Inventing English

A Portable History of the Language

Seth Lerer

Columbia University Press

Inventing English

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Pub Date: April 2007

ISBN: 9780231137942

320 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $27.95£22.00

Pub Date: April 2007

ISBN: 9780231510769

320 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $26.99£21.00

Inventing English

A Portable History of the Language

Seth Lerer

Columbia University Press

Why is there such a striking difference between English spelling and English pronunciation? How did our seemingly relatively simple grammar rules develop? What are the origins of regional dialect, literary language, and everyday speech, and what do they have to do with you?

Seth Lerer's Inventing English is a masterful, engaging history of the English language from the age of Beowulf to the rap of Eminem. Many have written about the evolution of our grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, but only Lerer situates these developments in the larger history of English, America, and literature.

Lerer begins in the seventh century with the poet Caedmon learning to sing what would become the earliest poem in English. He then looks at the medieval scribes and poets who gave shape to Middle English. He finds the traces of the Great Vowel Shift in the spelling choices of letter writers of the fifteenth century and explores the achievements of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 and The Oxford English Dictionary of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He describes the differences between English and American usage and, through the example of Mark Twain, the link between regional dialect and race, class, and gender. Finally, he muses on the ways in which contact with foreign languages, popular culture, advertising, the Internet, and e-mail continue to shape English for future generations.

Each concise chapter illuminates a moment of invention-a time when people discovered a new form of expression or changed the way they spoke or wrote. In conclusion, Lerer wonders whether globalization and technology have turned English into a world language and reflects on what has been preserved and what has been lost. A unique blend of historical and personal narrative, Inventing English is the surprising tale of a language that is as dynamic as the people to whom it belongs.
The book percolates with creative energy and will please anyone intrigued by how our richly variegated language came to be. Publishers Weekly
Nonspecialists will join scholars in praising this remarkable linguistic investigation. Bryce Christensen, Booklist
An important and valuable source for anyone who loves the English language, and language in general. Gale Zoe Garnett, Toronto Globe & Mail
Written with real authority, enthusiasm, and love for our unruly and exquisite language. Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
A wonderful book. It's not hard to find well-informed books about the history of the English language, and it's not hard to find good critical accounts of English literature, but to have the two intertwined in one book is remarkable. Language Hat
Interesting and informative. Tom Oleson, Winnipeg Free Press
A personal, selective and impassioned journey through the history of English. Times Higher Education Supplement
Lerer not only navigates the shifting currents and boiling rapids of English, but also explores its secret coves. Rob Kyff, Advocate
[An] elegant book. Karenn Krangle, Vancouver Sun
A fresh look at the history of the English language. Cynthia Lee Katona, Magill Book Reviews
Inventing English is an invigorating read for the mind and the mouth. Bloomsbury Review
Fun and illuminating. Carol White, The Main Artery
This absorbing book provides sufficient information about linguistics and early English language and literature for clarification... Essential. Choice
Erudite and accessible. [Lerer] brings both love and rigour to his subject. Gale Zoë Garnett, Globe & Mail
An unusual linguistic and literary feast. Anne Curzan, Michigan Quarterly Review
The casual, witty, and sometimes provocative style in which the book is written provides a very apt vehicle for this very personal account. Tim William Machan, Journal of English and Germanic Philology
A Note on Texts and Letter Forms
Introduction: Finding English, Finding Us
1. Caedmon Learns to Sing: Old English and the Origins of Poetry
2. From Beowulf to Wulfstan: The Language of Old English Literature
3. In This Year: The Politics of Language and the End of Old English
4. From Kingdom to Realm: Middle English in a French World
5. Lord of This Langage: Chaucer's English
6. I Is as Ille a Millere as Are Ye: Middle English Dialects
7. The Great Vowel Shift and the Changing Character of English
8. Chancery, Caxton, and the Making of English Prose
9. I Do, I Will: Shakespeare's English
10. A Universal Hubbub Wild: New Words and Worlds in Early Modern English
11. Visible Speech: The Orthoepists and the Origins of Standard English
12. A Harmless Drudge: Samuel Johnson and the Making of the Dictionary
13. Horrid, Hooting Stanzas: Lexicography and Literature in American English
14. Antses in the Sugar: Dialect and Regionalism in American English
15. Hello, Dude: Mark Twain and the Making of the American Idiom
16. Ready for the Funk: African American English and Its Impact
17. Pioneers Through an Untrodden Forest: The Oxford English Dictionary and its Readers
18. Listening to Private Ryan: War and Language
19. He Speaks in Your Voice: Everybody's English
Appendix. English Sounds and Their Representation
Glossary
References and Further Reading
Acknowledgments

Commended, 2008 Honorable Mention - PSP Awards for Excellence in Literature, Language, and Linguistics

About the Author

Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the former Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. He is known nationally for his audio and videotape series, The History of the English Language, for the Teaching Company.