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 An exhaustive and exhausting review of the subject As fascinating of a topic as I imagined this course to be I was disappointed in the highly technical approach the lecturer brings to the subject, with only the smattering of short segments of significant interest-holding repartee. The lecturer is clearly well versed and extremely knowledgeable in the topic, but his verbosity tends to be aimed above the level of the expected listener, well at least this listener. For me this course consisted of long sessions of uncomfortable disinterest punctuated by alternating short periods of enlightenment with understanding and other periods of painful head-scratching wonderment as to how a specific topic related to the discussion at hand. This series is more geared toward an audience with some pre-existing knowledge and training in speech and linguistics, not for the casual or faint-hearted listener.
Date published: 2011-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Several months after listening to the course, I've gone back to it and am now just finishing listening to the whole thing a second time. Every bit as good as the first.
Date published: 2011-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More than a linguistic analysis of English As we follow the history of English and the unlikely position it holds in today's world of business, travel and science, we marvel at all the twists and turns that could have potentially derailed arguably the world's most important language. Prof. Lehrer offers more than a clinical analysis of how we arrived at this verb form, this conjugation, this consonant change or this vowel shift. Prof. Lehrer skillfully maneuvers us from the origins of English through its sounds and its rich literary history. For those interested in the history of English from multifaceted and interesting points of view, this course will be a winner.
Date published: 2011-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great synopsis of his book I read through his book as well as the course Guide. It is very helpful. I listen these courses on the way to Stanford or on the way to the Hospital. I have a different perspective on a number of issues related to linguistics. For instance, I personally think that history has demonstrated Chomsky to be inaccurate. I think the course is fairly well balanced, and the presentation is solid.
Date published: 2011-08-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from not a great teacher The topic is very interesting but the teacher is not very engaging. Within the series of linguistics, the other instructor (John McWhorter) is much better, both in terms of training and in terms of presentation skills. This topic (history of the English language) is better taught by a linguistics professor than by an English professor. Seth doesn't have enough linguistics expertise to teach this topic. Another great teacher is the one who teaches "Fundamentals of Music". He is much more engaging than Seth. If you're really interested in linguistics, I recommend the other two courses by McWhorter, which also covers a great deal of the history of English.
Date published: 2011-07-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from a rich course somewhat obliquely presented this was a highly informative if sometimes challenging course. the professor obviously has a profound knowledge of his subject matter, and the central lectures on english in england were very strong and quite fascinating. the later lectures on english in america however had a tendency to be weaker, and while the initial lectures on indo-european were interesting in their own right, some may find it frustrating that we don't actually start talking about english itself until lecture seven. what i found most challenging however was the professor's communication style. as others have noted there is an artificial, performative quality to his delivery that i occasionally found mildly distracting. but what concerned me more was the fact that his poetic heart sometimes seemed to be struggling against the orderly presentation of information. this is not to say that most lectures and indeed the course as a whole are not coherently organized; it was rather that we seemed to wander off the path more often than i would have liked. prof. lerer seems to be given to tangents, and while many of these were of inherent interest i often found myself wondering, "what does this have to do with the history of english?" his poetic heart also affects his language itself. it's not that his language is difficult because his subject matter is difficult: when he discusses articulatory phonetics for example he makes it as clear as such a topic can possibly be, and then he uses this knowledge very effectively to explain how exactly the great vowel shift happened. it's rather that he likes to indulge in ornate academic turns of phrase which one suspects sound more profound than they actually are. usually these are just dressing, but occasionally they seem to actually take the place of content, something which becomes noticeably more prominent in the lectures on american english. for example, the main thing i took away from the lecture on american rhetoric was that "the declaration of independence was written on the backs of lexicographers." and what stands out from the lecture on american literature is that melville gives us "a lexicography of the mind." if you find those phrases helpful then you'll find these lectures helpful, but if you ask me what i actually learned about jefferson, lincoln, or melville, i don't know what i could tell you. despite these concerns however i still found the course to be very enriching overall. i particularly enjoyed the professor’s reading of texts in their original pronunciation, and his consistent focus on regional dialects was very enlightening. i feel like i have a much deeper understanding of the history of english now, even if it was occasionally a bit hard going.
