More on Linguistics – History of English Part 1

In my continuing quest to understand how culture and language affect thought, I picked up Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language, by Seth Lerer.  To be honest, I’m not sure it fulfilled  purpose as stated in the subtitle except in the broadest sense, but was still a worthwhile read.

The book, while arranged in chronological order, is really a series of essays on different periods in the history of the English language.  It begins with the earliest Saxon and Old English roots, giving copious examples, and notes how different regional dialects affected pronunciation and grammar.  He shows how French, introduced by the Norman invaders, had a strong influence on the development of English, how Chaucer brought in a lot of new words, as did Shakespeare, and from there he continues on into the development of American English, from the dialects around the country and their combination, especially during wartime, to Black culture to Mark Twain and idioms.

The main problem I had is that the narrative never really seemed to flow smoothly, and in a lot of places, it seems like he had a reader in mind who was more knowledgeable about linguistics.

That said, I learned a lot.  For example, the chapter on black culture exposed me to a lot of authors I might not have encountered otherwise, such as Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Walker and of course, Toni Morrison.  He mentions black preachers, and quotes at length from Martin Luther King’s incredible “I Have a Dream” speech.  There is a description of Mark Twain’s use of the word “Dude” and how it changed meanings.  Some of the most beautiful poetry in the book is quoted in the chapters on Old English and it was fascinating to see parts of Beowulf and Chaucer in the original languages.

It’s a deep book and I don’t really think it’s for the general reader.  But if you’re interested in how the English langauge has changed over time and incorporated words from other languages this book is a good read for you.

As for me, I’ll be checking out Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way coming up soon!

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