Weaving Together Words: A New History of the English Language

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WEAVING TOGETHER WORDS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. By Seth Lerer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pp 305. $24.95.

Be less like a bookmoth and more like a cow, Seth Lerer advises his readers, in one of the many delightful passages in this new history of the English language. One of the Old English riddles included in Chapter One describes the bookworm (or moth) as "no whit the wiser, when he had swallowed the word." Printed words provide the bookworm no intellectual nutrition. As Lerer goes on to explain, the image of reading as ingestion was central to the monastic tradition of learning, where Latin ruminatio (source of English ruminate) "connoted the act of chewing over and digesting words as they were read, much as a cow might ruminate its cud." And at the end of Chapter One, Lerer invites us, as his readers: "Read well, and ruminate-like cow or cowherd Caedmon-so that you may sing with me." As the wording of the invitation makes clear, this book is an unusual linguistic and literary feast, filled with poetry and song as well as much historical, literary, and linguistic information for the reader's consideration.

Each of the nineteen chapters of Inventing English takes as its stated focus an encounter of people with the language of their period through which they find new ways to speak and write, examining how people managed and transformed through imagination the available linguistic and literary resources. Readers looking for chapters on Caedmon, Chaucer, and Shakespeare will not be disappointed, and they may be surprised to find next to them chapters on Samuel Johnson and Mark Twain. Not every chapter has so individual a focus-for example, one chapter focuses on Middle English dialects more generally, another on regional American dialects (and dialect writers). All chapters effectively expand from that central figure or encounter; for example, the chapter that begins with a focus on the Great Vowel Shift moves to private letter writing and examines the Paston letters both for evidence of pronunciation shifts and for the rhetorical and linguistic self-presentation achieved by the writers. The elegiac tradition in Beowulf enables a seamless transition to the echoes of that tradition in the Peterborough Chronicle.

With all the histories of English already available, including several published in the past four years, it is only logical to ask whether we need any more. There are new textbooks (e.g., Brinton and Arnovick 2006), new technical yet concise edited volumes (e.g., Hogg and Denison 2006), and new trade versions (e.g., Crystal 2004) in addition to the relatively recent completion of the authoritative multivolume Cambridge History of the English Language. David Crystal's The Stories of English is perhaps the most comparable book, as it also is written to appeal to a broader audience, but the two books do very different work, and both are valuable. One must take seriously Mark Twain's words, quoted here in Chapter Fifteen, that "A nation's language is a very large matter." The story of English, of course, has never been the story of just one nation, and it is plenty large enough, I believe, that we have much to gain from scholars like Seth Lerer adding their voices to the choir. Lerer's new history of the language distinguishes itself in its sustained, nuanced attention to the history of English literature juxtaposed with details from the linguistic history. It masterfully bridges the gap that all too often stands between linguistic and literary studies in English departments. I plan to assign this book to every English graduate student who hopes to pursue linguistically informed close readings of literature (particularly students in medieval literature) to give them a model and potential catalysts for their own lines of inquiry.

The book's strengths include the richness of the linguistically informed close readings of literary and nonliterary texts from all periods of the history of English, the surprising and illuminating links among historical texts and rhetorical traditions, the balance between linguistic complexity and accessibility in the presentation of technical linguistic information that allows readers to understand both its interest and relevance, and the quality of the book as a piece of literature in and of itself. …