I’ve been wanting to write about a book Columbia University Press sent me a while back, but every time I pick it up I get immersed in it and forget about blogging it. I was familiar with Seth Lerer’s name because of his book Error and the Academic Self (discussed here), so I was looking forward to the new one, Inventing English. (The publisher’s page has the table of contents along with links to various interviews, including a surprisingly non-stupid television one on KRON in San Francisco.) And I wasn’t disappointed.
It’s not that he’s right about everything—he makes the common error of thinking Shakespeare invented all those words that first occur in print in his works, and his strange terminology in this sentence irritated me: “Thus, the modern Celtic languages have survived on the edges of Britain: Gaelic in Ireland, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall, Erse in Scotland, and Manx on the Isle of Man. Some of these Celtic languages are flourishing (Welsh and Gaelic); some are dead (Manx, Cornish, Erse).” In the first place, “Gaelic” is usually used to refer to Scots Gaelic, the Irish variety being called Irish. In the second place, what the hell does he mean by “Erse”? The OED says “Applied by Sc. Lowlanders to the Gaelic dialect of the Highlands (which is in fact of Irish origin), to the people speaking that dialect, to their customs, etc. Hence in 18th c. Erse was used in literary Eng. as the ordinary designation of the Gaelic of Scotland, and occasionally extended to the Irish Gaelic; at present some writers apply it to the Irish alone. Now nearly Obs.” Mind you, the “now” there is the late 19th century; it’s been thoroughly obsolete for a long time now—I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used in a contemporary book to refer to a language. And Scots Gaelic is not dead.
But never mind the nitpicking: this is a wonderful book. It’s not hard to find well-informed books about the history of the English language, and it’s not hard to find good critical accounts of English literature, but to have the two intertwined in one book is remarkable. Lerer goes through the various periods of Old, Middle, and Modern English, explaining the changes the language undergoes and analyzing the literature of the time accordingly, and the results are consistently enlightening. He starts off his first chapter, “Caedmon Learns to Sing: Old English and the Origins of Poetry,” by quoting the less familiar Northumbrian version of Caedmon’s Hymn: “Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes Uard,/ Metudaes maecti end his modgidanc…” After explaining how English developed out of Germanic and saying Caedmon “took the traditional Germanic habits of word formation, the grammar, and the sound of his own Old English and used them as the basis for translating Christian concepts into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular,” he points out that beginning in the eighth century the north of England was devastated by Viking raids and “by the last decades of the ninth century, power was moving to the south,” which explains why the version we know from Bede is in the West Saxon dialect: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard,/ Meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc…” The forms in that version look more recognizable to us because modern English descends from the southern dialects of Old English. Lerer goes on to discuss the Anglo-Saxon Riddles:
The riddles take vernacular literacy as their theme, as they illustrate how a knowledge of the word leads to a knowledge of the world, and in turn, how the world itself remains a book legible to the learned. One of these riddles, for example, is about a book. Told in the first person, it begins by recounting how a thief ripped off flesh and left skin, treated the skin in water, dried it in the sun, and then scraped it with a metal blade. Fingers folded it, the joy of the bird (that is, the feather) was dipped in the woodstain from a horn (that is, the ink in an inkwell), and left tracks on the body. Wooden boards enclose it, laced with gold wire. “Frige hwæt ic hatte,” ask what I am called, it concludes. It is a book, but no mere volume. It is made up, sequentially, of all other parts of creation. The natural world and human artifice come together here to reveal the book as a kind of cosmos, and in turn, to demonstrate that the book contains all knowledge.
Then he quotes a riddle on the bookworm and says:
The Riddle begins with a deceptively simple statement [Moððe word fræt, ‘A moth ate words’], and a comment that this action seems a “wrætlicu wyrd,” a remarkable event. Wrætlic here describes neither a wrought object nor a curiosity of creation but rather a strange juxtaposition of the work of nature and of human hands. The word wyrd can mean something as neutral as “event” or “occurrence,” but it also means fate, fortune, or destiny (it is the origin of our word “weird”…). This, then, is both a strange event and a remarkable fate: strange, that the writings of man should have as their destiny the bowels of an insect. Reading is ingestion—an image central to the monastic tradition of learning, where ruminatio connoted the act of chewing over and digesting words as they were read…
I love that kind of exegesis, and it’s his method throughout, whether discussing calques in Beowulf, lexical change after the Norman Conquest (“when the king’s rule disappears and England loses itself in an anarchy of local barons… we are once again granted a lesson in the language of administrative pain: Hi læiden gældes on the tunes ævre umwile and clepeden it ‘tenserie.’ [They imposed taxes on the towns repeatedly and called it ‘protection money.’]”), dialects in Middle English (“When I arrived at Oxford in the fall of 1976… I was baffled at the structure of instruction and, in particular, at the attention paid to early English dialects… I learned that… forms of speech determined region, class, level of education, and gender with a precision almost unheard of anywhere else”), or the many other developments he writes about. And, as my wife pointed out when I read her the Shakespeare chapter, he writes amazingly well for a scholar.
I’ll probably be blogging more material from this book as I work through it, but I didn’t want to wait any longer to give a preliminary report. And I’m very much looking forward to the book on error!