Tag Archives: seth lerer

Inventing English

My recent passion has been the psychology of language, or how it has come about. I find this so interesting and if I wasn’t pursuing history and Spanish in college, I’d probably do something on language studies, and mostly how they effect physical and social aspects of life, as well as a broad range of others. What I’m talking about is philology, or love of language. It is completely fascinating to me that a person can be born and grow up speaking a different language than a person one hundred miles away. It’s baffling to me that people can think in other languages, or even dream. The concept of language itself is mindboggling. Today, I’m focusing on a book by Seth Lerer called Inventing English, a book that covers the development of my native language from its beginnings to its ever changing ‘end’. I say ‘end’ because English is always changing. It all began in the Indo-European areas of lower Europe and east central Asia, where civilized life originated from. The influence of these languages led to Germanic cognates in central Europe. Language was very important during this time because it determined your origin, class, and level of education. Runes were used excessively in the area now known as the United Kingdom but it gave way to the basic letters we use today. An example from the book on the basic foundation of English was “Oc was heom naht parof, for hi weron al forcurs oed and forsworen and forloren” meaning, “but it mattered nothing to them, for they were all already cursed, and perjured, and lost.” What amazes me is how someone centuries ago could understand the first quote and that we could not today. Later on, the influence of the French language entered into English, giving us new words and pronunciations. The Great Vowel Shift of the 15th century was procured through the interaction of different dialects, resulting in a systematic change of an entire sound system. Later on, during the time of the Enlightenment, English became more expanded: the largest influx of new words came in 1625, with a total of at least 6000 new words being added that year to the vocabulary of millions. Language continued to be an important part of people’s lives, with dictionaries being made to clear the confusion of multiple pronunciations and spellings. Dialects and native origins also played a bigger role; when colonists came over to America, they picked up native words (for example, I live in Iowa, which is a native American word, and there is evidence of their influence everywhere, from the Wapsipinicon River to Sioux City). Dialects became a part of literature, especially that of Mark Twain, who used the dialect of Africans to enrich his novels and give them character. Margaret Mitchell did the same with her Civil War era novel, Gone With the Wind. As the years went by and technology advanced, especially with the introduction of the telephone, and most recently, texting, language has become a bit more difficult. The author brings about the point that war can change languages and pop culture or slang  has a big influence on what we say. In regards to texting, which can be fairly vague, different arguments can be brought up: one can say that sending little written messages can keep us in contact with each other, but others say that it makes us isolated and afraid of confrontation. Overall, the complexity and structure of any language is always changing: what we say today could be said differently by our grandchildren. This book was tremendously interesting and really helped fuel my passion for learning about language.