Sixteen centuries ago a wave of settlers from northern Europe came to the British Isles speaking a mix of Germanic dialects thick with consonants and complex grammatical forms. Today we call that dialect Old English, the ancestor of the language nearly one in five people in the world speaks every day.
How did this ancient tongue evolve into the elegant idiom of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain, Melville, and other great writers? What features of modern English spelling and vocabulary link it to its Old English roots? How did English grammar become so streamlined? Why did its pronunciation undergo such drastic changes? How do we even know what English sounded like in the distant past? And how does English continue to develop to the present day?
The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition, is Professor Seth Lerer’s revised and updated investigation of the remarkable history of English, from the powerful prose of King Alfred in the Middle Ages to the modern-day sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout its history, English has been an unusually mutable language, readily accepting new terms and new ways of conveying meaning. Professor Lerer brings this second edition up-to-date by including discussions of the latest changes brought about through such phenomena as hip hop, e-mail, text messaging, and the world wide web.
Are you a logophile—someone who
- Pauses over a word to wonder about its origin
- Stops to consider if a phrase or word is “proper”
- Savors a colorful idiom or slang phrase
- Is concerned about the use—and abuse—of English
- Is just plain curious about words?
Then you will find these 36 half-hour lectures endlessly fascinating and immensely rewarding.
Hear the Sound of English over the Centuries
The author of numerous authoritative books and articles on the English language and English literature, Professor Lerer is an expert who knows how to get people excited about their mother tongue, as evidenced by his many teaching awards. Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda praised the first edition of this course as “justly popular,” and went on to applaud Professor Lerer’s style as “erudite without ever becoming dull.”
Professor Lerer captures your interest from the start of lecture 1 when he recites a series of literary passages in their conjectured historical pronunciation. The three quotations begin as follows:
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
To be, or not to be: that is the question
The first is the opening of Caedmon’s Hymn, the earliest extant poem in Old English, composed around the year A.D. 680. Most people are hard-pressed to see any connection to modern English, but you will discover that there are many hidden traces.
The second passage is from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in the late 1300s. This is recognizable as English, but with a mix of baffling vocabulary. You will find that many of the unfamiliar words are just slightly disguised versions of words we use today.
The last quotation, of course, is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, composed around 1600. But you may be startled to hear Professor Lerer’s reading of this celebrated soliloquy, which hardly sounds like the pronunciation of modern British Shakespearean actors. That is because English in Shakespeare’s time did not sound like what we’ve become accustomed to hearing on the stage.
The Great Vowel Shift and More
From this core sample of English over the centuries, you begin your journey. Professor Lerer proceeds chronologically, beginning with the roots of English in the postulated ancient languages known as Indo-European, probably spoken 5,000 to 6,000 years ago by a group of agricultural peoples living around the Black Sea.
Never written down, the Indo-European languages were discovered in the 19th century when an English scholar noticed that certain words, such as the Sanskrit raj, the Latin rex, the German reich, and the Celtic rix, were similar in sound and meaning (they all mean king or ruler). These and other clues suggested that most of the languages from Ireland to India descended from a common language or group of dialects, which came to be called Indo-European. Germanic arose from this protolanguage, and Old English evolved out of Germanic.
Linguists have developed remarkable tools for charting how languages change over time. In this course, you will employ these tools to investigate four specific areas:
- Pronunciation: As you can see from the Old English sample above, the sound of English has changed radically. The best known example is the Great Vowel Shift, a systematic change in the pronunciation of vowels that occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries. Professor Lerer’s reading of several lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III shows that the shift was not yet complete in the Elizabethan age.
- Grammar and Morphology: Grammar describes the way words work together, and morphology describes their form, such as whether nouns and verbs are inflected. The evolution of such features is fascinating to observe, as in the Old English and Middle English expression methinks, where me is not the subject but rather the indirect object. The compound translates as “it seems to me.”
- Meaning (Semantic Change): Words change meaning. Take the word silly, which comes from the root selig, meaning blessed. Over time, the word came to describe not the inner spiritual state of being blessed but the observed behavior of someone who acts foolishly. When reading an older text, beware that seemingly familiar words may not mean what you think.
- Attitudes toward Language Change: What are we to make of the wide variation in language use across the people who speak English? The 18th-century English lexicographer Samuel Johnson wrestled with this challenge while compiling his famous dictionary. The debate is reflected in today’s debate over prescriptivism (the idea that correct linguistic behavior should be taught) versus descriptivism (the idea that linguistic behavior should only be described).
From English to American
Published in London in the mid-18th century, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was the first reference work used as we use a dictionary today: as a source for everyday, individual questions on spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical usage.
Another influential dictionary figures prominently in the last third of the course, which focuses on English in America. In the early 19th century, Noah Webster compiled a dictionary devoted to America’s forthright and commonsensical relationship with the English language. Today’s differences between American and English spelling—for example, color versus colour, defense versus defence—are due to Webster. He also recorded American pronunciations and advocated that all the syllables in a word be enunciated: “necessary” and “secretary,” not “necessry,” and “secretry.”
