History of the English Language, 2nd Edition

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good but painful to listen to Coming to this with a background in English Lit and being English I find the subject matter fascinating but the presentation is ruining it for me. I feel like I'm being spoken to as a not over bright foreigner half the time and whilst I get that emphasizing pronunciation might be par for the course sometimes it's ridiculously over the top and unnecessary. A bit of humour and a more chilled out delivery wouldn't go amiss either. That said his command of language is very impressive, especially old English.
Date published: 2020-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An In-Depth Study of the History of the English La I took a course on the history of the English Language in graduate school, but I found the video course by Prof. Seth Lerer to be farm more comprehensive and complete. This course is a serious study of English from its infancy to the present day, I'd recommend it to anyone who desires more than a superficial explanation of where English came from.
Date published: 2020-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from brilliant scholarship i was curious about the subject matter and how it would be presented.both the material and its dynamic presentation exceeded my expectations. A must course for the inquisitive mind!
Date published: 2020-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A different--but great--linguistics course Professor Lerer is a historian of English who is exceedingly accomplished and respected in his field. He is also an acclaimed teacher and a master of synthesis, perspective, and explanation. His approach is somewhat different from those in the other six Teaching Company linguistics courses I have taken, which were by presenters who were primarily linguists, and he has is own distinctive lecturing style. I think these differences account for a number of the lukewarm reviews the course has received, but they do not mean that the presenter is any less effective or the course content any less instructive. As a non-linguist, fascinated by the English language but coming to it from experience with literature and history rather than from formal study of its structure, mechanics, and usage per se, I found this divergence from those other courses to be refreshing and entirely complementary. This course is dense, thorough, scholarly, and heavily conceptual rather than purely descriptive. For me it was frequently slow going, requiring concentration such that one lecture on any given day was plenty. However, the effort was invariably rewarded with information and insight that were new to me, and that has greatly increased my understanding and appreciation of its subject. I learned a great deal and very much enjoyed the experience.
Date published: 2020-04-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great course for lovers of English This is the best produced lecture series I have bought. Lots of information delivered is clear language and easy to follow and remember. The professor's impeccable pronounciation of the older forms helps clarify our modern speaking of the language. Totally impressed!
Date published: 2020-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of the English Language I purchased this course several years ago and passed it on to a friend who later died and failed to return my copy. I just bought a second copy so that I could watch it again. It and the other language history courses are a part of my permanent libraries. Lehrer (teacher in German) and McWhorter are two of my most treasued teachers.
Date published: 2019-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Title Comprehensive!! Indo-European to Old and Middle English, modern English, literature, structural linguistics, and Chomsky! Prof obviously knowledgeable. Mostly theoretical discussion, interesting to the language nut, but pretty esoteric.
Date published: 2019-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting, Informative, Superb Lecturer I'm currently working through this course, learning and enjoying every moment. The instructor is what I call a "classic" lecturer, the kind who keeps me engaged and involved. The lectures are accessible and most informative. I'm even "showing off" by using the occasional Old English word(s) in my everyday speech. The guidebook is an excellent way to follow along the lectures. This history includes material about historical events and the overall "millieu" of the erasof the cevelopment of English up to present times. Put simply, I love this course! I only wish I could sit down with the instructor (over an "English" snack, whatever that might be) and talk about this fascinating history of our language.
Date published: 2019-05-11
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Introduction to the Study of Language
1: Introduction to the Study of Language

Relationships between spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and style are all ones we may have asked since grade school. This lecture surveys the content and approaches of the course as a whole by framing these questions historically....

32 min
The Historical Study of Language
2: The Historical Study of Language

Our study of English can be informed by our own experience of language-and by our reading. This lecture presents some technical ways of studying language historically. Since the primary goal of the course is to construct a historical narrative, you'll begin with origins and end with the future....

30 min
Indo-European and the Prehistory of English
3: Indo-European and the Prehistory of English

Who were the Indo-European speakers? What language did they speak? And why should we study it? Discover the answer to these and similar questions in this lecture, which reveals how Indo-European languages can help us understand the historical study of language in general-as well as some particular aspects of English in greater detail....

28 min
Reconstructing Meaning and Sound
4: Reconstructing Meaning and Sound

Examine the ways in which historical linguists classify languages, study their particular history, and trace relationships of sound and sense. Professor Lerer focuses on the Indo-European languages and looks closely at one of the most important relationships of sound among them: Grimm's Law....

30 min
Historical Linguistics and Studying Culture
5: Historical Linguistics and Studying Culture

Here, investigate the ways in which we may reconstruct sounds and meanings of the older Indo-European languages. In the process, you'll learn about the shared cultural and historical contexts from which the Germanic languages-and ultimately English-emerged....

