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The History Of the English Language

Discover how different dialects arise and interact with each other and how English has come to include so many new words as well as adapt to incorporate new meanings of many old words.
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Overview

This course offers an overview of the English language that is literary, historical, cultural, political, and scientific in its scope and designed to give you greater insight into the written and spoken word. The lectures provide a thorough understanding of the history of the English language, from its origins as a dialect of the Germanic-speaking peoples through the literary and cultural documents of its 1,500-year span to the state of American speech today. Professor Lerer defines concepts by illustrating them with copious examples.

About

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.

INSTITUTION

University of California, San Diego

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.

By This Professor

Introduction to the Study of Language

01: Introduction to the Study of Language

Should there be a standard English? Why do we spell the way we do? Why do we pronounce words the way we do? Why does English grammar seem simple when compared to the grammars of other languages?

33 min
The Historical Study of Language—Methods and Approaches

02: The Historical Study of Language—Methods and Approaches

This lecture is an examination of the methods of studying language historically and the key terms of inquiry into it, including philology: the reconstruction of earlier forms of a language, or of earlier languages, by comparing surviving forms in recorded tongues.

31 min
The Prehistory of English—The Indo-European Context

03: The Prehistory of English—The Indo-European Context

This lecture formally begins the historical study of English by analyzing the mix of Indo-European languages from which English ultimately emerged. By exploring some of their features, you will learn how linguists "deciphered" the sounds and the possible meanings of a language spoken by a group of agricultural peoples 5,000 to 6,000 years ago!

30 min
Reconstructing Meaning and Sound

04: Reconstructing Meaning and Sound

Professor Seth Lerer reveals the ways in which historical linguists classify languages, study their histories, and trace relationships of sound and sense. You'll learn about Grimm's law, discovered by the Grimm brothers, who also gave us the fairy tales. Grimm's law is thought by many to be the most important tool for reconstructing the set of sound relationships between the Germanic languages and non-Germanic languages of Indo-European.

31 min
Words and Worlds—Historical Linguistics and the Study of Culture

05: Words and Worlds—Historical Linguistics and the Study of Culture

Here, you'll explore the ways in which the sounds and meanings of the older Indo-European languages are reconstructed. Take the ancient word dyeu-pater, for example. The first element is the root of the Latin word deus, a god. The second element is the root of Latin pater - English father. So here is a word meaning "father of the gods."

28 min
The Beginnings of English

06: The Beginnings of English

English arises out of a mix of Germanic languages and dialects in the period roughly around the 6th and 7th centuries. This is the form of English we know as Old English, and it was spoken and written by settlers from the Continent: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. Their culture came to be known as Anglo-Saxon.

30 min
Old English—The Anglo-Saxon Worldview

07: Old English—The Anglo-Saxon Worldview

One group of Germanic peoples traveled to the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries. The history of these people (the earliest speakers of what we now call the English language) is recorded largely in their poetry and prose, including Caedmon's Hymn, composed between 657 and 680. The hymn is the first example we have of Old English verse.

29 min
Changing Language—Did the Normans Really Conquer English?

08: Changing Language—Did the Normans Really Conquer English?

The Norman conquest marks the conventional transition from Old English to Middle English, the language spoken and written in England from roughly the end of the 11th century to the end of the 15th century. During this lecture, you'll observe language change in action. You'll witness shifts away from older Old English forms and discover the precursors of Modern English.

30 min
Conquering Language—What Did the Normans Do to English?

09: Conquering Language—What Did the Normans Do to English?

What the Normans did was bring a whole new vocabulary to the English language, and in the process, they radically changed the ways in which words were formed, stress patterns were made in sentences, and verbal constructions and idioms were produced. In fact, for hundreds of years, the kings of England would speak Norman French rather than English!

30 min
Chaucer's English

10: Chaucer's English

The impact of Chaucer's poetry, in particular its innovative use of the resources of the language at the time, is a watershed in the history of English. You'll come to understand the whole range of new words Chaucer introduced into the language. Plus, you'll learn why linguists regard his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, as a unique mix of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax that stands midway between Old English and patterns of Modern English.

30 min
Dialect Jokes and Literary Representation in Middle English

11: Dialect Jokes and Literary Representation in Middle English

Middle English had well-defined regional dialects whose boundaries were both natural and man-made. The major rivers of England made up boundaries of speech communities (dialects), as did the old Roman roads. You'll study a selection from Chaucer's Reeve's Tale to see the literary representation of the Northern Middle English dialect for humorous effect.

29 min
A Multilingual World—Medieval Attitudes Toward Language Change and Variation

12: A Multilingual World—Medieval Attitudes Toward Language Change and Variation

This lecture examines attitudes toward language change in the Middle Ages. Why was Latin a principal language of instruction? Why did the English gentry seek to better their French? What, among the well-educated, were the "rules" of conversation, courtiership, and intellectual discourse?

29 min
The Return of English as a Standard

13: The Return of English as a Standard

This first lecture of Part II examines the history of English from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries. By the 15th century, English finally comes to predominate over Latin and French. In fact, it was during the reign of Henry V (1413-1422) that English became England's official language.

31 min
How We Speak—The Great Vowel Shift and the Making of Modern English

14: How We Speak—The Great Vowel Shift and the Making of Modern English

The so-called Great Vowel Shift was a systematic change in the pronunciation of long stressed vowels in English. It changed dramatically the sound of spoken English, making its vowels unique in pronunciation among European languages.

30 min
What We Say—The Expanding English Vocabulary

15: What We Say—The Expanding English Vocabulary

From the years 1500-1700, the vocabulary of English grew dramatically. New words were coined as a result of travel, international commerce, and science. Examples of these words include: alloy, bombast, duel, balcony, granite, violin, armada, banana, tobacco, smuggler, schooner, knapsack.

29 min
The Shape of Modern English—Changes in Syntax and Grammar

16: The Shape of Modern English—Changes in Syntax and Grammar

By 1700, the major patterns of word order, word endings, and pronouns crystallized into a system that is virtually indistinguishable from our own today. You'll learn how this remarkable transformation took place, which includes the rise of idioms.

30 min
Renaissance Attitudes Toward Teaching English

17: Renaissance Attitudes Toward Teaching English

During the 16th and 17th centuries, three major changes affected English: an increasing vocabulary,due largely to trade, exploration, and science; changes in syntax and grammar; and changes in spelling and pronunciation. For example, words like debt and doubt came to include the letter "b," which they had never had before.

31 min
The Language of Shakespeare (Part 1)—Drama, Grammar, and Pronunciation

18: The Language of Shakespeare (Part 1)—Drama, Grammar, and Pronunciation

In this, the first of two lectures devoted to the language of Shakespeare, you will see how the Bard effectively deployed the resources of his 16th-century language while,offering some new usages that, ultimately, came to be popularly accepted.

30 min
The Language of Shakespeare (Part 2)—Poetry, Sound, and Sense

19: The Language of Shakespeare (Part 2)—Poetry, Sound, and Sense

You will examine several of Shakespeare's texts (both plays and sonnets) and, drawing on what you have already learned about the history of English, disentangle certain presuppositions about what is "good" and "bad" Shakespeare.

31 min
The Bible in English

20: The Bible in English

Each period of the English language produced its own distinctive versions of the Bible. You'll examine four important translations of the Bible that tell much about the history of the language, including the King James Bible - prepared by a group of scholars, under the commission of James I of England, who purposely made it sound archaic!

30 min
Samuel Johnson and His

21: Samuel Johnson and His "Dictionary"

In this and the following lecture, Professor Lerer examines the rise of lexicography in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a special focus on the great "Dictionary" of Samuel Johnson. This dictionary, one of the great feats of individual scholarship in history, stands as the culmination of nearly a century of responses to the changing vocabulary of English.

29 min
New Standards in English

22: New Standards in English

The rise of lexicography and the success of Johnson's Dictionary fed into the larger debate about "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism" in language study and teaching. Several influential writers from the late 18th century, including William Lowth and Joseph Priestley, crystallized controversy over the idea of propriety in language use, slang, and colloquialisms.

