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Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language Hardcover – April 10, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0231137942 ISBN-10: 023113794X Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 023113794X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231137942
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #396,683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Why doesn't anyone speak English anymore? As he responds to this frequently asked question, Lerer challenges the notion that English was once a set of carefully preserved forms inherited from linguistically correct ancestors. From seventh-century Northumbrian farmers wrapping their tongues around words borrowed from Viking invaders to late-twentieth-century media executives sponsoring word pranks to promote MTV episodes, English speakers have always adapted their idioms to fit current needs. By revisiting pivotal points of language transformation, Lerer clarifies the ways English users have rewoven the fabric of language. Readers hear, for instance, how Wulfstan forged new Anglo-Saxon words in the white heat of his eleventh-century sermons, and they see how sixteenth-century printers turned a wilderness of speech into a cultivated garden of print. And what reader will not relish time spent with Mark Twain as he grafts onto the language new expressions still as raw as the American frontier? Lerer explains language changes so lucidly and illustrates the process with such engaging anecdotes that nonspecialists will join scholars in praising this remarkable linguistic investigation. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Customer Reviews

It is a little more US-centered, a little shallower and just a little easier to read.
G. Johnson
It's an incredibly interesting book, with fascinating insight on the history of the English language!
I have long been looking forward to reading this book (it has been on my TBR pile for months).

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 63 people found the following review helpful By G. C. Doane on May 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This isn't intended to be a review.

Just that I found the book to be extremely readable, very exacting, very interesting from its historic and modern social perspective (and insights), and incredibly human.

From its interesting contrasting of Anglian from Saxon dialects, to its description of 21st century ethnic speech, it keeps the reader informed and fascinated. Each chapter could be read independently of the others.

I have long been interested in the subject of English language history, and found this to be concise, eloquent and inspiring.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By C. Ebeling on July 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I ordered INVENTING ENGLISH the minute I read the reviews and was not disappointed. In fact, it exceeded my expectations. Lerer, a Stanford professor who has produced audio lectures on the English language as well as a considerable backlog of scholarship, has created a highly readable book that goes back to the very origins of the language--its sounds, rhythms, organization, meanings and looks--in post-Roman Britain and then follows its very organic, human trail forward from Old English to Middle English to the modern language that leaped an ocean, spread across the New World and is still evolving.

Lerer has great passion for his topic and a gift for delivering information. While there is considerable technical content, it is incorporated effortlessly and backed up with a glossary and appendices. Citations from Old and Middle English literature are followed immediately by translations. With less than 300 pages, Lerer has to leap from lily pad to lily pad in time to show how the language grew with expanding human experience and was influenced by historical acts, but he seems to hit all the key moments: Caedmon in the 7th century wrapping his consonant-dense bluntish language around Christian concepts; chroniclers documenting daily lives and events; King Alfred organizing a nation state; the Norman Conquest introducing French and a language of court apart from a language of the countryside; Chaucer seizing on the internationalism of King Richard's reign; the Great Vowel Shift; Shakespeare inventing our modern language; orthographers attempting to corral it; American colonists consciously shaping it their way; and those who have continued to use it to interpret experience and communicate life, influenced by technology, warfare, politics and globalization.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By G. Johnson on September 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is not (and not meant to be) mere entertainment, so I will review this book by introducing who I am and what I wanted.

I am American, speak several languages and teach English in a foreign country. However I did not study linguistics or Eng. Hist. at school, so while I have a reasonable grasp of language and language quirks and workings, not an actual expert on those subjects.

Then one day I got interested in English, the history of the language, and linguistics, really bit by a bug, and went out and got all sorts of books on the subjects. This was one of those books. And it is the one I least recommend. I had to force myself to read all the way to the 3rd-to-last chapter, at which point I could take no more. It is not too technical, no. Just not well done. The author himself may be a really interesting guy, that's the shame of it. This book is just not well organized.

As it says in its description, it is not an overview of the whole history, but a focusing in on a few points in the history. Each chapter goes into detail on one period, or event, and the chapters do not link together as a story, they are stand-alone essays. This in itself is not a bad thing. However in this book very few of the chapters were very good. There was one or two near the beginning of the book about the relations between French and English that were very interesting and well done, and I almost thought of giving it 2 stars for that reason, but have decided to stick with a strict standard.

Of the 10 or more books I have read on this subject in the last few months, and the ones that would be similar in topic to Inventing English, I recommend The Story of English, from the US tv series, and the Stories of English by the UK linguist David Crystal.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Anne Marie Schumacher on May 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
If reading a history of the English language seems a daunting task, do not despair. Lerer presents his concise history as a conversation with his reader and not as an encyclopedic form. Lerer's style of writing is familiar and close, like you are having light discourse with friends over a glass of wine. He writes in short, self-contained chapters, which smoothly take the reader from seventh century English to the present. It is a book that can be read in a few nights, or if one wishes, at a more leisurely pace which does not make one feel detached from the subject. During the course of this book, Lerer connects with his readers on many levels. He offers his own feelings of inadequacy about studying the language and provides his readers with a sense of immediacy about language change. Although some prior knowledge of linguistics may be helpful, Lerer's text is complete with an appendix and glossary of terms. So, while studying the English language may not seem like easy reading, be assured that Lerer's book provides readers with the experience of reading at ease.
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