A review of Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, by Seth Lerer

Seth Lerer's Inventing English is an engaging but ultimately frustrating history of the English language, told in short, chronological chapters with themes like ancient origins, spelling change, and modern African-American dialect. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and Twain get a chapter each. Milton, Locke, Noah Webster, and H.L. Mencken receive less though still considerable attention, along with works like Beowulf, Middlemarch, and the Oxford English Dictionary. The book is not so much literary history, however, as a curious parade of philology: grammar, syntax, phonetics, phonology, morphology, dialectology, phraseology, orthoepy (more in a moment), orthography, and etymology. Yet Lerer, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, means to address the unprofessional lover of English with the argument that the 1,400-year-old language has been in constant change, endlessly "invented."

The story of English begins in the mid-5th century C.E., when Germanic peoples from Northern Europe, mostly of the Angle and Saxon tribes, flood into the British Isles. A century later Old English emerges as a branch of the Germanic language family, which includes Dutch and Danish. Indulge during Oktoberfest and you can slurringly demonstrate the kinship: What is that? Was is das? (German) Wat is dat? (Dutch) Hvad er det? (Danish). Old English, incomprehensible today to non-scholars, was the isle's vernacular between roughly 500 and 1100. Its earliest record is poetry, often songs about grim predawn battles in clinging mist, sung, like Homer's epics in their day, with harps at banquets. English's oldest poem, nine lines about Creation, was written by Caedmon, a 7th-century Northumbrian cowherd who claimed angelic inspiration. Caedmon's Hymn opens: "Nu scylum hergan hefaenricase Uard, Metudaes maecti end his modgidanc." "Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom's Guardian, the Creator's might, and his mind-thought." When a sound in Old English was irreproducible by Latin letters, Anglo-Saxon scribes borrowed Germanic runes like the thorn, þ, representing the th consonant or "interdental" (notice where your tongue goes when you produce it), probably the most difficult English sound for non-native speakers to pronounce.

In 1066 the Normans invaded. During their four centuries of dominion, Old French was the language of law, administration, and courtly culture. The Normans brought to Britain's shepherds and farmers such terms as artcuisinefashion, andliterature. One can still detect the Francophone influence in word endings like –ous (courteousjudicious) or –ment(governmentcommandment). Phrases like "give offence," "have mercy," "take pains" were French idioms. Old English borrowings from Old French often reflected more than plain meaning. Sir Walter Scott showed how words reveal that the Anglo-Saxon raised the food and the Norman Frenchman ate it: compare sowcowcalfsheepdeer (Old English) toporkbeefvealmuttonvenison (Old French). The first record of English being spoken in Parliament (a French word) is in 1362, the year the body passed a law requiring legal courts to proceed in English because litigants no longer understood French. Indeed, many Old English speakers couldn't understand each other. An Oxford scholar named John of Trevisa wrote in the 1380s that northern English was so "sharp" and "unshapely" that "we Southern men may scarcely understand it."

* * *

By the mid-13th century Old English had become Middle English and the language's great trend was clear. "The history of the language," writes Lerer, is "a story of a shift from an inflected to an uninflected language." Old English, for instance, had grammatical gender, like Spanish or French, but within a hundred years of the Norman Conquest all inanimate nouns became, simply, "it." Old English had grammatical cases, like Latin or Russian, but these were abandoned. Old English nouns became plural by changing roots, remnants of which survive in very old words like mousemice or footfeet; now we add an –s. Old English verbs changed roots in the past tense, a form fossilized in verbs like I drinkI drank; I thinkI thought, but most old root changes vanished; today we just add the suffix –ed ("climbed" for clum, "helped" for holp). In short, our language simplified tremendously.

In the 14th century the urbane Geoffrey Chaucer, called the father of English poetry within decades of his death, established the poet (says Lerer) as an "innovator in the uses of language"—in a passage of seven lines in Troilus and Cryseyde, he introduced eight words to English (among them adorn, cause, repair). Middle English was changing so rapidly that William Caxton (1422-1491), Britain's first printer, could observe, "Certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre [far] from that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne."