Date published: 2011-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So That's Why We Speak Like That! Audio CD. I'm afraid that this course will be underestimated due to the linguistic courses by the rock star, John McWhorter. That would be unfortunate because Dr. Lerer is a very good teacher in his own right and this course is very good as well. While Dr. McWhorter teaches about linguistics in general, this course is about one specific part of linguistics - the history of the English language. And it does it very well. Although every lecture was fun, I particularly enjoyed his lectures on the Indo-European family of languages. I was also intrigued by his reading selections from various eras. You can actually hear Old English to Middle English to Early Modern English develop into something that slowly becomes intelligible to us.
Date published: 2011-04-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not that interesting I initially thought that it would be unfair to write a review of this course since I was under the impression that it was just the subject that wasn't of interest to me. However, I have now heard Prof. McWhoster's "Story of Human Language" and understand that linguistics can indeed be interesting. And Prof Lerer's course had its good points too. Lectures 6-16 covering ideas such as spelling changes, the Great Vowel Shift and early modern grammar were especially enlightening. Lerer is at his best when he is articulating phonemic sounds and reading excerpts from from Old English and Middle English. And the two lectures on Shakespeare (18-19) were quite good. I learned something different, even after having completed three recent TTC courses on Shakespeare. But the good content ends once he arrives at the start of the early modern period with a discussion of the King James Bible. The problem with this course is that much of the presentation - particularly starting with lecture 22 - has very little to do with the history of English. It's just standard literary theory (he's a professor of literature, not linguistics), and mediocre at that. Later lectures end with the most tortured attempts to link the linguistics to literary themes (questions like "Is language a veranda?" Seriously?). The fault lies not with ourselves but our professor. Lerer drones on about topics of little interest, and it was merely an exercise in patience to arrive at the end of each lecture. Had I had time to return the course to the library where I got it, I would not have finished it and moved on to something else.
Date published: 2011-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation This may be the best of the many TTC courses I've listened to, not because it's the one I enjoyed the most or the one that taught me the most, but because it's the best overall in terms of the teacher's skill in presentation. The subject matter was interesting, certainly, but possibly not as exciting or relevant as some others. What really sets this course apart is how the professor manages to keep a variety of themes alive in the listener's mind while still presenting technical information. The presentation style is lively but not overdone, the pace is nearly perfect, and I left the course feeling that it just could not have been done better. Prof. Lerer should give lectures to the lecturers about how to integrate a technical topic into a cohesive whole while keeping the listener entertained. I may just listen to it again.
Date published: 2011-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An essential educational experience This course is an essential listen for anyone seeking to better understand the nature of English. It offers a comprehensive guide to every major event, movement, and figure in the history of the language. Without overwhelming us with detail, Professor Lerer provides a thorough and fascinating account of the various complications, controversies, and calamities which have confronted English during the last 1500 years. The course is accessible without being simplistic; entertaining without being reductive; and broad without being shallow. Along with Professor Cahoone, Professor Lerer is one of the TC’s finest lecturers. Listening to Professor Lerer is an experience quite unlike that of listening to most public speakers. Lerer appears to have been professionally trained in oratory: like a Shakespearean actor, he subtly modulates the pitch, cadence, and intonation of his voice in order to convey shades of meaning. The effect of this technique is to bring the course material to life in a way that is dramatic, engaging, and even moving. There are many lecturers who would profit from taking a leaf out of Lerer’s book. One of the ways in which this course differentiates itself from similar courses taught the world over is in its insistence on the centrality of canonical literature to the understanding of linguistic history. Lerer’s lectures have, in a sense, a double objective. On the one hand, they aim to cover everything mentioned in the course description; this much can be taken for granted. On the other hand, they constitute a persuasive argument for the continuing importance of particular literary works. Lerer is making an implicit case for seeing the English language as fundamentally inseparable from certain influential texts. Drawing vivid examples from Caedmon, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and George Orwell (as well as others), Lerer makes an impassioned case for the enduring value of great literature. History of the English Language also has the honour of being the first TC course to which I would ascribe aesthetic value. That is to say, there are moments during this course where the mere conveyance of information passes over into something sublimely literary. It is as if Professor Lerer’s enthusiasm for the texts and authors under discussion is such that he cannot help echoing their inventiveness in his own rhetorical performance. As such, these lectures contain moments of real beauty. Anyone with an interest in language, literature, linguistics, British history, or American history should buy this course. It is difficult to speak too highly of Professor Lerer’s magisterial, eighteen-hour epic. The course purports to offer us a chronicle of grammatical, syntactic, and lexical transformations. It achieves this, but in the process it does so, so much more.