30 min
The Beginnings of English
6: The Beginnings of English

Delve into the linguistic relationships of Old English to its earlier German matrix. Look at key vocabulary terms-many of which are still in our own language-to trace patterns of migration, social contact, and intellectual change. Also, learn how Old English was written down and how it can help us reconstruct the worldview of the Anglo-Saxon peoples....

30 min
The Old English Worldview
7: The Old English Worldview

The focus of this lecture is the loan words that came into the Germanic languages during the continental and insular periods of borrowing. You'll also see how the first known poet in English, Caedmon, used the resources of his vocabulary and his literary inheritance to give vernacular expression to new Christian concepts....

30 min
Did the Normans Really Conquer English?
8: Did the Normans Really Conquer English?

Witness language change in action as English shifts from an inflected to a relatively uninflected language, and as word order takes precedence over case endings and the determiner of meaning. Also, consider how a language builds and forms its vocabulary through building new words out of old ones, or by borrowing them....

30 min
What Did the Normans Do to English?
9: What Did the Normans Do to English?

In this fascinating lecture, Professor Lerer looks closely at the changes wrought by the French in English during the 11th to the 14th centuries. In the process, he raises questions about what we might call the "sociology" of language change and contact....

30 min
Chaucer's English
10: Chaucer's English

This lecture presents the central features of Chaucer's English. Its goal is not only to address a particular period in the history of the language (or even in the history of literature) but to allow you to recognize and appreciate the force of Chaucer's poetry and its indelible impact on English linguistic and literary history....

30 min
Dialect Representations in Middle English
11: Dialect Representations in Middle English

Learn about some of the major differences in Middle English speech and writing. The goals of this lecture are threefold: to look at some of the linguistic features of the dialects themselves; to illustrate some of the recent methodologies of dialect study; and to appreciate the literary presentation of dialects in Middle English poetry and drama....

30 min
Medieval Attitudes toward Language
12: Medieval Attitudes toward Language

Here, unpack some attitudes toward language change and variation during the Middle Ages in an effort to understand how writers of the past confronted many of the problems regarding social status and language. Many of these problems, you'll discover, are similar to those we still deal with today....

30 min
The Return of English as a Standard
13: The Return of English as a Standard

This lecture surveys the history of English from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries to illustrate the ways in which political and social attitudes returned English to the status of the prestige vernacular (over French). In addition, you'll look at institutions influential in this shift, examine attitudes toward the status of English in relationship to French, and more....

31 min
The Great Vowel Shift and Modern English
14: The Great Vowel Shift and Modern English

Professor Lerer details the major features of the Great Vowel Shift, a systematic change in the pronunciation of long, stressed vowels in English. It's a shift that took place from around the middle of the 15th century and radically changed the sound of spoken English-making its vowels unique in pronunciation among European languages....

30 min
The Expanding English Vocabulary
15: The Expanding English Vocabulary

Between 1500 and 1700, the vocabulary of English changed dramatically. How was this increase in lexical material organized? How did words-both new and old-change in meaning? How did the phenomenon of polysemy (the multiple meanings of words) affect English writing? Find out the answers here....

30 min
Early Modern English Syntax and Grammar
16: Early Modern English Syntax and Grammar

Trace the specifics of syntax and grammar in the period of early modern English to show how, in many ways, the shape of modern English depends on some very small elements. Also, look at changes in the system of modal (or helping) verbs, as well as the second- and third-person pronouns....

29 min
Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English
17: Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English

Now, turn to 16th- and 17th-century developments to define the nature of English at this time and to discern contemporary attitudes toward that nature. Focus on the role of education, regionalism, and nationalism in the debate about standard English during this vital period....

31 min
Shakespeare-Drama, Grammar, Pronunciation
18: Shakespeare-Drama, Grammar, Pronunciation

William Shakespeare undoubtedly stands on the cusp of language change. In the first of two lectures devoted to the language of this iconic Western author, use a short selection from the play Richard III that raises important questions about pronunciation and grammatical usage during the Bard's time....

30 min
Shakespeare-Poetry, Sound, Sense
19: Shakespeare-Poetry, Sound, Sense

Continue your examination of Shakespeare by looking at some texts that illustrate the verbal resources of the playwright's language and the changing nature of the English literary vocabulary. Also, glimpse some texts that actually challenge our assumptions about the language-and about Shakespeare's work itself....

31 min
The Bible in English
20: The Bible in English

Explore the history of biblical translation by examining closely Matthew 17:13¬-15 from four representative texts: the Old English version from the 10th century; the translation made under the supervision of John Wycliffe in the 1380s; the translation published by William Tyndale in 1526; and the King James version published in 1611....

30 min
Samuel Johnson and His Dictionary
21: Samuel Johnson and His Dictionary

In this lecture, learn about the rise of lexicography in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a special focus on the great Dictionary of Samuel Johnson from 1755. This dictionary stands as the culmination of nearly a century of responses to the growth and change in the English vocabulary....

