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
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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."