for humankind. In these sparse jottings, Newton illustrated the features of midseventeenth-century English pronunciation. Some of the idiosyncrasies of his transcriptions may be because of his own regional dialect. Some may...

  16. CHAPTER 12 A Harmless Drudge Samuel Johnson and the Making of the Dictionary
    (pp. 167-180)

    Was samuel johnson mad? We tend, these days, to pathologize the past, to understand creativity in illness. Robert Schumann’s mania, Virginia Woolf’s depression, Vincent van Gogh’s psychosis, Isaac Newton’s Asperger’s syndrome—all are invoked to frame imaginative works in ways that we can explain, or explain away. For modern students, Johnson’s quirks evoke more than the eccentricities of intellection. His great biographer, James Boswell, records him struggling to get out of a doorway, only to at last hurl himself through (a sign, some think, of an obsessive-compulsive disorder); he tells tales of Johnson muttering and sputtering, hands flailing as he...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Horrid, Hooting Stanzas Lexicography and Literature in American English
    (pp. 181-191)

    There are no entries for America or American in Johnson’s Dictionary, but the lexicographer had his opinions nonetheless. “To a man of mere animal life,” he wrote, “you can urge no argument against going to America. . . . But a man of any intellectual enjoyment will not easily go and immerse himself and his posterity for ages in barbarism.” “I am willing,” he wrote elsewhere, “to love all mankind, except an American.” And, again: “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” On the language of the...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Antses in the Sugar Dialect and Regionalism in American Literature
    (pp. 192-206)

    “There is,” wrote the reverend jonathan boucher in 1832, “no dialect in America.” For the first centuries of settlement, the language of the colonies, and of the new republic, seemed to be distinguished by its lack of regional variation (at least when compared to Britain). The mobility of settlers and pioneers, the fluidity of class and economic strata, and the urban mixing of a populace from different parts of Britain and Europe all were believed to contribute to the uniformity of American English. And yet, differences were there almost from the beginning. Patterns of settlement created nodes of different speech....

  19. CHAPTER 15 Hello, Dude Mark Twain and the Making of the American Idiom
    (pp. 207-219)

    “A nation’s language,” wrote mark twain, “is a very large matter”— and he should have known. His concern with the relationships of speech and nationhood place him on a distinctively American philological trajectory running from Noah Webster to H. L. Mencken. His writings constantly reflect on the nature of regional dialect, on differences between languages, and on the discipline of linguistic study itself. He counted among his correspondents the Yale professor William Dwight Whitney (known in the late nineteenth century as the greatest living scholar of languages) and Sir James A. H. Murray (the patriarchal editor of the Oxford English...

  20. CHAPTER 16 Ready for the Funk African American English and Its Impact
    (pp. 220-234)

    Midway through the first part of Frederick Douglass’s Life and Times, he recalls plans to run away. Together with his friends, the young slave hatches a plot to escape from the masters, make it north, and seek a new life. Troubles beset them.

    The reader can have little idea of the phantoms which would flit, in such circumstances, before the uneducated mind of the slave. Upon either side we saw grim death, assuming a variety of horrid shapes. Now it was starvation, causing us, in a strange and friendless land, to eat our own flesh. Now we were contending with...

  21. CHAPTER 17 Pioneers Through an Untrodden Forest The Oxford English Dictionary and Its Readers
    (pp. 235-245)

    Amiri baraka was not the only reader to hold that “our speech carries our whole existence” or to imagine histories of language in the rap of ancient drumbeats. Nearly a hundred years before Baraka made his claims, Sir James A. H. Murray addressed the Philological Society in London. Reporting on the progress of the recently inaugurated New English Dictionary (what would become the famous OED), Murray called himself and his assistants “simply pioneers, pushing our way experimentally through an untrodden forest, where no white man’s axe has been before us.” Speaking to his society in 1884, Murray’s words had to...

  22. CHAPTER 18 Listening to Private Ryan War and Language
    (pp. 246-257)

    The first casualty of war, said the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, is truth. In 2002, Terry Jones (scholar, writer, filmmaker, and Monty Python alumnus) wrote that grammar is the first casualty of war. “Words,” he wrote, “have become devalued, some have changed their meaning, and the philologists can only shake their heads.” But the philologists have been shaking their heads at war almost since its beginnings. War always changes language. It brings in new words, changes attitudes, shifts dialects, and contributes to a larger, public sense of the evaluation of linguistic meaning. Its effects have always been debated. Mark Twain noted...

  23. CHAPTER 19 He Speaks in Your Voice Everybody’s English
    (pp. 258-266)

    Each year, i give about a dozen lectures to community groups, libraries, small colleges, and local public gatherings. I tell them of my teaching and give outlines of the history of the English language as a way of illustrating how our speech and writing change. I stress that changes in themselves are neither bad nor good; we cannot rein in alterations in the grammar of the everyday or stop the flow of new words. I tell them about Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary, about Anglo-Saxon scribes, about Chancery and Chaucer, Shakespeare and the orthoepists. I read passages from literary dialects...

  24. APPENDIX: English Sounds and Their Representation
    (pp. 267-270)
    (pp. 271-276)
    (pp. 277-288)
    (pp. 289-290)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 291-310)