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'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.