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

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Overview

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.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Nonspecialists will join scholars in praising this remarkable linguistic investigation.

— Bryce Christensen

Toronto Globe & Mail
An important and valuable source for anyone who loves the English language, and language in general.

— Gale Zoe Garnett

The Washington Post
Written with real authority, enthusiasm, and love for our unruly and exquisite language.

— Michael Dirda

Language Hat

A wonderful book. It's not hard to find well-informed books about the history of the English language, and it's not hard to find good critical accounts of English literature, but to have the two intertwined in one book is remarkable.

Winnipeg Free Press
Interesting and informative.

— Tom Oleson

Times Higher Education Supplement

A personal, selective and impassioned journey through the history of English.

Advocate
Lerer not only navigates the shifting currents and boiling rapids of English, but also explores its secret coves.

— Rob Kyff

Vancouver Sun
[An] elegant book.

— Karenn Krangle

Magill Book Reviews
A fresh look at the history of the English language.

— Cynthia Lee Katona

Bloomsbury Review

Inventing English is an invigorating read for the mind and the mouth.

The Main Artery
Fun and illuminating.

— Carol White

Choice

This absorbing book provides sufficient information about linguistics and early English language and literature for clarification... Essential.

Globe & Mail
Erudite and accessible. [Lerer] brings both love and rigour to his subject.

— Gale Zoë Garnett

Michigan Quarterly Review
An unusual linguistic and literary feast.

— Anne Curzan

Journal of English and Germanic Philology
The casual, witty, and sometimes provocative style in which the book is written provides a very apt vehicle for this very personal account.

— Tim William Machan

Booklist - Bryce Christensen

Nonspecialists will join scholars in praising this remarkable linguistic investigation.

Toronto Globe & Mail - Gale Zoe Garnett

An important and valuable source for anyone who loves the English language, and language in general.

The Washington Post - Michael Dirda

Written with real authority, enthusiasm, and love for our unruly and exquisite language.

Winnipeg Free Press - Tom Oleson

Interesting and informative.

Time Magazines Higher Education Supplement
A personal, selective and impassioned journey through the history of English.
Advocate - Rob Kyff

Lerer not only navigates the shifting currents and boiling rapids of English, but also explores its secret coves.

Vancouver Sun - Karenn Krangle

[An] elegant book.

Magill Book Reviews - Cynthia Lee Katona

A fresh look at the history of the English language.

The Main Artery - Carol White

Fun and illuminating.

Michigan Quarterly Review - Anne Curzan

An unusual linguistic and literary feast.

Journal of English and Germanic Philology - Tim William Machan

The casual, witty, and sometimes provocative style in which the book is written provides a very apt vehicle for this very personal account.

Globe & Mail - Gale Zoë Garnett

Erudite and accessible. [Lerer] brings both love and rigour to his subject.

Choice

This absorbing book provides sufficient information about linguistics and early English language and literature for clarification... Essential.

Publishers Weekly

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. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

In 19 essays, Lerer (humanities, Stanford Univ.)--known for his "History of the English Language" audio and videotape series for the Teaching Company--presents his "portable assembly of encounters" with the English language, namely, a synopsis of contributions from figures as varied as seventh-century poet Caedmon and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Lerer aims to connect "individual experience and literary culture," typically examining quotations from literature, famous speeches, and even an email message. He includes lengthy quotes sometimes requiring translation from Old or Middle English. In this way, Lerer explains English-language development regarding word coining and borrowing, vowel shifts, and the role of such prominent publications as Samuel Johnson's Dictionary(1755). He also explores dialects and the impact of war on language. Following the works cited for each chapter are two appendixes consisting largely of phonetic symbols and a glossary of linguistic terms. Lerer's survey is distinct from other recent essay collections using a chronological approach (e.g., Linda Mugglestone's The Oxford History of English) or a more comprehensive, topical tack (e.g., Richard M. Hogg and David Denison's A History of the English Language). Recommended for academic libraries.
—Marianne Orme

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231137942
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 4/3/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 801,763
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Seth Lerer was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was educated at Wesleyan University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago. He taught at Princeton before moving to Stanford University, where he is the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities. The author of many books and articles on medieval and Renaissance literature, he is known nationally for his audio and videotape series, The History of the English Language, for the Teaching Company.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

A Note on Texts and Letter FormsIntroduction: Finding English, Finding Us1. Caedmon Learns to Sing: Old English and the Origins of Poetry2. From Beowulf to Wulfstan: The Language of Old English Literature3. In This Year: The Politics of Language and the End of Old English4. From Kingdom to Realm: Middle English in a French World5. Lord of This Langage: Chaucer's English6. I Is as Ille a Millere as Are Ye: Middle English Dialects7. The Great Vowel Shift and the Changing Character of English8. Chancery, Caxton, and the Making of English Prose9. I Do, I Will: Shakespeare's English10. A Universal Hubbub Wild: New Words and Worlds in Early Modern English11. Visible Speech: The Orthoepists and the Origins of Standard English12. A Harmless Drudge: Samuel Johnson and the Making of the Dictionary13. Horrid, Hooting Stanzas: Lexicography and Literature in American English14. Antses in the Sugar: Dialect and Regionalism in American English15. Hello, Dude: Mark Twain and the Making of the American Idiom16. Ready for the Funk: African American English and Its Impact17. Pioneers Through an Untrodden Forest: The Oxford English Dictionary and its Readers18. Listening to Private Ryan: War and Language19. He Speaks in Your Voice: Everybody's EnglishAppendix. English Sounds and Their RepresentationGlossaryReferences and Further ReadingAcknowledgments

Columbia University Press

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    An excellent textbook!

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2007

    Uneven

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted July 24, 2011

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    Posted December 2, 2012

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    Posted November 12, 2012

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    Posted May 8, 2010

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