Vowels shifted, consonants lost and tales retold

Inventing English
July 13, 2007

This is a personal, selective and impassioned journey through the history of English. It focuses on periods where the story is especially interesting: either because of what writers were doing at the time or because of social changes reflected in the texts. Chapters on Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton and Shakespeare are followed by three on early lexicographers and language reformers; then come treatments of how speech has been represented by American writers, the making of the Oxford Dictionary , African-American English, war and language, and a final plea for English as a world language.

Seth Lerer describes his book as "an episodic epic, a portable assembly of encounters with the language". Not surprisingly, the author does not come from a linguistics department but is professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. This explains the emphasis on American English in the book's latter half: apart from the chapter about James Murray and Oxford, all the characters in the epic after the 18th century are American. It also explains the emphasis on literary texts: for Lerer the purpose of examining the development of English is to bring our literary and cultural history to life. He sees the texts as keys to understanding the struggles and joys of our linguistic forebears.

If George Steiner - another eminent and energetic professor of comparative literature - had stayed in America and written a history of English, it would have looked like this book. Does the mixture of literary and linguistic history succeed? I have doubts, because the two fields deal with vastly different issues and have such dissimilar modes of inquiry.

One minute Lerer the philologist is explaining the minutiae of the Great Vowel Shift, the remarkable set of changes in pronunciation between the 15th and 17th centuries that means "bite" no longer rhymes with present-day "feet" (itself originally pronounced rather like modern "fate"). A few pages later, the literary scholar tells us that Shakespeare's tragic characters "have helped the modern age define just what it means to be a human being".

Similarly, two chapters talk about loss: first the "cultural displacement and spiritual loss" caused by Norman invaders and lamented by the monks in the Peterborough Chronicle of 1087; second the loss of characteristic consonant clusters of Old English ("hring" became "ring", "hlud" turned into "loud"). These two events are poles apart; is it helpful to deal with them side by side?

Much depends on the enthusiasm with which the story is told, and here the book scores highly. Lerer's writing is full of zest and moral seriousness, as one would expect from someone who has published extensively on Chaucer and Milton. The book does not claim to be a comprehensive textbook (the jacket calls it "a unique blend of historical and personal narrative"). There is a place for works like this, which embed the dry, technical study of language history in a cultural context.

Assuming, of course, that they are reliable and accurate. Few linguists would recognise the glossary's distinction between phonology, "the study of the system of sounds of a given language", and phonetics, "the study of the pronunciation of sounds of a given language by speakers of that language". Normally, phonetics is defined as the study of speech sounds in general while phonology deals with particular languages.

A further confusion occurs in Lerer's description of vowels: US scholars tend to distinguish tongue positions as high or low, whereas the British tradition uses close and open (less clear, in my view, because in everyday language we tend to distinguish open from closed). Lerer switches between the two systems, sometimes within a single paragraph.

Often the claims are grandiose but empty. Samuel Johnson, we read, "effectively invented the persona of the lexicographer". A later chapter describes how in the 1880s the word "dude" became popular in America to refer to dapper urbanites. Lerer writes that "the affectations of the dude posed a challenge to American ideals of public life". I am suspicious of this extravagant prose, which can give a spurious impression of profundity to academic writing.

These are minor quibbles, however, compared with the careful reading of texts that the book encourages and the new insights into literature and history it offers. Few people now study the history of English, fewer still in conjunction with literature. It was different in the olden days (as my children call the 1970s), and Lerer's book is a rare and enjoyable reminder of this lost tradition.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies at Brighton University.

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language

Author - Seth Lerer
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 320
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 9780231137942

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