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"Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language" by Seth Lerer

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Anyone interested in a concise, engaging history of English, look no further than Professor Seth Lerer's "Inventing English." This splendid little book (266 pages plus appendices) has superb, easily-digested detail when the subject warrants it, and glosses over long periods when they provide no instructive changes. I had the sensation while reading it, of flying over the subject at 35,000 feet, and then plunging to the surface of minute detail at strategic stops along the way.

We have a simple, straightforward section on Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), one of a family of Germanic and Scandinavian languages. I had not understood in such clear terms the extent of post-Conquest class difference which one's language indicated: if you spoke Anglo-Norman (William's language), you were privileged; if you spoke Anglo-Saxon, you were the newly bereft, untouchable. The chapter on Chaucer gave me a better understanding of this brillant and sardonic poet than any past study. He did not invent Middle English, but he did perform a stunning conflation of its mix of sources, syntax, politics, and mutability. While doing so, he hearkened back to some Old English structure and practices. He also understood the subject of post-Conquest language in England to be a highly charged political issue.
Prof. Lerer provides no dry, date-giving overview. He includes spicy, provocative exegeses along the way of anonymous Anglo-Saxon versifiers, and in turn, Chaucer, Shakespeare (to a somwhat lesser depth, however), Milton, Dr. Johnson and Emily Dickinson in a particularly head-turning juxtaposition, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison. (I will never think of the quote "I yam what I am!" in the way same again.)

Professor Lerer (he's the Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at Stanford) engages us throughout this book; this was its principal surprise for me. He takes his reader along for a joyous ride, full of wisdom and telling anecdote. I found myself assiduously taking notes, with a lot more enthusiasm than ever I did in linguistics class. Some exposure to linguistics, in fact, would be helpful as you approach this book, but is certainly not essential. This book is made for the language-loving lay person.

I generally get my books at the library. But his one, I'm thinking, I'm going to have to go out and buy. I'm going to want to return to it pretty often. It's full of intriguing information, engagingly presented. Lovers of the English language will love this. I did and do.
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