From 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.)
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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 ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved