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!


  1. When I was a teenager in the 70s collecting those blue-and-yellow “Teach Yourself” language primers published in England, I found one called “Teach Yourself Erse”. All of the books in this series were published in the 50s and 60s; they have now been superseded by new updated editions. They were interesting books: they used IPA in a very detailed way, attempting to pin down subtle phonetic differences. I wonder if anyone else was into them? …Anyway, there is your instance of a modern book using the word “Erse” in the title.

  2. Wow. That Old English description of a book? The most horrifying I’ve ever encountered. Are you sure it was pro-reading?

  3. mollymooly says

    “Erse” also turns up in puns of the form “not knowing one’s Erse from one’s elbow”

  4. I found it very difficult to believe that there should ever have been a “Teach Yourself Erse”. I have the old version of “Teach Yourself Gaelic” somewhere, the one from the seventies, by Roderick Mackinnon, and it is a very good book with solid grammar and exercises. The new one is more “modern” and less solid, but it is better than the new Teach Yourself Irish anyway.
    The old TYI by Myles Dillon and Donncha Ó Cróinín was quite solid, but a little dated in teaching dative forms. Besides, it focused very narrowly on Munster Irish.

  5. “Erse” is also a common crossword puzzle answer. I’m sure its in the NY Times puzzle at least once a month (probably several times a month). Words that are predominately found in crossword puzzles would be an interesting topic for an article.

  6. Do you still have your books, dveej? Like Panu, I have the orange cover Teach Yourself Gaelic. It has a 1971 copyright and is the fourth impression from 1974 (around when I got it new for US$3.25). The introduction seems to imply that it is the first “Teach Yourself” work on Gaelic, introduced by the (then) recent surge in interest and “O” levels. So I think it is the same as the yellow cover one. NLS doesn’t know of a Teach Yourself Erse, either. It does have an earlier typewritten Teach Yourself Gaelic, unrelated to the series it seems.

  7. Two builders look upon a young woman wearing tight jeans.
    ‘Look at the Erse on that!’ says one builder to the other.
    ‘How did you know I was Irish?’ exclaims the woman.

  8. Just a brief comment, from an anecdotal point of view, on the term “Gaelic” being normally reserved for Scots Gaelic, and “Irish” designating its own version in Ireland. When I was a child, all of my mother’s relatives, immigrants from County Clare (near Kilkee), referred to their language as “Gaelic.” Whether this derives from hearing the British edicts against teaching it in schools or whether this was simply closer phonetically to Gaeilge (the language they spoke at home), I don’t know, but they never referred to themselves as speaking “Irish.”

  9. Yeah, I should have made it clearer that “Gaelic” is often used in Ireland because the name in the language itself is Gaeilge; what I meant was that linguists refer to it as “Irish.” (It’s fine for Irish and Scots to each refer to their versions as “Gaelic,” but from outside it’s confusing!)

  10. I’m impelled to dig out my “Best Of Myles”.

  11. I never encountered “Erse” in English: the only time I encountered the word was on the language map accompanying a French linguistics book published in the twenties (it may have been Meillet’s LES LANGUES DANS L’EUROPE NOUVELLE, but I can’t be sure).

  12. dearieme says

    My Scots Gaelic-speaking friends all pronounce the word as Gahlic. I had thought that in Ireland it was always Gaylic until my wife met a speaker from Fermanagh who says Gahlic.
    P.S. It’s a bit rich to say that Cornish survives – it has been resurrected, which presumably implies “with a bit of guesswork”. I’m also surprised to learn that Manx lives. Is that also an empty-tomb job?

  13. Without doubting the Hat, I for a long time referred to Irish Gaelic as Erse. I wish I knew why. I don’t know whether it’s a regional usage (I grew up in New Zealand) or because I learned the term from reading books by unlearned people. But I know this has come up more than once on LH, and it was a surprise to me when I found out.
    I have a friend who grew up as a Scots Gaelic speaker – he always refers to that language with a word that sounds to me like “Gallic”, or “Gahlic” – I don’t have the education to render it correctly, but it’s the vowel I use for a short a, said longer. Locally, like dearieme, we all say Gay-lic.

  14. caffeind says

    In Ireland today the language learnt as a compulsory school subject seems to be invariably called “Irish”.

  15. All of the Gaelics refer to themselves as Gaelic and the others as something else. (Well, I mean the word for the language *in* the language is Gaelic…) I’ve got a chart at work showing what the Insular Celtic languages use as names for each other, and it’s not always what you’d think, but of course I can’t remember any of them now. I’ll hunt it up on Monday.
    The A is indeed an AH sound; the E is only there because of the I in the next syllable. That’s a spelling rule (broad to broad, slender to slender); Galic isn’t a permissable spelling. (BTW, Fiona is pronounced by Scots Gaelic speakers as Finna – that O is also there because of the spelling rule…)

  16. dearime: It’s a confusing sentence, and I think he meant “survived” (after the Conquest) rather than “have survived” (which implies “unto this very day”), but it ends “…some are dead (Manx, Cornish, Erse).”

  17. Yes, Irish people do invariably call the language ‘Irish’ (perhaps sometimes glossed as ‘Gaelic’ for outsiders). English people tend to say ‘Gaelic’, which has the (dis)advantage that it covers the Scottish and Manx as well as the Irish varieties.
    When the language was first allowed to be taught in state schools in the nineteenth century (under British rule) it was referred to as ‘Celtic’(!).
    As for ‘Erse’, most Irish people wouldn’t know what it meant.
    These days the word used in Standard Irish (basically a composite of the dialects) is ‘Gaeilge’, from the Connaught (Galway) dialect. This is historically the genitive form of ‘Gaelic’, which is what the language is still called in Ulster (Donegal). In Munster Irish, the word is ‘Gaolainn’ (pronounced something like ‘Gaeling’).

  18. Anticipating John Emerson’s ‘Best of Myles’, I’m pretty sure I recall Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O’Brien) using the term ‘Erse’ in at least one instance.
    Devout speakers of the Irish language were encouraged to wear on their lapels a little gold-coloured circle known as a “fáinne” (Irish for “ring” – I remember them well from the sixties). Myles referred to them as “Erse-holes”.

  19. The word “Erse” crops up quite a bit in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. In the instances I’ve looked at, it refers to Scots Gaelic. There is the Ossian affair, of course, as well as Johnson’s indignation at a Scottish religious society’s refusal to translate “the holy scriptures into the Erse or Gaelick language, from political considerations of the disadvantage of keeping up the distinction between the Highlanders and the other inhabitants of North-Britain.” Part of Johnson’s angry letter on the subject is worth quoting here:

    I am not very willing that any language should be totally extinguished; the similitude and derivation of languages afford the most indubitable proof of the traduction of nations, and the genealogy of mankind; they add often physical certainty to historical evidence of ancient migrations, and of the revolutions of ages which left no written monuments behind them.

  20. mollymooly says

    In Ireland today the language learnt as a compulsory school subject seems to be invariably called “Irish”. Actually the school subect is officially called “Gaeilge” even in [otherwise] English texts. But, yes, popularly “Irish”. “Gaelic” is a word that’s out of fashion in Ireland; it smacks of Victorian Protestant folklorists patronising the salt-of-the-earth peasants and taking notes of their delightful superstitions. The popular word these days for tourist tat and plastic heritage is “Celtic”. Blech!
    The A is indeed an AH sound; the E is only there because of the I in the next syllable. That’s a spelling rule (broad to broad, slender to slender) When the English word “Gaelic” refers to Irish, “aei” is [e], not [a]; likewise in the Irish word “Gaeilge”. “Broad with broad” is not an arbitrary spelling rule for vowels but a rather a reflection of the pronunciation of consonants; while spelling “*Gaolgadh” would have the same vowel sounds as “Gaeilge”, the “lg” would be broad rather than slender.

  21. I wonder what he has to say about the more ribald riddles in the Exeter book, e.g.
    Wrætlic hongað bi weres þeo,
    frean under sceate. Foran is þyrel.
    Bið stiþ ond heard, stede hafað godne;
    þonne se esne his agen hrægl
    ofer cneo hefeð, wile þæt cuþe hol
    mid his hangellan heafde gretan
    þæt he efenlang ær oft gefylde.

  22. Renee – he mentions that very riddle!
    He makes a couple of other minor errors when he’s talking outside English (“gwent” is not the Irish word for wind, “gaoth” is – “gwynt” (different spelling) is the Welsh; Slavic languages use auxiliary verbs for future tense, it’s not “unique to the Germanic languages”). But he knows his English.

  23. Googling “Erse,” I was led to this page from the Scots Wikipedia, which defines Erse as the Celtic language spoken in Ireland, and distinguishes it from Scots Gaelic.
    And like Stephen Judd, I always thought that Erse meant Irish Gaelic, though I couldn’t say why.

  24. From the Scottish Wikipedia:
    Erse can refer to ane o twa things, somebodie or something frae the Island of Ireland or the Erse leid kent as Erse Gaelic or Gaeilge an aw.
    Go to Erse leid and you’ll find:
    The Erse leid (Erse: Gaeilge) is a Celtic leid frae Ireland. It is sib tae Scots Gaelic an is ane o the twa offeecial leids o Republic o Ireland an Northren Ireland. Frae the 1st o Januar 2007 the Erse leid becam ane o the offeecial leids o the E.U. It differs frae Scots Gaelic in mony weys but can still be unnerstuid.
    The airts whaur Erse is still spak bi fowk for common is cryit thegither the Gaeltacht. It is sindrie bits o kintra, whiles juist a singil clachan, skailt athort seivin counties – Donegal and Galway (the twa wi the maist), Mayo, Kerry, Cork, Waterford, and Meath. There a wee airt i Belfast anaw whaur monie fowk spiks Erse.

  25. Sorry, I quoted what Adam Stephanides linked to. Should have clicked the link first!

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