Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The History Of The English Language, Part 3

Great Courses:  The History Of The English Language, Part 3, taught by Professor Seth Lerer

A course that began with a great deal of interest and promise ends in a somewhat strange place.  I do not say that this course ends in a bad place, because its ending is not a bad one, but although I am an American speaker of English and have a great deal of interest in linguistics as both a humanity and as a science, this book was not very personally satisfying for me, and I think it is worth trying to get a handle on why this is the case [1].  There are some aspects of linguistics I am not very fond of, and these areas I am not very fond of are similar to areas I am not fond of across the board.  For example, I love reading books about birds and gardening until the author starts bringing in contemporary political worldviews I dislike, and it was that political aspect of language that I found to be the most disappointing about this set of lectures as a whole.  If it did not dim my enjoyment of the series as a whole, it did make the ending less pleasant than the rest of the material was.

The twelve lectures of this part take up six hours of discussion.  The author begins by talking about the beginnings of American English (25), which were already noticeable from the 17th century, long before American independence, where a greater egalitarianism and a lessening of the difference between regional dialects was noted early.  After this there are lectures on the American language from Webster to Mencken (26) and American (political) rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln (27), where the author notes approvingly the importance of political rhetoric in the formation of the American form of English.  After this comes a look at the language of the American self in such diverse ways as Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative as well as the writing of Melville (28) before the author turns to questions of American regionalism (29) and American dialects in literature like Huckleberry Finn, the Uncle Reamus stories, and a Maine regional writer I was unfamiliar with (30).  The instructor spends an entire lecture looking at the issue of African-American English (31) and another lecture examining the Anglophone World by looking at Indian writers in English (32).  The author then spends a couple of lectures seeking to untangle the language of science (33) and the science of language (34) by looking at Chomsky and others who seek to posit deep structures for language competence in the brain.  After this the course closes with a look at linguistics and politics in language study (35) and some of the professor’s conclusions and attempts at provocation (36).

To appreciate the first two parts of this course, one need only appreciate, for example, linguistics as a broad field as well as history and literature.  When one is looking at Indo-European roots and the influence of Latin and Norman French on Middle English, one may be aware that there are politics involved, but the politics of the Roman Empire and of Plantagenet England are not the sort of politics that get (most) people bent out of shape.  In this course, though, the politics are contemporary and the author and I just do not think the same way.  In particular, the author shows himself to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to legitimize bad English in the names of cultural politics, and as a result I found this particular part of the course way less enjoyable as a listener.  This world has enough bad politics in it that these lectures were for the most part not very essential and not very enjoyable even where there is occasional agreement about the desirability of understanding linguistics in the context of literature and broader questions of culture and society.  Still, stay clear of these lectures unless you really like a lot of discussion about politics.

[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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