History of the English Language, 2nd Edition

Course No. 2250
Professor Seth Lerer, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
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Course No. 2250
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Course Overview

Sixteen centuries ago a wave of settlers from northern Europe came to the British Isles speaking a mix of Germanic dialects thick with consonants and complex grammatical forms. Today we call that dialect Old English, the ancestor of the language nearly one in five people in the world speaks every day.

How did this ancient tongue evolve into the elegant idiom of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain, Melville, and other great writers? What features of modern English spelling and vocabulary link it to its Old English roots? How did English grammar become so streamlined? Why did its pronunciation undergo such drastic changes? How do we even know what English sounded like in the distant past? And how does English continue to develop to the present day?

The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition, is Professor Seth Lerer's revised and updated investigation of the remarkable history of English, from the powerful prose of King Alfred in the Middle Ages to the modern-day sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout its history, English has been an unusually mutable language, readily accepting new terms and new ways of conveying meaning. Professor Lerer brings this second edition up-to-date by including discussions of the latest changes brought about through such phenomena as hip hop, e-mail, text messaging, and the world wide web.

Are you a logophile—someone who

  • Pauses over a word to wonder about its origin
  • Stops to consider if a phrase or word is "proper"
  • Savors a colorful idiom or slang phrase
  • Is concerned about the use—and abuse—of English
  • Is just plain curious about words?

Then you will find these 36 half-hour lectures endlessly fascinating and immensely rewarding.

Hear the Sound of English over the Centuries

The author of numerous authoritative books and articles on the English language and English literature, Professor Lerer is an expert who knows how to get people excited about their mother tongue, as evidenced by his many teaching awards. Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda praised the first edition of this course as "justly popular," and went on to applaud Professor Lerer's style as "erudite without ever becoming dull."

Professor Lerer captures your interest from the start of lecture 1 when he recites a series of literary passages in their conjectured historical pronunciation. The three quotations begin as follows:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

To be, or not to be: that is the question

The first is the opening of Caedmon's Hymn, the earliest extant poem in Old English, composed around the year A.D. 680. Most people are hard-pressed to see any connection to modern English, but you will discover that there are many hidden traces.

The second passage is from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in the late 1300s. This is recognizable as English, but with a mix of baffling vocabulary. You will find that many of the unfamiliar words are just slightly disguised versions of words we use today.

The last quotation, of course, is from Shakespeare's Hamlet, composed around 1600. But you may be startled to hear Professor Lerer's reading of this celebrated soliloquy, which hardly sounds like the pronunciation of modern British Shakespearean actors. That is because English in Shakespeare's time did not sound like what we've become accustomed to hearing on the stage.

The Great Vowel Shift and More

From this core sample of English over the centuries, you begin your journey. Professor Lerer proceeds chronologically, beginning with the roots of English in the postulated ancient languages known as Indo-European, probably spoken 5,000 to 6,000 years ago by a group of agricultural peoples living around the Black Sea.

Never written down, the Indo-European languages were discovered in the 19th century when an English scholar noticed that certain words, such as the Sanskrit raj, the Latin rex, the German reich, and the Celtic rix, were similar in sound and meaning (they all mean king or ruler). These and other clues suggested that most of the languages from Ireland to India descended from a common language or group of dialects, which came to be called Indo-European. Germanic arose from this protolanguage, and Old English evolved out of Germanic.

Linguists have developed remarkable tools for charting how languages change over time. In this course, you will employ these tools to investigate four specific areas:

  • Pronunciation: As you can see from the Old English sample above, the sound of English has changed radically. The best known example is the Great Vowel Shift, a systematic change in the pronunciation of vowels that occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries. Professor Lerer's reading of several lines from Shakespeare's Richard III shows that the shift was not yet complete in the Elizabethan age.
  • Grammar and Morphology: Grammar describes the way words work together, and morphology describes their form, such as whether nouns and verbs are inflected. The evolution of such features is fascinating to observe, as in the Old English and Middle English expression methinks, where me is not the subject but rather the indirect object. The compound translates as "it seems to me."
  • Meaning (Semantic Change): Words change meaning. Take the word silly, which comes from the root selig, meaning blessed. Over time, the word came to describe not the inner spiritual state of being blessed but the observed behavior of someone who acts foolishly. When reading an older text, beware that seemingly familiar words may not mean what you think.
  • Attitudes toward Language Change: What are we to make of the wide variation in language use across the people who speak English? The 18th-century English lexicographer Samuel Johnson wrestled with this challenge while compiling his famous dictionary. The debate is reflected in today's debate over prescriptivism (the idea that correct linguistic behavior should be taught) versus descriptivism (the idea that linguistic behavior should only be described).