30 min
Semantic Change—Dictionaries and the Histories of Words

23: Semantic Change—Dictionaries and the Histories of Words

"The Oxford English Dictionary" (OED) chronicles the history of semantic change. However, Professor Lerer explains how political and ideological presuppositions behind the making of the OED invite us to question the objectivity of lexicography in general - even the compilation of dictionaries in our own time.

31 min
Values and Words in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

24: Values and Words in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

How do dictionaries such as the OED, handbooks such as Fowler's "Modern English Usage," and current debates on language use bear the legacy and immense impact of earlier approaches to the study and teaching of English? Should language change be imposed from above, or be allowed to evolve from below?

30 min
The Beginnings of American English

25: The Beginnings of American English

What was the sound and texture of early American English? How was it pronounced? What were some distinctive features of its grammar and vocabulary? How and when did British and American English begin to diverge?

30 min
Making the American Language—From Noah Webster to H.L. Mencken

26: Making the American Language—From Noah Webster to H.L. Mencken

Both Noah Webster and H. L. Mencken concerned themselves with recording and assessing the state of American English. Both were deeply involved in lexicographical projects. And both set the tone, during their own times, for the way in which others perceived and wrote about the American language.

30 min
The Rhetoric of Independence from Jefferson to Lincoln

27: The Rhetoric of Independence from Jefferson to Lincoln

In this lecture, you'll explore attitudes toward language and power, in the political and literary arenas of 18th- and 19th-century America. Learn how the style of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence reveals influences from Old English and Latin. Hear how Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" echoes the King James Bible.

27 min
The Language of the American Self

28: The Language of the American Self

The strong autobiographical turn in American writing dating to the Puritans' preoccupation with the diary and journal and to the later proliferation of slave narratives develops into full-fledged prose and poetic expression, as evidenced by the works of Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.

31 min
American Regionalism

29: American Regionalism

From the dropped "r" of eastern New England to the drawl of the Deep South, the American language is built up of different geographical forms, different levels of professional attainment, educational achievement, and idioms. You'll learn how region, class, and race have become the distinguishing marks of American English.

30 min
American Dialects in Literature

30: American Dialects in Literature

Mark Twain; Joel Chandler Harris, best known for his Uncle Remus stories; and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings came to use dialects effectively. Often, the writers' humorous or satiric purposes affected their representations of speech and influenced colloquial English.

30 min
The Impact of African-American English

31: The Impact of African-American English

While, admittedly, the subject is not without controversy, it is the purpose of this lecture to present African-American English as a language with grammatical rules and categories, as a language with a precise history (African languages and the Caribbean Creoles), and as a language with a rich and vital literature - from slave narratives to Cab Calloway's expressive jazz language to Martin Luther King's spellbinding speeches.

30 min
An Anglophone World

32: An Anglophone World

In many ways, the central feature of 20th-century English is its status as a global language, used in such far-flung places as Australia, India, and South Africa. Yet, in each place, vocabulary, pronunciation, idioms, and style are different. You'll learn how these differences have influenced modern English in both its written and spoken forms.

31 min
The Language of Science—The Changing Nature of Twentieth-Century English

33: The Language of Science—The Changing Nature of Twentieth-Century English

The rise of experimental science in the 20th century has given English a wealth of new words that have become part of our everyday and our literary expressiveness - from attraction to meltdown and netware. In addition, scientific and technical language has changed the very ways in which we create new words.

29 min
The Science of Language—The Study of Language in the Twentieth Century

34: The Science of Language—The Study of Language in the Twentieth Century

American linguists and anthropologists came to challenge the older European models of language study by analyzing non-European languages of radically different structure, particularly Native American ones.

29 min
Modern Linguistics and the Politics of Language Study

35: Modern Linguistics and the Politics of Language Study

The work of Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, and his heirs has influenced social, political, philosophical, and technological aspects of modern-day life, including the rise of artificial intelligence.

30 min
Conclusions and Provocations

36: Conclusions and Provocations

We must not lose touch with language and its history, for within its current varieties, dead forms, and literary records lie the roots and flowers of culture. To know a language is to know its history, and to know its history is to know ourselves.

30 min