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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Does Language Affect Culture? Part 1

As I’ve been working with the Matthew Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, I’ve been amazed at the way so many fields are interlinked together and that are applicable to this area.  One subject area I recently discovered was that of linguistics and whether or not it can affect your view of the world.  I picked up some books on linguistics, and then I found that the February issue of Scientific American had an article on the very subject I was exploring entitled “How Language Shapes Thought!”  Such  serendipity has been occurring often as I go deeper into the field of security studies…

I haven’t really taken any English courses since grade school, so I decided a refresher course on linguistics was in order – especially after seeing the new Star Trek movie where Uhura mentions Xenolinguistics as her major.  To that end, I checked out Language, The Big Picture by Peter Sharpe because I wanted a book that was a general introduction to the field.

This was not that book.

It IS a good survey of the research in the field.  Sharpe begins with the origins of language and how our anatomy is related, and then moves on to why language change over time and variations by culture.  He discusses Noam Chomsky, who was the biggest influence on linguistics in the Twentieth Century, and various theories of how language is structured.  This is followed by a survey of semantics – how meaning is formed, and a discussion of semiotics, the symbols and signs of culture.  His final wrap-up talks about the mental representation of language.

This book is probably very good for use in a classroom, but not by someone who has little or no background in linguistics.  To be honest, I was looking for more detail on, as Jim Kirk said, “MorphologyPhonologySyntax.”

I’ll be tackling Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages next.  I also found this video by Lera Boroditsky to be quite fascinating.  In the meantime, does anybody have any good suggestions for an introductory text on Linguistics?

Scott