- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 10, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 023113794X
- ISBN-13: 978-0231137942
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language 0th Edition
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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.)
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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 Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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"Inventing English" traces the evolution of English from the earliest known written document in Old English to the modern day. As the author describes it in his introduction, it is an episodic epic, with each chapter covering a specific topic.
In his book, Lerer does a good job of striking the middle ground; that is, his work is a bit more conversational than a college textbook, but it is definitely not dumbed-down. Someone like me whose degree is in something other than English or Linguistics may struggle a bit with some of the more technical terms he uses in the earlier chapters. However, if you're interested enough in the history of our language to even pick up this book in the first place, then you're probably motivated enough to stick with it, anyway. Not knowing the exact meaning of the technical terms doesn't prevent a good understanding of the gist of what the author is trying to convey.
The first half of the book is the most difficult. In discussing Old and Middle Englishes, Lerer necessarily focuses on the technical aspects of the language: the syntax, grammar, word formation, and pronunciation. This is slow reading, if you really want to absorb what he's saying, that is. However, once he moves into Modern English the reading is faster and less technical.
This book is an excellent survey for the non-Linguistics major. It covers a vast amount of territory at just the right amount of depth to give a nice, beginning overall knowledge of English. For someone who has studied Linguistics in depth, this book would definitely be too shallow. But for anyone else this is a great starting place to understand the birth and evolution of our fascinating and ever-changing language.
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.
There is something beautiful in a language where at the very beginning on a cold, rough shore, users were calling the ocean the "swan-road" and the "whale-road" and the word for poet was the word that became today's "shaper." It is amazing to see that even in times when human endeavor has been at its most self-destructive, the language has been able to flower and step forward.