From English to American

Published in London in the mid-18th century, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was the first reference work used as we use a dictionary today: as a source for everyday, individual questions on spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical usage.

Another influential dictionary figures prominently in the last third of the course, which focuses on English in America. In the early 19th century, Noah Webster compiled a dictionary devoted to America's forthright and commonsensical relationship with the English language. Today's differences between American and English spelling—for example, color versus colour, defense versus defence—are due to Webster. He also recorded American pronunciations and advocated that all the syllables in a word be enunciated: "necessary" and "secretary," not "necessry," and "secretry."

Professor Lerer encourages you to step back and observe your own pronunciation. If you are from the South, do you pronounce the words pin and gem with the same vowel? Professor Lerer himself is from Brooklyn, but the sharpest elements of his accent were ironed out long ago by his mother, a speech therapist for the New York City schools. However, like many former dialect speakers, he can revert to his roots, and he demonstrates how he used to pronounce often and orphan the same way.

Experience a Great Civilization through Its Words

English has come a long way since those first Germanic settlers crossed the North Sea to Britain. The words you use every day are like archaeological artifacts connecting our age to theirs. To study the history of this wonderful language with Professor Lerer is to experience the literature, politics, culture, ways of thought, and world outlook of a great civilization through its most precious legacy: its words.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction to the Study of Language
    elationships 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Seth Lerer

