Inventing English


I am no linguist, and not particularly skilled at finessing the subtleties of sounds we humans speak into meaning: monopthongs versus dipthongs, vowels held long in the front versus short in the back. But I am a person endlessly fascinated by the English language, and the way its history reflects the greater history of the people who have spoken it and shaped it over the years. As a passionate non-specialist, then, I found Seth Lerer's Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language highly satisfying: Lerer's essays on English lingual history are clear and juicy, with just enough patient explanation of technical linguistic terms to enable the casual reader to follow along easily. More than that, he analyzes the unexpected ways in which social and political movements have influenced the course of the language's evolution.

The theme that struck me most, through all of Lerer's chapters, was how fundamentally political language is, and how double-edged. From the very beginning of our history as English speakers, we've been engaged in a complicated relationship with how (or whether) our language should expand to include outside influences, and what lingual "purity" would even look like. This may sound familiar: it's still being played out in the fight to establish English as the official language of the United States, a move motivated by fear of the growing Spanish-speaking populations here. But it's nothing new. In one early section I found particularly fascinating, Lerer discusses the first known rhymed poem written in English. Some background for those who don't know: Anglo-Saxon or Old English poetry didn't generally rhyme; instead, it was organized around principles such as alliteration, kennings (novel compound words that expressed a single concept, like the coinage "whaleroad" for the ocean), and numbers of stressed syllables per line. Rhymed poetry was typical of Latinate literature, and began to filter into English after the Norman (French) invasion of 1066. But what I found so striking was that this poem, which incorporated a brand-new verse technology learned directly from the French, was in content a protest poem against those very same invaders, a lyric composed on the death of William the Conqueror, which catalogued his atrocities:

Castelas he let wyrcean,
7 earme men swi∂e swencean,
Se cyng waes swa swi∂e stearc,
7 benam of his underþeoddan manig marc
goldes 7 ma hundred punda seolfres.
Det he name be wihte
7 mid mycelan unrihte
of his landloede
for littelre neode.
He waes on gitsunge befeallan,
7 graedinaesse he lufode mid ealle.
He saette mycel deorfri∂,
7 he laegde laga þaerwi∂
þet swa hwa swa sloge heort o∂∂e hinde,
þet hine man sceolde blendian.

[He had castles built
and poor men terribly oppressed.
The king was very severe,
and he took from his underlings many marks
of gold and hundreds of pounds of silver.
All this he took from the people,
and with great injustice
from his subjects,
to gratify his trivial desire.
He had fallen into avarice,
and he loved greediness above everything else.
He established many deer preserves,
and he set up laws concerning them,
such that whoever killed a hart or a hind
should be blinded.]

This poem strikes me as so poignant. The author (a monk at the outlying Peterborough monastery) must have consciously chosen to write it in rhyming form, as the vast majority of the English poetry of the period wasn't rhymed. I can't resist speculating on why, therefore, he didn't take the more obvious route of a defiantly Anglo-Saxon verse form to protest the Norman tyranny. Was it a melancholy gesture away from the poetic forms he felt were his own, looking toward a period of colonization? Or did the mixed messages of the poem reflect his own conflicted feelings, his resentment of Norman oppression battling with admiration of the new French styles in verse and culture? Lerer points out that the very first word in the poem, "castelas" or castles, was an importation from Norman French: Anglo-Saxons didn't build in stone, but in wood, and readers of Beowulf will remember their vast-timbered halls. The Normans, on the other hand, peppered English soil with stone castles as part of their program of commandeering the land for royal use. In this poem, then, we can see the simultaneous transformation of language, landscape, and ways of thinking. Fascinating stuff.

And this tension between the old and new, between expansive cosmopolitanism and protective nativism, continues through nearly every essay in Lerer's book. There are intriguing debates, in the centuries after his life, about whether Chaucer's popularization of so many French-derived words was a boon or a curse: Edmund Spenser wrote that Chaucer had tapped "the well of English undefiled," whereas early philologist Alexander Gil said that he "rendered his poetry notorious by the use of Latin and French words," going on to call the resulting English an "illegitimate progeny" and a "monster." Interestingly, in both these cases the "undefiled" English is perceived as of a higher class: to Spenser, the addition of the colonizer's French-derived words raises the language to new poetic heights, whereas by Gil's time it's possible to complain that "everyone [e.g., even the commoner] wishes to appear as a smatterer of tongues and to vaunt his proficiency in Latin, French (or any other language)." Gil, therefore, as a mark of educated difference, advocates a return to the "purity" of Anglo-Saxon-derived words. (The irony? His anti-Latinate treatise is written in...Latin.)

But Lerer makes the point, again and again, that attempts to restrict the growth of the language are both misguided and doomed to failure. From the huge influx of foreign-derived words during the commerce and exploration boom of the sixteenth century, to the formation of Atlantic creoles as a product of the slave trade, to the jargon introduced into our speech by the soldiers of successive wars, Lerer insists that our language reflects the way we live, and that to expect anything else is foolhardy. I strongly agree with this idea: modern English is not debased, any more than Anglo-Saxon English encapsulated some mythical "purity." We should revel in the richness and diversity of our language, not fight it.

One of the most touching chapters of Inventing English deals with Samuel Johnson's personal transformation over the course of writing his Dictionary. Beginning the task with the goal of "fixing" the language in place, of ascertaining proper usage and recording it for all time, he gradually came to appreciate the untameable flow of the English tongue:

[A]fter years of false starts, failures, and impediments - he was unable to complete the task in the three years he set himself; his wife died in the process; his amanuenses found his work almost impossible to follow; he abandoned Chesterfield's patronage - after all this he realized that it is impossible to fix a language. In the preface to the Dictionary that finally appeared in 1755, he saw a language not imperial but "sublunary," mutable and transitory. Like Caxton, who saw English living under the "domynacioun of the moon," Johnson found himself incapable of fixing usage. His purpose, now, had become "not to form, but register the language; not to teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts."

I was cheering Johnson on here. His journey was not an easy one - he spent eight years basically despondent - but to me, the outcome was so worthwhile: an appreciation of the strength, richness, and changeability of his mother tongue.

Inventing English was full of fascinating little tidbits; I was constantly reading this or that juicy anecdote out loud to David as I perused it. "Did you know," I would say, "that 'hubbub' was originally an onomatopoetic term based on what English people heard in the speech of the Irish and Welsh?" Or "Wow, did you know 'dude' originated as a term for a citified dandy? I always thought it originally described cowboys!' These little insights are fascinating and thought-provoking, but Lerer also does a good job of taking his history beyond the anecdotal, and tying these small examples into a larger context of social and political change. I ardently enjoyed it, and might even follow up a few of the chapters with some more in-depth reading.

(Inventing English was my fifth and 400-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)


  • I tutor children in reading and they always get nervous when they don't pronounce words correctly. I tell them it's not their fault, that English borrowed from so many languages that confusion is normal.

    I like shorter words, like stuff and weird and book.

    Great review.

  • I love this subject, and this particular book sounds utterly fascinating. Thanks for all your thoughts. You write so well and so thoughtfully, and I love every review of yours I've read.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography