A Portable History of the Language
By Seth Lerer
Columbia. 305 pp. $24.95
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 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 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 -re endings 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 email@example.com