Going from Barbarian Warriors to the World’s Language

Mark Laluan

Language is the mirror upon which we reflect the content of our minds to the world.

Speech has been employed by humans from our earliest beginnings. Writing has existed since the advent of settled communities in the Fertile Crescent around approximately 4000 B.C. The use of language in both spoken and written forms has been fundamental to the progress of the human condition.

“Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language” by Seth Lerer focuses upon the development of the English language from the coastal tongue of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons to its status as the standard for global communications in the 21st century.

Lerer’s choice in words and pacing can be academic and tangential at times, though these tendencies can only be expected from one serving as the current Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego.

For the patient reader, Lerer’s work gives a clean, concise overview of the development of the English language.

In less than 300 pages, the author covers an over thousand-year time period, stretching from Anglo-Saxon poems such as “Beowulf,” the French stylings of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English masterpiece “The Canterbury Tales,” the de rigueur references to Shakespeare’s plays and Johnson’s “Dictionary,” and moving right down to the influence of Americans such as Mark Twain upon the language.

Lerer’s narrative is one of change; the English language that he chronicles is not a fossilized or fixed entity, but rather in constant flux through its contact with foreign languages, different cultures and encounters with new technologies. This is not to say attempts to standardize English have been tried or have all fallen flat.

As the author explains, the growth of print media required the standardization of spelling and pronunciation. Even then, Lerer points out that it was not above Shakespeare and other figures regarded as guardians of the modern lexicon, to make up new words, meanings and spellings to fit the situation they wished to communicate.

Lerer’s solid analysis is somewhat marred by the narrative’s initial focus on the technical and developmental aspects of the English language. The author’s exhaustive treatment of the grammar, syntax, pronunciation and word formation of both Old and Middle English can be overwhelming to non-linguists at times.

Yet given the complexity of the topic the author has chosen, “Inventing English” achieves a level of depth and accessibility to the casual reader that is lacking in most tomes on the subject.

It is no walk in the park for most to tease out the correct Old English pronunciation of “Caedmon’s Hymn,” nor is it obvious for the contemporary reader to understand just how the Middle English to Modern English Great Vowel Shift occurred.

Yet, in both instances and in all the examples used throughout the book, a careful reading of the accompanying explanations will reveal a wealth of knowledge about how we came to speak the English tongue.