Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The History Of The English Language: Part 2

Great Courses:  The History Of The English Language:  Part 2, taught by Professor Seth Lerer

I must admit that I found this particular set of lectures to be pretty fascinating, but that is not a surprise given my fondness for the author’s previous work [1] as well as the subject matters the author speaks about [2].  In examining the history of the English language, the instructor is attuned to at least a few different angles of this process.  On the one hand, he has a great interest in the nuts and bolts of how words are coined or imported into a language to handle the conceptual demands of a people at a given time, and yet at the same time this series of lectures has a lot to say about the larger political aspects involved in language.  And make no mistake, this book discusses the politics of language in a variety of different ways that certainly demonstrate what is at stake when it comes to teaching and defining and describing language.  The author even demonstrates the moral judgments that come from people who shape the language through their use as well as through their research.

This course is divided into twelve lectures of 30 minutes apiece like most of the Great Courses series.  These lectures begin with a look at the return of English as a standard during the late Middle English period as the politics of English nationalism and the need of the late Plantagenet rulers for a larger cultural consensus behind their empire building plans led to increased prestige for chancery English (13).  After this the author discusses the great vowel shift and its effect on forming early modern English (14) and the expanding English vocabulary resulting from coinage and importation from French and Latin and other sources (15).  The author then looks at early modern English syntax and grammar (16) as well as Renaissance attitudes on teaching English (17).  The next two lectures focus on Shakespeare, first on drama, grammar, and pronunciation (18) and then on poetry, sound, and sense (19).  The instructor then spends some time looking at the impact of the Tyndale and King James Bibles on the English language (20) before looking at importance of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (21).  This focus on the divide between descriptivism and prescriptivism in the standards of English (22) carries on to the end of this series of lectures with a look at dictionaries and word histories (23) and the value judgments of words as their meanings and usage changes over time (24).

What struck me as being particularly interested is the fact that it is impossible to escape political and moral concerns when dealing with languages.  The rise of English towards the end of the Middle Ages was deeply connected with the politics of French-born rulers needing the informed consent of English-speaking nobles in order to provide tax money for armies and the like.  Likewise, to describe what was going on in history and to provide the history of where words were coined and how they entered into language itself served as a sort of judgment of words that were considered to affected because of French origin or to be low and disreputable because of their origin in colonial backwaters (like Ireland) or disreputable sources (like the theater).  And so in uncovering the history of language we are also brought face to face with our own use of words and our own awareness, or lack thereof, of the controversies and pedigree of the words in our disposal and how we use them to communicate with others.  Of course, the course benefits from not being all heaviness but also contains some light and humorous stories, including one about some London merchants who were stranded in 16th century Kent and unable to convey to a Kentish farmer their need for some eggs.  The English were divided by a common language long before the English and Americans were.

[1] See, for example:

[2] 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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