Books : reviews

Seth Lerer.
The History of the English Language: 2nd edn.
Great Courses. 2008

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 30 August 2020

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 36 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, some related reading, and some “questions to consider”. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

We get an in-depth discussion of the English language, from before Old English, to the current (American) day, as studied through the lens of literature, with lots of fascinating detail about pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, language change, poetry, dialects, and more, along the way.

Lerer has a very precise speaking style, with a rather dry academic style (although there is a clear passion for his subject evident throughout). So it is all the funnier when he deadpans certain things, such as the discussion of pronunciation partway through the Great Vowel Shift:

[p.74] Returning for a moment to the diphthongs, we noted that /ai/ and /au/ from /i/ and /u/ didn’t become full diphthongs overnight. The word my, for example, would not have been pronounced as Middle English “me” but “moy”; bite would be “boyte”; fight would be “foyt.” These interim pronunciations seem to be the origin of “pirate English.” In other words, we might say that pirate English is a form of the language in which the Great Vowel Shift hadn’t fully run its course, and the high front monophthongs of Middle English hadn’t fully diphthongized.