About Your Professor

Seth Lerer, Ph.D.
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....
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History of the English Language, 2nd Edition is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 101.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not as good as John McWhorter After listening to several courses by John McWhorter I am spoiled. He is simply the best teacher I have heard at The Great Courses. (I have listened to dozens). This teacher is not as good. My advice is to buy every course by John McWhorter first and then think about this one.
Date published: 2018-12-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too much philosophy, not enough history This course should actually be entitled "History of the English Language, and the Philosophies of language studies. Half of the lessons provide a good, not great, history of the English language. The other half involved theories of language studies, philosophies, and other subjects only peripherally related to English. I found myself fast forwarding or even skipping many chapters.
Date published: 2018-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Truly Complete History of the English Language I have really enjoyed the Linguistics courses offered by the Great Courses, so I wanted to give this course a try to build on those lectures. There is so much information in this series that it is almost overwhelming. However, I love being overwhelmed because that tells me my money was wisely spent. Professor Lerer is a great lecturer. You not only learn the geographic story of the spread of the English Language, but also the Literature and Linguistic evolution of the language. Stated more accurately, you learn how all these things shaped English. My favorite part of the course was the explanation of the Great Vowel Shift and its contribution to modern English. I have to admit, my second favorite part of the course was an anecdote the professor tells about his own language experiences growing up in Brooklyn, NY.
Date published: 2018-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of the English Language This is an excellent course. The material is extremely interesting and the lectures convey a great deal of information not only about linguistics and philology, but also about literature and history. Professor Lerer has an extraordinarily high level of scholarship.
Date published: 2018-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, Informative, Revealing, Surprising! I did not know that: England was the melting pot for so many peoples; English was the merging of or borrowing from so many languages; What is meant by old English, middle English, and modern English; that English traces back to a Germanic language core; that English has borrowed and incorporated so much from other languages; that English grammar is changing from that I was taught in my youth; that changes in grammar, word meanings, and the inflow of new words are part of the English language evolution; I need to quit complaining of "grammatical errors" I read and see in today's form of English; and lastly I was surprised by the number of incidents where I commented to myself, "I did not know that!" I will spare the reader further comments and jump to highly recommending that one take this course. I found it has great value.
Date published: 2018-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Course That Brought Me to the Great Courses While this wasn't (quite) the first course I actually purchased, it was the first Great Courses offering I ever saw advertised, and the first one I decided I must have. If you are interested in language at all, you will want to get this one. Professor Lerer covers a very broad sweep of the English language, from its prehistoric Indo-European origins to the present day. He offers some fascinating comparisons and ties to other languages, discusses the development of Old English from its origins as essentially a German dialect, takes you through Middle English to the early Modern English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and up through the present day. I got the DVDs, but in retrospect would have been happier with the more portable audio download. Professor Lerer had a number of visuals, but fewer than I expected and they weren't absolutely critical to the lectures. And by the 36th lecture I was finding Lerer's gaze and mannerisms a little distracting. Audio would have worked much better for me. I found I was less interested in the later lectures than the earlier ones. Others may be more interested in the varieties and trends in modern English and find the historical stuff boring. Lerer covers such a wide scope that there's something in here for everyone.
Date published: 2017-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of the English Language, 2nd Edition I really enjoyed this Course. It was so interesting.
Date published: 2017-10-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Content great, teacher grates I have listened through this course twice, and many of the individual lectures several times, with interest, satisfaction, and benefit. It seems an excellent overview of a very large subject--the point of my selecting it. The instructor brings to his presentation years of experience selecting pertinent topics and effective examples. All of this is typical of the Great Courses. Purchasers expect this and with this course in these regards will have no dissatisfaction. I found the biggest drawback to be the instructor's style of speaking: excessive voice tension, unrelenting keyed-up intensity, catapulting through sentences and strings of sentences, gratuitous vociferating. I often wish he would calm down. My interest in the material of the course and the effectiveness of its presentation overrode my discomfort with the instructor's grating speech. And many, apparently, have, unlike me, found this style attractive.
Date published: 2017-05-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from An intellectual challenge, ultimately unsatisfying The program starts off with early history and describes the tools scholars use to determine the relationships among early languages. It follows through early English, middle English, and modern English before turning to American English, where it loses the history track and gets bogged down in political correctness, for want of a better descriptor. There are many temptations offered up by the professor that are not followed through and one is left feeling that the course is incomplete, while time and effort were devoted to peripheral matters (e.g. nearly an entire lecture devoted to a philosophical evaluation of what language is, a discussion that belongs in a different course). Whether I'd recommend the course to a friend depends on who the friend is. It would be a "qualified" recommendation.