Professor Lerer encourages you to step back and observe your own pronunciation. If you are from the South, do you pronounce the words pin and gem with the same vowel? Professor Lerer himself is from Brooklyn, but the sharpest elements of his accent were ironed out long ago by his mother, a speech therapist for the New York City schools. However, like many former dialect speakers, he can revert to his roots, and he demonstrates how he used to pronounce often and orphan the same way.
Experience a Great Civilization through Its Words
English has come a long way since those first Germanic settlers crossed the North Sea to Britain. The words you use every day are like archaeological artifacts connecting our age to theirs. To study the history of this wonderful language with Professor Lerer is to experience the literature, politics, culture, ways of thought, and world outlook of a great civilization through its most precious legacy: its words.
These lectures are from The Teaching Company.
Courtesy: Chinni Krishnan J B and Sivamani
01: Introduction to the Study of Language
Relationships between spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and style are all ones we may have asked since grade school. This lecture surveys the content and approaches of the course as a whole by framing these questions historically.
02: The Historical Study of Language
Our study of English can be informed by our own experience of language-and by our reading. This lecture presents some technical ways of studying language historically. Since the primary goal of the course is to construct a historical narrative, you’ll begin with origins and end with the future.
03: Indo-European and the Prehistory of English
Who were the Indo-European speakers? What language did they speak? And why should we study it? Discover the answer to these and similar questions in this lecture, which reveals how Indo-European languages can help us understand the historical study of language in general-as well as some particular aspects of English in greater detail.
04: Reconstructing Meaning and Sound
Examine the ways in which historical linguists classify languages, study their particular history, and trace relationships of sound and sense. Professor Lerer focuses on the Indo-European languages and looks closely at one of the most important relationships of sound among them: Grimm’s Law.
05: Historical Linguistics and Studying Culture
Here, investigate the ways in which we may reconstruct sounds and meanings of the older Indo-European languages. In the process, you’ll learn about the shared cultural and historical contexts from which the Germanic languages-and ultimately English-emerged.
06: The Beginnings of English
Delve into the linguistic relationships of Old English to its earlier German matrix. Look at key vocabulary terms-many of which are still in our own language-to trace patterns of migration, social contact, and intellectual change. Also, learn how Old English was written down and how it can help us reconstruct the worldview of the Anglo-Saxon peoples.
07: The Old English Worldview
The focus of this lecture is the loan words that came into the Germanic languages during the continental and insular periods of borrowing. You’ll also see how the first known poet in English, Caedmon, used the resources of his vocabulary and his literary inheritance to give vernacular expression to new Christian concepts.
08: Did the Normans Really Conquer English?
Witness language change in action as English shifts from an inflected to a relatively uninflected language, and as word order takes precedence over case endings and the determiner of meaning. Also, consider how a language builds and forms its vocabulary through building new words out of old ones, or by borrowing them.
09: What Did the Normans Do to English?
In this fascinating lecture, Professor Lerer looks closely at the changes wrought by the French in English during the 11th to the 14th centuries. In the process, he raises questions about what we might call the “sociology” of language change and contact.
10: Chaucer’s English
This lecture presents the central features of Chaucer’s English. Its goal is not only to address a particular period in the history of the language (or even in the history of literature) but to allow you to recognize and appreciate the force of Chaucer’s poetry and its indelible impact on English linguistic and literary history.
11: Dialect Representations in Middle English
Learn about some of the major differences in Middle English speech and writing. The goals of this lecture are threefold: to look at some of the linguistic features of the dialects themselves; to illustrate some of the recent methodologies of dialect study; and to appreciate the literary presentation of dialects in Middle English poetry and drama.
12: Medieval Attitudes toward Language
Here, unpack some attitudes toward language change and variation during the Middle Ages in an effort to understand how writers of the past confronted many of the problems regarding social status and language. Many of these problems, you’ll discover, are similar to those we still deal with today.
13: The Return of English as a Standard
This lecture surveys the history of English from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries to illustrate the ways in which political and social attitudes returned English to the status of the prestige vernacular (over French). In addition, you’ll look at institutions influential in this shift, examine attitudes toward the status of English in relationship to French, and more.
14: The Great Vowel Shift and Modern English
Professor Lerer details the major features of the Great Vowel Shift, a systematic change in the pronunciation of long, stressed vowels in English. It’s a shift that took place from around the middle of the 15th century and radically changed the sound of spoken English-making its vowels unique in pronunciation among European languages.
15: The Expanding English Vocabulary
Between 1500 and 1700, the vocabulary of English changed dramatically. How was this increase in lexical material organized? How did words-both new and old-change in meaning? How did the phenomenon of polysemy (the multiple meanings of words) affect English writing? Find out the answers here.
