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Mother Tongue

There's a lot of history in the history of English.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By JAMES SEATON
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Inventing English

A Portable History of the Language

by Seth Lerer

Columbia, 320 pp., $24.95

Once, lexicographers like Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and H.L. Mencken were not only researchers but also major cultural authorities, who were more than willing to use that authority not only to distinguish good word usage from bad but also to encourage clear thinking and, in the case of the first two, good morals.

Somewhere in the 20th century, however, the academic study of language became less a humanistic enterprise than a social science. Linguists and dictionary-makers became convinced that their status as scientists depended on their refusal to make negative judgments about linguistic change of any kind. In "The Decline and Fall of English," Dwight Macdonald traced the shift to the influence of the theories of Otto Jespersen, who claimed "that change in language is not only natural but good." Macdonald, a political radical but a cultural conservative, took issue, arguing that it was the obligation of lexicographers "to make it tough for new words and usages to get into circulation so that the ones that survive will be the fittest."

This was important not only for the sake of efficient communication but also because overly rapid change in language leads to a loss of cultural memory. English, Macdonald reminded his readers, "is an aesthetic as well as practical means of communication. It is compounded of tradition and beauty and style and experience."

Seth Lerer, an academic linguist in good standing, has no theoretical objection to the ideas of the theorist he calls "the great Danish linguist Otto Jespersen," and his history of the language is not a narrative of "decline and fall." The very title Inventing English suggests that Lerer intends to celebrate language change, while the book's conclusion insists that, even though the pace of change may have quickened in recent times, "we should not see our language as debased," since the entire history of English is a "history of invention: of finding new words and new selves." His Portable History of the Language is, nevertheless, a work that both celebrates and continues the work of humanistic explorers of language like Johnson, Webster, and Mencken.

Lerer accurately observes that this "is less a history of English in the traditional sense than it is an episodic epic." One of the blessings of this approach is that the reader hears less about, for example, changes in vowel sounds carried on over centuries--though there is one chapter on "The Great Vowel Shift"--and much more about specific examples of the use of language by gifted "inventors," from Caedmon to Don DeLillo. Disagreeing with Macdonald's conclusions, Lerer nevertheless shares his interest in language as "an aesthetic as well as practical means of communication."

To convey the world of Old English, Lerer points out how the words of "Caedmon's Hymn" demonstrate the way in which the conception of God changed when expressed in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular rather than the Latin of the missionaries. Caedmon praises God for creating not only heaven and earth but also "middungeard," translated literally as "middle-yard," a realm not known in Latin theology but well known to the ancient Germans as "the place between the realm of the gods and the world of the dead." (Lerer suggests that J.R.R. Tolkien's "Middle-Earth" is a modern version.) The author of Beowulf--like Caedmon, engaged in using words in unfamiliar ways to reveal new conceptions--conveys the delight of language powerfully though indirectly: Beowulf's antagonist, the monster Grendel--for the poet "a won-saeli wer" ("a being empty of blessedness")--not only does not understand human language but is itself "capable only of cries," not articulate speech. Perhaps, suggests Lerer, that is why Grendel attacks Hrothgar's hall: Inside there are people enjoying "the sweet sound of the scop [singer]," a delight Grendel cannot share.