Date published: 2017-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magnificent! This is my second complete run-through of this course and I am learning new things all the time. I have been reading voraciously for at least 65 years, I love the language and can be a little pedantic - it's part of the fun! Professor Lehrer is superb - his erudition and passion for the language shine through!
Date published: 2017-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A favorite! I teach English as a Second Language, so I had many English and linguistics courses in college. I wanted to take a course on the history of English in college, but it didn't work out. I always wished I could have had that course. So when I saw it was offered by the Great Courses, I had high hopes. I was not disappointed! The information presented here is the perfect level: not so complex that someone who is not an English teacher won't appreciate or understand it, while at the same time, not so broad that someone with college and graduate level courses in English and linguistics can't learn new things! Not only is the information interesting, but it has turned out to be actually useful to me. English is a difficult language; imagine teaching it as a second language. My students often ask questions about the oddities of English, and this course gave me a lot of answers. When I tell them the answers, the reaction I often get is "Wow, how do you know so much!?" Thanks to the Teaching Company! Finally, the professor is a great presenter. I especially appreciated hearing him recite poems and quotations in Old English. What talent! If you have ever wondered why English "rules" always have exceptions, or just like to learn about languages, you will love this course.
Date published: 2016-12-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Comprehensive and Mostly Comprehendable History This course is most remarkable for its breadth of coverage, from Indo-European beginnings to 21st Century Language Science debates. My starting point for this course was having read a book on the Indo-Europeans and enjoying another Great Courses course of the English language. This one greatly enhanced my understanding of the topic of English language history. Mostly, Professor Lerer presented concepts in an understandable way. He used jargon quite a bit, but he took pains to explain it. When he referred back to subjects covered "hours" ("days/weeks" actually as I did not power-watch the course), he usually provided memory triggers to make the reference meaningful. I thought he could have been more direct at times in getting his meaning across -- he said "that is, ... " frequently, sometimes in strings -- because, I suspect, he sensed that his initial choice of words was inadequate or overly dense. His choice of words seemed at times more focused on being artistic than direct (for example, he kept coming back to the word "ardent" at times when it seemed unnecessary or off-topic). He gave frequent examples (or "evidence") to support or further illustrate his statements, and I would have appreciated even more of these. These criticisms aside, however, I learned plenty about of the history of our language, especially regarding dialect, the impact of cultural interchange on language, and the work of researchers to understand language development and evolution. I ardently (whoops -- did I say that?) recommend this course to those with an interest in history in general and language history in particular.
Date published: 2016-12-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Broadest History I admit to being a technician, and I had hoped for more on Old an Middle English. The professor's plunges into the language's effects on culture and literature (and vice versa) were a little too artistic for me, but I learned from them. Peadar P. S. I would enjoy courses on Old and Middle English: phonology, vocabulary and syntax, and I am sure Dr, Lerer would do a bang-up job.
Date published: 2016-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All in All, excellent Just one tip. He talks so slowly that if you put the DVD on the first 'fast forward', he remains totally intelligible, and you can get through a lecture in 17 minutes !!!
Date published: 2016-08-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from english as she is spoke The presenter obviously know his subject; however, his distinctive accent and perpetual "if you will"'s and other mannerisms detract from the presentation.
Date published: 2016-08-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The perspective of a literature professor This course looks at English from the perspective of a literature professor. I have listened to most of TGC's linguistics course, and realized during this course that I prefer the scientific to the literary perspective. But if you appreciate the literary approach this course could be very attractive. Some illustrations of what this means: - Prof. Lerer's examples are mostly from what he considers exemplars - great writers or speakers, people who in his view use the language well (sometimes in novel ways). - He plays with language and metaphor, taking a phrase or idea from earlier in a lecture and then using it later as a way to capture a bigger point. One example: in a lecture on dialect that had examples with "sugar" and "antses," he sums up this way: "When we think about regional dialects and the various social, ethnic, and linguistic strata in our country, we need to ask ourselves if the sugar of our tongue has been tainted by antses, or if in fact, what really makes American English so tasty are those blackberries in the glass jars of our imagination." I roll my eyes, but others will enjoy the playfulness. The linguistic and literary approaches are not in conflict. Prof. Lerer like any linguistic looks evenhandedly at different dialects or registers of speech, without insisting on the superiority of a standard of academic version. But his emphasis is different - more about dictionaries and great authors than trying to understand, for example, why language changes. If that appeals to you, this course is for you.