31 min
New Standards in English
22: New Standards in English

Lexicography and the success of Johnson's Dictionary fed into the larger debate about how language should be studied and taught. Here, meet several influential writers from the late 18th century who crystallized this debate. Also, look at several words that reflect the larger cultural problem of linguistic usage and social behavior....

30 min
Dictionaries and Word Histories
23: Dictionaries and Word Histories

This lecture looks at some key words to illustrate the ways in which words change meaning. It then turns to another set of words to illustrate the politics of lexicography and the judgmentalism of the modern dictionary....

32 min
Values, Words, and Modernity
24: Values, Words, and Modernity

How do we bear the legacy of earlier approaches to the study and teaching of English? In dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary, handbooks like Fowler's Modern English Usage, and contemporary debates on language usage, we may see the same terms and problems as we saw in the age of Samuel Johnson....

32 min
The Beginnings of American English
25: The Beginnings of American English

American English begins with the initial patterns of settlement in the early 17th century. Look at the nature of those settlements, the historical contexts of 17th- and 18th-century colonization, the origins of dialect boundaries based in these early settlements, the distinct features of early American English, and much more....

32 min
American Language from Webster to Mencken
26: American Language from Webster to Mencken

Professor Lerer discusses the development of the American language throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two important figures stand at the poles of this story: Noah Webster and H. L. Mencken-each of whom set the tone for the ways in which the American language was viewed and written about during their respective periods....

31 min
American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln
27: American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln

The study of rhetoric in 18th- and 19th-century America had a profound effect on how people spoke and wrote, as well as how literary and public language developed. In this lecture, examine attitudes toward language and power in the political and literary arenas, with choice examples taken from figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln....

31 min
The Language of the American Self
28: The Language of the American Self

Learn how works like Frederick Douglass's autobiography and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick demonstrate how the study of the history of the language contributes to the making of unique voices of the American social experience. This was especially important as mid-19th-century America saw the rise of the profession of public authorship....

30 min
American Regionalism
29: American Regionalism

By the middle of the 19th century, it had become clear that American English was not a unified form of speech and writing but rather a combination of regional dialects. Here, explore the history of the idea of regional American English, then move to some modern linguistic approaches to how regionalism is studied....

30 min
American Dialects in Literature
30: American Dialects in Literature

Take a closer look at several examples of how literary writers in the 19th and 20th centuries represent American dialects. In the process, you'll discern the specific features of regional dialects and confront larger issues about how regionalism works in American speech and society....

31 min
The Impact of African-American English
31: The Impact of African-American English

This lecture takes you deep inside some of the key features of the impact of the speech of African Americans on the American language. The purpose of this lecture is to present African American English as a language with grammatical rules and a rich and vital literature....

33 min
An Anglophone World
32: An Anglophone World

In many ways, the central feature of 21st-century English is its status as a world language. Investigate some distinctive features of the language outside of Great Britain and America, noting key features of pronunciation and vocabulary, as well as examples from the distinctive literature of post-colonial English....

32 min
The Language of Science
33: The Language of Science

The rise of experimental science in the 20th century has not only given English a wealth of new words, but it has changed the ways in which we coin and borrow words. What are the key methods for coining new words in technical fields? How has scientific and technical language become a part of our literary-and everyday-expression?...

32 min
The Science of Language
34: The Science of Language

Professor Lerer reveals some major developments in language study in the early 20th century. Encounter some major figures in American linguistics to learn how the study of language came to be associated with the study of mind, consciousness, and social organization....

30 min
Linguistics and Politics in Language Study
35: Linguistics and Politics in Language Study

Get a compelling introduction to Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, and to the social, cognitive, and philosophical implications of his work. The legacy of Chomskyan linguistics, you'll discover, goes far beyond the technical terms of the discipline to embrace a politics of language study itself....

30 min
Conclusions and Provocations
36: Conclusions and Provocations

Conclude the course by reviewing the major themes and approaches you've covered and bringing together some of the details of the historical sweep of the preceding lectures. As Professor Lerer stresses, to know the history of our language is to know ourselves....

30 min
Seth Lerer

Anyone who comes to know English as a child in school, or as an adult who speaks another language, is invariably confronted by the strangeness of its spelling.


University of Chicago


University of California, San Diego

About Seth Lerer

Dr. Seth Lerer is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. Before taking this position, he was the Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He also taught at Princeton University, Cambridge University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Lerer earned his B.A. from Wesleyan University, a second B.A. from Oxford University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Professor Lerer's research interests include medieval and Renaissance studies, early Tudor literary culture, textual criticism, Old and Middle English literature, and children's literature. He has published 10 books, including Chaucer and His Readers and Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. Professor Lerer won the 2010 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for his book Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter. The book also won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and reviews. Professor Lerer received many awards for his scholarship and teaching, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, the Beatrice White Prize of the English Association of Great Britain (for Chaucer and His Readers), and the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching at Stanford.

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