The Magazine

Mother Tongue

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

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By JAMES SEATON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Lerer conveys the linguistic results of the Norman Conquest through both sociological observation and the analysis of poetry. Lerer reports Sir Walter Scott's observation that "the Anglo Saxon raised the food, whereas the Norman Frenchman ate it. Thus our words for animals remain Old English: sow, cow, calf, sheep, deer. Our words for meats are French: pork, beef, veal, mutton, venison." But Lerer also demonstrates how, in the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer could skillfully play off Norman French against Old English. The continental "Zephirus" blows "with his sweete breeth" over "holt and heeth"--an unmistakably English landscape. The same alliteration, reminiscent of Old English poetry among so many new words from the French, occurs as well in the last line of the opening, where it "reaffirms the Englishness of the experience" as it explains why the pilgrims are so eager to travel to the shrine of the saint: "That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke"--because he has helped them when they were sick.

Shakespeare could reach even farther afield in making use of the contrast between simple words from Old English and new words from elsewhere. In a brilliant analysis of Macbeth's soliloquy considering the killing of Duncan (Act One, Scene 7, Lines 1-7), Lerer notes that Macbeth at first refers to the deed in straightforward Saxon English: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / If it were done quickly." But a deed such as the killing of a king by his subject and successor could not be simply "done when 'tis done," no matter how short and simple the words used to refer to it. As Macbeth broods, he characterizes the deed in a very different spirit, employing a word--"assassination"--whose root (Lerer reminds us) "comes originally from an Arabic term meaning a 'hashish eater.'"

In a historical note not without contemporary relevance, Lerer explains that "members of certain sects would get high on their hash before committing violent deeds, such as the public killing of a public figure." Macbeth's use of this exotic term--the word appears for the first time in English in this speech--testifies that, despite his best efforts to believe otherwise, the act will have consequences far beyond what he can foresee or control.

Another, later writer of the English Renaissance with a protagonist whose actions would also have untoward consequences likewise signals moral unease by the use of a foreign-sounding word. The landscape of Milton's Eden is a "lantskip," as in "so lovely seemed / That Lantskip." Pointing out that the word is from "the Dutch landschap, a technical term for the genre of painting natural scenery," Lerer suggests that Eden, even before Adam and Eve disobey, has "something about it that looks forward to the fall," something that suggests its abundance and peace are "seeming" rather than reality. For Lerer, this quality of the Miltonic Eden reveals something about "the expanding English lexicon and the character of the Renaissance vernacular"--it was a "new vocabulary" whose undeniable richness had not yet been fully absorbed into English.

Doctor Johnson attempted to sort out what words and phrases deserved to be accepted as proper English and which did not. Johnson remains the most impressive of those who attempted to organize and discipline the English language, but Lerer quotes Johnson's own recognition, after years of working on his Dictionary, that the task he had set himself was finally an impossible one: "No dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away." And yet Johnson succeeded, not only by the cogency of his definitions but, perhaps even more, by the choice of his quotations in expressing a literary sensibility that still speaks to us today. In Johnson, Lerer remarks with approval, "lexicography had become a branch of aesthetics."

Johnson's American successor, Noah Webster, was not, like Johnson, a great writer himself, but Lerer demonstrates the impact of Webster's dictionary on authors from Frederick Douglass to Emily Dickinson. Webster's insistence on the intrinsic connection between morality and learning is convincingly verified when Douglass hears his master commenting that reading unfits a man for subjection: "If you teach him how to read, he'll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself." Dickinson, like Douglass, read and reread Webster's dictionary. Her poem "Perhaps you think me stooping" relies on Webster's definition of stooping as "Bending the body forward" to make the connection between a Christ who "stooped until He touched the Grave" and a "love annealed of love" that could "bend as low as Death."

Lerer's chapter on African-American English is, fortunately, considerably more balanced than its title, "Ready for the Funk," suggests. Rightly refusing to anoint one sort of speech as more authentically black than another, Lerer notes the obvious but not always acknowledged truth that "there is no single strain of African-American English." Along with the strain associated with dialect, slang, and "funk," the strain that in popular culture is often simply identified with African-American English as a whole, Lerer also takes note of a second strain, "a history of impassioned public oratory and passionate prose and verse" that calls on "the arc of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible." Lerer quotes the oration of Homer Barbee in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as an example of the second, and the narrator's return to his roots with the exclamation, "I yam what I am!" as an example of the first.

He could have cited in confirmation of the reach of the second strain Ellison's own eloquent tribute to his teachers in the then-segregated public schools of Oklahoma who "could make the language of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible resound within us in such ways that its majesty and beauty seemed as natural and as normal coming from one of our own as an inspired jazz improvisation or an eloquently sung spiritual."

H.L. Mencken, no flatterer of the common people, nevertheless argued in The American Language that the distinctively American slang he abundantly documented and obviously enjoyed was not evidence of the decline of culture in a democracy but the expression of a uniquely American way of looking at the world: "The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians. His politics bristles with pungent epithets; his whole history has been bedizened with tall talk; his fundamental institutions rest far more upon brilliant phrases than logical ideas." Lerer comments that such a passage, itself full of "tall talk," nevertheless reveals Mencken "at his most lexicographical, most engaged with the line from Johnson to Webster."

Yet if Lerer shares Mencken's delight in characteristically American idioms, he also believes that the influence of the English past remains alive in the American present. His story ends in characteristic fashion by finding a continuity between Chaucer's General Prologue and the opening of Don DeLillo's postmodernist novel Underworld, whose depiction of "anonymous thousands" on their way to the Giants-Dodgers 1951 playoff game recalls for Lerer Chaucer's description of the "pilgrims from every shires end find[ing] their way to Becket's shrine."

Seth Lerer's "episodic epic," with its portrait of language as an unfixable, always-changing and growing enterprise constantly enriched by "inventors" both famous and unknown, seems to bear out F.A. Hayek's contention that "many of the greatest things man has achieved are the result not of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of a deliberately coordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand." Well aware of the hostility to his thesis that the market was one of these "greatest things," Hayek pointed to the history of languages to demonstrate that the notion of an "order generated without design" was no illusion, since the fact that "language shows a definite order which is not the result of any conscious design can scarcely be questioned."

Inventing English praises the accomplishments of "inventors" whose individual ingenuity has served better than any planning committee in expanding and strengthening the language. Emphasizing the inevitable failure of those who attempt to organize and fix language by "conscious design," Lerer persuasively bears witness to the creativity of speakers and writers, famous and unknown, who in making use of English for their own purposes have broadened and deepened the resources of the language for the rest of us. In doing so, Lerer reveals that he is not only an academic linguist but, like Macdonald, Johnson, Webster, and Mencken, something more--in Evelyn Waugh's phrase, "an addict of that potent intoxicant, the English language."

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.