February 2008

James Campbell Martin


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

On page three of Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language , Seth Lerer has the courage to name-check the many excellent histories of English out there, and to ask what distinguishes his. The answer is that Lerer writes as a professor of literature rather than as a linguist. This is mostly his blessing, but partly his curse.

Lerer focuses on how English was “invented” in a continual negotiation (or struggle) between groups. Words and dialects have often stood for ways of being that language authorities want us to embrace or to avoid. My favorite example is Lerer’s discussion of the word “hello” as it figures in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. No one knew what to say at first when picking up one of the new telephone receivers, because greetings were determined by social standing, and phone callers were anonymous. “Hello” was taken from sailors’ lingo. (The first suggestion for what to say when answering the phone was “Ahoy,” and in one of my favorite Simpsons jokes ever, this is what Mr. Burns says when he answers one phone call -- because he’s so frigging old!) So early telephone operators were called “Hello girls.” They gave voice to an alluring, social-context-free sexuality coming down the line, which good men had to resist. Talking to Sandy, his Arthurian girl and future wife, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, alludes to some unspeakable worries he has had about Hello girls. When he later ends up safely and conventionally married to Sandy, they bizarrely name their daughter “Hello-Central.” Apparently, Morgan used to call this out in his sleep, and Sandy thought it was the name of a former love of his. As Lerer puts it, “The Hello girl of late-nineteenth-century fantasy becomes the Hello-Central of domestic bliss.” Lerer convinced me that Twain is urging American men to keep on sublimating their lust down the path to righteousness.

But these same sorts of literary readings can confuse sometimes. Lerer often seems to be winking at you with his interpretations (maybe because they are a bit subversive), and without enough context, it’s hard to interpret a wink.

Another mostly-blessing is that Lerer is a very fine literary stylist. He ends nearly every chapter with a surprising figurative twist on something he said earlier, like what comedians refer to as a “callback.” It’s a beautiful surprise when he ties together his own experience as an American studying at Oxford in the seventies with his later discussion of the two northern rubes who come to Cambridge in Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale.” But sometimes these twists are strained.

Lerer adopts the sensible modern view that strains of English are not “correct” or “incorrect,” but rather that they develop to suit their situations. He is very strong on the vernacular of African-Americans, for example. It still astonishes me that some people have believed that the culture that brought us rap music is a verbally debased one. My favorite example of the delicious way in which everything is relative (though I could not track it down) is that the much-bemoaned “aks” used to be the common pronunciation of the word “ask,” way back in English history: it was right before it was “wrong.”

Lerer is also excellent on the effects of war on language; he quotes Aeschylus as saying that the first casualty of war is truth, and cites George Orwell’s one true masterpiece, the essay “Politics and the English Language” (please Google it now). How often we believe, for example, that our enemies are not only bad, but possess every bad characteristic that exists. For Americans, the terrorist has recently replaced the communist in this role. I remember how nobly brave Susan Sontag was in The New Yorker soon after September 11th, when she spoke out against the President for calling the attackers cowards -- the attacks were horrible and criminal, but to commit suicide in order to carry them out simply cannot be called cowardly. Words have meanings, and this is another type of invasion against which we must struggle to hold the line.

My biggest reservation about this book is that one cannot hear the old English pronounced. In Professor Lerer’s own excellent audio course on the history of the English language, recorded for The Teaching Company, he gives fantastic readings of Old and Middle English texts, and even reads Shakespeare as it probably sounded in Shakespeare’s own time. A neophyte like myself cannot really wade through the phonetic transcriptions that Lerer provides in this book. Perhaps some diligent Googling could provide some aural supplements to the printed text, however.

But Lerer’s book has many virtues: his enthusiasm, intelligence, and personality shine from its pages. His point of view, which takes in political and cultural implications, will interest a broad audience. And he has read everything, with love and with respect. He does not suffer from the literary critic’s disease that makes one pathologize every text. As a self-confessed Brooklyn boy (or as the Forefathers asked every US citizen to do), Lerer kids because he loves.

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language by Seth Lerer
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 023113794X
320 Pages