16: Early Modern English Syntax and Grammar
Trace the specifics of syntax and grammar in the period of early modern English to show how, in many ways, the shape of modern English depends on some very small elements. Also, look at changes in the system of modal (or helping) verbs, as well as the second- and third-person pronouns.
17: Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English
Now, turn to 16th- and 17th-century developments to define the nature of English at this time and to discern contemporary attitudes toward that nature. Focus on the role of education, regionalism, and nationalism in the debate about standard English during this vital period.
18: Shakespeare-Drama, Grammar, Pronunciation
William Shakespeare undoubtedly stands on the cusp of language change. In the first of two lectures devoted to the language of this iconic Western author, use a short selection from the play Richard III that raises important questions about pronunciation and grammatical usage during the Bard’s time.
19: Shakespeare-Poetry, Sound, Sense
Continue your examination of Shakespeare by looking at some texts that illustrate the verbal resources of the playwright’s language and the changing nature of the English literary vocabulary. Also, glimpse some texts that actually challenge our assumptions about the language-and about Shakespeare’s work itself.
20: The Bible in English
Explore the history of biblical translation by examining closely Matthew 17:13¬-15 from four representative texts: the Old English version from the 10th century; the translation made under the supervision of John Wycliffe in the 1380s; the translation published by William Tyndale in 1526; and the King James version published in 1611.
21: Samuel Johnson and His Dictionary
In this lecture, learn about the rise of lexicography in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a special focus on the great Dictionary of Samuel Johnson from 1755. This dictionary stands as the culmination of nearly a century of responses to the growth and change in the English vocabulary.
22: New Standards in English
Lexicography and the success of Johnson’s Dictionary fed into the larger debate about how language should be studied and taught. Here, meet several influential writers from the late 18th century who crystallized this debate. Also, look at several words that reflect the larger cultural problem of linguistic usage and social behavior.
23: Dictionaries and Word Histories
This lecture looks at some key words to illustrate the ways in which words change meaning. It then turns to another set of words to illustrate the politics of lexicography and the judgmentalism of the modern dictionary.
24: Values, Words, and Modernity
How do we bear the legacy of earlier approaches to the study and teaching of English? In dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary, handbooks like Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and contemporary debates on language usage, we may see the same terms and problems as we saw in the age of Samuel Johnson.
25: The Beginnings of American English
American English begins with the initial patterns of settlement in the early 17th century. Look at the nature of those settlements, the historical contexts of 17th- and 18th-century colonization, the origins of dialect boundaries based in these early settlements, the distinct features of early American English, and much more.
26: American Language from Webster to Mencken
Professor Lerer discusses the development of the American language throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two important figures stand at the poles of this story: Noah Webster and H. L. Mencken-each of whom set the tone for the ways in which the American language was viewed and written about during their respective periods.
27: American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln
The study of rhetoric in 18th- and 19th-century America had a profound effect on how people spoke and wrote, as well as how literary and public language developed. In this lecture, examine attitudes toward language and power in the political and literary arenas, with choice examples taken from figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
28: The Language of the American Self
Learn how works like Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick demonstrate how the study of the history of the language contributes to the making of unique voices of the American social experience. This was especially important as mid-19th-century America saw the rise of the profession of public authorship.
29: American Regionalism
By the middle of the 19th century, it had become clear that American English was not a unified form of speech and writing but rather a combination of regional dialects. Here, explore the history of the idea of regional American English, then move to some modern linguistic approaches to how regionalism is studied.
30: American Dialects in Literature
Take a closer look at several examples of how literary writers in the 19th and 20th centuries represent American dialects. In the process, you’ll discern the specific features of regional dialects and confront larger issues about how regionalism works in American speech and society.
31: The Impact of African-American English
This lecture takes you deep inside some of the key features of the impact of the speech of African Americans on the American language. The purpose of this lecture is to present African American English as a language with grammatical rules and a rich and vital literature.
32: An Anglophone World
In many ways, the central feature of 21st-century English is its status as a world language. Investigate some distinctive features of the language outside of Great Britain and America, noting key features of pronunciation and vocabulary, as well as examples from the distinctive literature of post-colonial English.
33: The Language of Science
The rise of experimental science in the 20th century has not only given English a wealth of new words, but it has changed the ways in which we coin and borrow words. What are the key methods for coining new words in technical fields? How has scientific and technical language become a part of our literary-and everyday-expression?.
34: The Science of Language
Professor Lerer reveals some major developments in language study in the early 20th century. Encounter some major figures in American linguistics to learn how the study of language came to be associated with the study of mind, consciousness, and social organization.
35: Linguistics and Politics in Language Study
Get a compelling introduction to Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, and to the social, cognitive, and philosophical implications of his work. The legacy of Chomskyan linguistics, you’ll discover, goes far beyond the technical terms of the discipline to embrace a politics of language study itself.
36: Conclusions and Provocations
Conclude the course by reviewing the major themes and approaches you’ve covered and bringing together some of the details of the historical sweep of the preceding lectures. As Professor Lerer stresses, to know the history of our language is to know ourselves.