cover image Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language

Seth Lerer, . . Columbia Univ., $24.95 (305pp) ISBN 978-0-231-13794-2

Lerer is not just a scholar (he's a professor of humanities at Stanford and the man behind the Teaching Company's audio and videotape series The History of the English Language ); he's also a fan of English—his passion is evident on every page of this examination of how our language came to sound—and look—as it does and how words came to have their current meanings. He writes with friendly reverence of the masters—Chaucer, Milton, Johnson, Shakespeare, Twain—illustrating through example the monumental influence they had on the English we speak and write today (Shakespeare alone coined nearly 6,000 words). Anecdotes illustrate how developments in the physical world (technological advances, human migration) gave rise to new words and word-forms. With the invention of the telephone, for instance, a neutral greeting was required to address callers whose gender and social rank weren't known. America minted "hello" (derived from the maritime "ahoy"), and soon Twain enshrined the term in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court . Whether it's Lerer's close examination of the earliest surviving poem in English (the seventh-century Caedmon's Hymn ) or his fresh perspective on Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the book percolates with creative energy and will please anyone intrigued by how our richly variegated language came to be. (Apr.)