Book Review: Inventing English

Inventing English:  A Portable History Of The Language, by Seth Lerer

Fond readers of this blog, at least those who pay attention to my book reviews, will likely note that I am fond of reading about linguistics for fun [1].  At time I even converse with people about this subject when they share an interest in it, although that is not often.  This book deals, technically, mostly with a related subject to linguistics, namely philology.  Nevertheless, like books on linguistics this book discusses the great vowel shift, especially as it is shown in the justly famous Paxton family letters, and so it belongs in the general family of books about the linguistics of English.  This sort of book has a rather specific target audience:  if you like reading books about the change of English over time from Old English to today, with a focus on written language, the fecundity of English when it comes to both creating and appropriating words, and the complexity of English grammar and spelling and its political context, you will likely find something here to enjoy despite it being a somewhat challenging book to read.  The fact that the author references Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Uncle Remus stories that formed the basis of Song of the South gives the story some additional cachet for certain audiences.

The slightly more than 250 pages of material in this book are made up of 19 mostly short chapters that take a broad look at the changes in the written (and spoken) English language over the course of its history so far, from the origins of English poetry during the times of Caedmon, to the language of Beowulf, to the dramatic effects of the Norman conquest that formed the end of Old English.  After this the author discusses the influence of French in Middle English, Chaucer’s bold and inventive encouragement to Middle English as a written language, and the variety of Middle English dialects that existed, if sometimes poorly attested, for centuries.  A discussion of the great vowel shift and the making of English prose through the efforts of Caxton and others precedes a chapter on Shakespeare’s English as well as the flowering of new words in 17th century English and the inevitable reaction by Orthoepists who sought to create a standard English dialect.  Samuel Johnson’s efforts at creating his idiosyncratic dictionary follow before the book takes a turn towards American English in chapters on lexicography, dialect, Mark Twain, and African American English.  The last three chapters of the book look at the influence of the Oxford English Dictionary, the role of war on language, and the widespread nature of contemporary English before some appendices, glossaries, references, acknowledgments, and an index.

Ultimately, this book promotes the sort of descriptivist English that is very common among those who seek to describe the varieties of English rather than promote a standard sort of language.  Nevertheless, the book does acknowledge the contrary pulls that exist in English between a love of creativity and a desire for standardization, between the influence of conservative forms of English throughout the centuries and that of French, Latin, and other languages with which English has had fateful interactions.  The author celebrates diversity while still understanding the need for different dialects of English to be able to understand each other.  Likewise, this book offers considerable insight into the way that English became a language known for vagueness and misdirection during the period of Norman domination, yet another loss suffered by the people of England after the wicked conquest of William of Normandy.  At any rate, although this book talks a lot about the past, it is clear that the author has a certain expectation about the future and that there will continue to be a great deal of interest in the changes of English that are yet to come, something that does not appear to trouble the author in the least.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Inventing English

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