Between the mid-15th and -16th centuries a systematic shift in pronunciation occurred, marking the transition from Middle to early modern English. The letters ea came to be pronounced ee—thus meat, pronounced mate, came to sound likemeet. (Five curious exceptions retain the old pronunciation: great, break, steak, yea, and Reagan.) Lerer devotes many pages to orthoepy, the study of pronunciation, which seeks to explain (often in vain) why two is pronounced like too, butput unlike cut; why we drop the in honest but not in humble; or why consonants alter vowels, as in arm vs. warm orand vs. wand. Spelling, Lerer tells us, generally preserves historical pronunciations. Chaucer pronounced knight, "knicht."

* * *

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the "cusp of linguistic modernity," new words from science, commerce, exploration, literature, art—drawn from Latin, Greek, European and non-European languages—swelled the lexicon as never before or since. Shakespeare contributed nearly 6,000 of them, an exhibition of genius unmatched by any author in any language. Writers began to notice that English is the most voracious of tongues. In his 1658 dictionary Edward Philips observed, "There are not many nations in Europe, some of whose words we have not made bold with." We took mustachefrom French, cannibal from Spanish, smuggler from Dutch, chintzy from India, raccoon from Indian North America, andbarbecue from the West Indies. Old English drew 3% of its vocabulary from foreign sources; the figure in modern English rises to nearly 70%. Words died, too. Eximious was once a living synonym of "excellent" and temulent a synonym of "drunk," which gives us hope that "dis" will one day breathe its last and leave the innocent "insult" to do its work. The reason for a loanword or coinage's survival is elusive, explains Lerer, but words usually enter the language through the pens of the best writers and attain acceptance through common usage. According to Alexander Gil (1564-1635), a linguist who taught the young Milton, "In morals the agreement of good men, and in language the practice of the learned, is the determining rule."

Unfortunately the learned sometimes let us down, as does Lerer in some small and not so small ways. His prose is flat. He uses redundancies like "uniquely personal" and "imaginative fiction." He re-uses quotes again and again, sometimes on the same page, sometimes with worrisome variation. Worse still is his pathological use of metaphor and simile. The problem is not only bad metaphors ("the swell of sounds that is the ocean of our tongue"), but his determination to liken or compare every subject in his book to something else. In one typical passage, he writes that "Words are like fashions…as much a store of styles as one's garage, houses, cars, tools, or patio furniture." In the next paragraph the image changes: "Like spices, sought-for overseas by travelers and traders, words can be bought and sold to saffron our tongue." In the next paragraph a word reminds him of Paradise Lost and he wonders, "Are words like some satanic stowaways in English Eden?" In the same paragraph new words are compared to "immigrants" struggling for "citizenship in the lexicon." In the next paragraph the word "hybrid" calls to his mind an image of words as cross-breeding flowers.

* * *

Lerer's comparison of everything to everything is the consequence of a relativism that mistakes variety for equality. In the face of endless change, he argues, there cannot be something called proper English. "All of us find or invent our language," he writes. "We may come up with new sentences never heard before. We may use words in a unique way…. The angel that comes to Caedmon comes to all of us." By the book's end we are in the midst of a wild celebration of linguistic diversity. Like an optimist at Babel, Lerer is charmed by the newest slang or the latest mode of poetry that "challenges the conventions of form and rhetoric." Misspelled, uncapitalized, unpunctuated emails reflect for him the "legacy of American poetics" and a "carefully framed indifference to the rigors of epistolarity." Gangster rap and hip-hop "give us soliloquies as rich as ‘to be or not to be.'"

This promiscuous conclusion is a shame, for it contradicts the rest of his book. Lerer honors the poets to whose genius and labor the English language is permanently indebted. Chaucer and Shakespeare mocked the pedantries of courtiers and scholars as well as the malapropisms of rustics. Lerer shows how grammarians discovered rules, orthographers fixed spellings, lexicographers settled meaning. He praises the linguist John Hart, who argued in his Orthographie (1569) for "learned" English, "that speech which euery reasonable English man, will the nearest he can, frame his tongue thereunto." He glows in describing how Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) "shaped the English of its time and for a century afterward." According to Lerer, nothing did more to distinguish polite discourse from slang and colloquialism than Johnson's Dictionary. Johnson said it was intended for readers who would "aspire to exactness of criticism or elegance of style," and expressed the hope that through it the language's "purity may be preserved."

"We should not see our language as debased," Lerer closes, for "the history of English is a history of invention." One could accept this plea if only he distinguished invention that illuminates and ennobles from that which degrades and obscures.