Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The History Of The English Language: Part 1

Great Courses:  The History Of The English Language:  Part 1, taught by Professor Seth Lerer

This course began in such a way that I was left pretty encouraged about how it would turn out.  Admittedly, this is a course designed for those who are not amateur philologists [1], but it is still an enjoyable course if one brings some background knowledge to the table.  Indeed, even with background knowledge and a considerable interest in the origins of English as a language there are some excellent details the instructor includes that demonstrate his grasp of the material and his obvious love of languages.  It is quite delightful to hear the instructor jump between Old and Middle English, between ancient Indo-European reconstructions and more modern languages to show the development of philology as a research project as well as the development of English as a language during its first few centuries. Included are some deeply intriguing questions about identity and about influence that are worth pondering even if the course so far has focused (understandably) on the development of English in the British Isles and only a little bit about the distinctions of American English thus far.

As is common among the Great Courses, this part of the course consists of twelve lectures of half an hour or so apiece.  First the instructor introduces the listener to the study of language, giving some basics in philology (1).  After this there is a lecture on the historical study of language and its beginnings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along with some of its characteristic myths (2).  From here the instructor moves to a look at Indo-European as a language family and the preshistory of English when it was part of the general proto-Germanic languages (3).  A deeply enjoyable lecture on the reconstruction of meaning and sound (4) along with a lecture on historical linguistics and the study of culture (5) close the introductory section of this course.  After this point the author focuses his attention on English as a language and its change over time.  First the instructor looks at the beginnings of English with its closeness to the continental West German languages it sprang from (6), after which there is a look at the Old English worldview and how we know this from the melancholy early poetry of the English (7).  After this the author answers the question of whether the Normans conquered English with a no (8) before looking at how the Norman conquest occurred a time when dramatic change was already occurring to English (9), so that they are not entirely to blame.  The first part of the course then comes to an end with an examination of Chaucer’s rich English (10) along with the representation of dialect in Middle English (11) and Medieval attitudes towards language (12) that emphasized the alienation between God and man that took place at the fall and also the alienation between people that took place at the Tower of Babel.

There are at least a few deeper matters that this course invites listeners to understand.  One of these is the way that languages can change in attitude depending on questions of prestige, such as the distinction between Germanic languages as a whole being resistant to the addition of new words and the voracious tendency of English to add new words based in large part on its survival as a non-prestige language during the Early Middle English period under Norman rule.  Another question that this course invites listeners to wrestle with is the question of how much the Normans are to blame for the changes that divide Old from Middle English.  Finally, the course wrestles with questions of sin and alienation as a way pointing out the way that dialect and language difference served to alienate people from those who spoke a different form of English, comically brought to mind when a Kentish farm woman thought that the desire on the part of metropolitan London merchants for eggys in the fifteenth century was some sort of Frenchified expression, much to the anger of the London merchants.

[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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