Date published: 2016-03-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Beginning, Not So Great Ending I really enjoyed the first 32 lectures. I learned a tremendous amount. Lerer explains things very clearly and he presents many examples of how pronunciation has changed, how spelling has changed, and from where words came. He starts with Indo-European and takes us to modern times. This portion of the course is exactly what I wanted. But, starting with lecture 33, things started getting fuzzy. It seemed like we left the history of the language and went off on some strange meanderings. I would have preferred that he expand some of the earlier topics and left these last 4 topics out. As a result, I'm only giving this course 4 stars instead of 5. I really liked Lerer's presentation. He was easy to understand and went at a good pace. And I feel he did a great job reading quotes. I watched the DVDs and they were quite useful for seeing the excerpts and the word, spelling, and vowel changes. Reading along while he read old or middle English allowed me to easily comprehend what he was trying to convey. And it made guessing the meanings of unfamiliar words from long ago a lot more fun! In fact, I enjoyed his teaching so much that I purchased and listened to his other courses. Please see the links below. I definitely recommend this course even if only for the first 32 lectures.
Date published: 2015-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of the English Language, 2nd Edition An excellent overview of the history of our shared language. I found it fascinating, even as to details of Old and Middle English, subjects not necessarily near and dear to my heart.
Date published: 2015-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Favorite course This is without a doubt my favorite course from The Teaching Company. I have always been keenly interested in languages and historical linguistics, having studied both subjects as an undergraduate. Professor Lerer is thoroughly well-versed in this subject and his enthusiasm is contagious. Both my husband and I have listened to the entire series and have recommended this course to friends. I extend my gratitude to The Teaching Company for allowing Professor Lerer to expound on this fascinating subject.
Date published: 2014-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent teacher I start saying this professor has excellent skills in teaching. A dynamic way of talking which could every topic make interesting and worth listening to. For me the first part about linguistic history was for me ansolutely amazing. This was what I was hoping to hear and it triggers me for more search work in linguistics.
Date published: 2014-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Simply Exquisite Given the fact that English is my first language and that I love English Literature I decided to take this course with Professor Lerer as I realised that I had only a very cursory overview of the history of the language itself. I am delighted to report that not only did the course give a nuanced and insightful analysis about the development of English; it also contained several quite brilliant lectures at the start of the course in the science of linguistics and how this discipline (and its tools)have informed the study of English Language history. These introductory lectures on linguistics were just fascinating in themselves and set the scene perfectly as Professor Lerer took us from the world of Indo-European(from which English and most of the European languages derive)through Old and Middle English down to the Modern version of our own times. It was a privilege to be able to hear Professor Lerer whose profound scholarship shone through and whose passion for his subject was inspiring. Living in the UK it was also particularly interesting, in the final third of the course, to hear lectures about American English including African American English. This is an absolutely must have course for anyone wanting to gain a deeper appreciation of English and I would recommend it unreservedly. I am also keen to hear more courses from this wonderful Professor. 5 stars all round!
Date published: 2014-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History if the English Language This outstanding course is a "must" for anyone interested in the English language, from its origin in antiquity to the present day. Though a long road to cover, Prof. Lerer does it admirably by covering the highlights and turning points of English's evolution. Professor Lerer, a linguist as well as an authority in literature, is among the most articulate lectures in the Great Courses. I am certain that you'll enjoy this informative and stimulating course.
Date published: 2012-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 5000-Year History of the English Language Linguistics always seemed an overblown topic, a subject that was "in style" among the literati. And I have to admit I never fully understood its significance and complex relationship with society and history. I am happy to report that Dr. Lerer's introduction to the history of English convinced me to take language much more seriously. Before mentioning a few points about the course, I think I should say that, as interesting as the whole idea of the lecture series seemed to me, I skipped a few lectures about Old English and American idiosyncrasies that I thought were unnecessary, and thus this review does not cover all 36 lectures, but about 70% of that. Course highlights include: a) Dr. Lerer covers a lot of ground, from the prehistory of English in Indo-european, up to the internet, and the possible future trajectories of the language. b) Make no mistake, this is a course on the history of the language, not the fundamentals of linguistics. Although Dr. Lerer avoids jargon and explains technicalities if and when they arise, and even discusses the science of linguistics in the last 2-3 lectures, he largely constrains himself to the history of English. c) The lectures on the emergence and evolution of the dictionary as a cultural and political phenomena, from Johnson to Webster, both in England and in the US, was fascinating. d) The discussions about 18th and 19th century pedagogues and teachers were quite illuminating. I even found the tidbits about individual words such as "doubt" and "debt" utterly amazing. e) Dr. Lerer's delivery style is lucid and erudite, but not verbose at all, as one might expect from a linguist. True, he repeats "if you like" too many times, and his tone and inflection might need a little getting used to. But by the time you get to lecture 4-5, I think you will find him quite amiable. f) I have a quip. I wish the course Dr. Lerer had allotted a little more time to more recent changes in English and their sociopolitical underpinnings and impacts. But, for obvious reasons, Teaching Company courses on any topic tend to avoid discussions of the recent past. In sum, History of English Language is a measured, erudite, and eye-opening treatment of a fascinating and important subject. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2012-07-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A fascinating survey Lerer's panorama of the history of the English language is richly detailed, fascinating in its byways and frequently ascends to the level of poetry. Excellent coverage is given the role of text and literature, but you will also learn about the history of the telephone greeting 'hello', visit the moment in which English officially entered parliamentary discourse in England and the context for Tupac Shakur's English. This course forms a fitting complement to John McWhorter's on the history of human language. My one quibble is that almost a quarter of this course is dedicated to American English in some form or other. Given the status of English as a world language (acknowledged formally in the course with just one lecture), I would dispute the emphasis given to American English, which reads, to a non-American at least, as nationalistically unbalanced.
Date published: 2012-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I can say that too! I was amazed to learn that my "mother tongue" has such ancient roots. Dr. Lerer makes English live and breath and seem so beautiful. By listening to this course as I drove to work I came to appreciate how interconnected we are to other nations and what a fascinating story our words tell.
Date published: 2012-06-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing but useful = average Somewhat disappointing, especially in presentation. The overall content of the course was satisfactory, average, hence my 3-star rating. There was no mention, for example, of Estuary English -- a major new speaking syle in the UK; also no mention of Valley talk which has been around for many years in the USA. I did feel "wiser" for having watched the course, so it was by no means a loss. A few of the lectures impressed me, including his treatment of the great vowel shift. This is a useful course on the development of our great English language, but not an outstanding one. Had it been presented by another professor, that might have made all the difference for me. Dr Lerer has a habit of vastly overusing the expression "if you will" -- this drove me nuts, frankly! He goes off-track often, and makes contorted facial expressions which I found disconcerting. Another distracting factor was his always wearing a charcoal black suit, light blue shirt, light grey tie! It gave me the idea that perhaps he had rushed through the recordings of these lectures. Or, possibly, like Alfred Hitchcock, his wardrobe is full of identical suits, shirts and ties!
Date published: 2012-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The history of the English Language An excelent overview. I would have liked a bit more on Old English and the contributions of the Vikings, especially in the simplification of Late Old English, and a bit more on how Middle English developed. However, the material is uniformly facinating and very well presented.
Date published: 2012-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Loved This Course I thought this was a terrific course. Since I speak, read, and write English every day -- I find that I think about something I learned in this course almost daily. The instructor was well-organized and presented his lectures well. Perhaps I didn't pick up on all of his ideas, but there was so much in his lectures -- I picked up A LOT. Reflecting quickly on some of his lectures I enjoyed his discussion of how the use of "thou" showed that Shakespeare's Richard III was winning his bride. I also enjoyed his discussion of American dialects in books such as Huckleberry Finn. But, most of all, I enjoyed when he read in old and middle English. Overall, I enjoyed this course tremendously and think of it frequently. It has enriched my life. Thank you for this Great Course.
Date published: 2012-04-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Some nits Overall this is a very good course for anyone interested in the English language or linguistics. Here are some points though In a list of the Celtic languages he leaves out Breton (I'm sure the French wish this were so) Other histories of English have all made the point that much of the grammar simplification was caused by the influence of Danish on English with the Danish/Viking settlements. There is no mention of this. Sorry, but though William Tyndale had a huge inflluence on the King James Bible and English, he did not translate the Geneva Bible. His was published originally in 1534 in Cologne and subsequently became the basis for 80-90 % of the New Testament and much of the Old Testament in the KJB. Prof Lerer mentions the uniqueness of the confusion of blue and green in Hopi. Sorry, but the Celtic languages do the same. Glas in Welsh means blue (and Gaelic as well). Gwyrdd means green. But when talking of living things and the sea, then glas means green not blue. (Origin of "bluegrass" perhaps). I wish he had talked about the growing use of incorrect verbal forms even by the college educated such as "I have went..." "I have ran...." etc William Jones may have been born in London but I would classify him as Welsh, not English.
Date published: 2012-02-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting but a bit of a slog The course material was definitely interesting, but it was a challenge to work all the way through it. It needed either some editing/condensing or a professor who was better able to bring the material alive. Still, for lovers of the English language, it was a very worthwhile course.
Date published: 2011-11-24
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