Date published: 2011-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Prized Possession This is a (slightly imperfect) JEWEL. An excellent study in history and philology and phonology and cultural politics, Professor Lerer's work here is remarkable. His lesson plan is thorough, his knowledge impressive, and his diction (in both senses of the word) clear and precise. It's an excellent presentation and it deserves to be heard. Though parts are somewhat slow-moving (e.g., the first five lectures), the majority of this course is VERY interesting--and often downright fascinating. I'm glad to own this course; I consider it a prized possession to be examined again and again. I enthusiastically recommend it, and further recommend it on DVD, as the maps and textual illustrations are helpful.
Date published: 2010-11-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Comprehensive "biography" of English This was an enjoyable exploration of the development of English from its Indo-European roots to the present day, delivered in three easily digestible parts. One certainly gets a feel for how language has changed over the years, has grown and decayed over time, but still retains much of its syntax and morphology, for example, with irregular (strong) verbs. The lessons on spelling changes, the Great Vowel Shift, early modern grammar and syntax and the new use of modal verbs, and question formation were especially enlightening. Lerer really excels when he is articulating phonemic sounds and words and reading excerpts from from Old English and Middle English. Luckily for us, his speech therapist mother served as a wonderful role model for him--he enunciates really well. Some may find fault with what seems like a forced or stilted presentation delivery, but I for one appreciate his style. Like others, I wish he had included more samples of Old and Middle English. Why isn't this course worthy of 5 stars. I was ready to give it 5 stars, that is until lectures 34-35. These two tangential lectures were unexpected because I didn't think they added much to the history of the English language. The content on Sapir, Whorf, Saussure, and Chomsky (concerning data collection, the philosophy of language, and language acquisition) were not all that relevant to the topic at hand. We would probably have been better served by expanding or supplementing a previous lecture or having a whole lecture on the impact world Englishes and interlanguage (e.g. the pejorative Spanglish, Singlish, Konglish) is having or will have on English. All in all, a splendid course and well worth watching.
Date published: 2010-10-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Frustrating It's fortunate that this wasn't the first lecture I had ordered from the Teaching company, as it might have been the last. I'd just finished watching Prof. McWhorter's excellent "Story of Human Language," and, with this as a foundation, was looking forward to learning more about English in particular. I found Prof. Lerer's presentation style to be painfully over-dramatic. Another reviewer described it as "like a ninth-grader's first attempt at performing Shakespeare." I found that it kept distracting my attention from the content, and was quite in contrast to Prof. McWhorter's relaxed presentation. I expected a course in the history of English to focus on diachronic change: how the language has changed over time, when some of the more distinctive changes occurred, and what contributed to those. While the course did contain some of that material, Prof. Lerer would periodically abandon the topic to launch into the sort of literary deconstruction and pretentious strained metaphors that I would expect from a bad high school English lit class. This phenomenon became progressively worse though the course, till lectures 27 (American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln) and 28 (The Language of the American Self) had me alternating between "What does this have to do with the history of English?" and "What a load of balderdash!" His coverage of the Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis, now largely rejected by linguists, was dated and credulous, and served as a departure point into another round of literary metaphor. The fundamental problem with this lecture set was revealed in the final lecture, when Prof. Lerer described himself as "a professor, primarily, of English literature". This topic should have been taught by a linguist. I was sufficiently disappointed that I returned this set, as I can't imagine forcing myself to sit through these lectures a second time.
Date published: 2010-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wholly Engaging As an Englishman, English is my first language of course. However, I have always been intrigued by why it is that we use certain words to describe things, people or actions and why we use such different pronounciations, even within Great Britain, also how our present usage came about. This course easily steps you through the development of the English language from its most ancient roots to its current vernacular that acts as the common denominator of understanding between peoples of different nations and cultures. I found Seth Lerer to be a lively, engaging and enjoyable speaker, so much so that, simply on that basis, I ordered another course in which Prof Lerer lectures: "The Life and Writings of John Milton" .
Date published: 2010-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from splendid to me English is a second language but I have a profound interest in it and I study it every day. I read dictionaries and study grammar. Listening to the TC courses enhances my vocabulary incredibly (and thanks to all the eurudite professors I lear much but = does not improve my typing skills). This coures is fabulous, only comparabble with prof. Whorter's lectures. Very informative and superb in content. I believe, every speaker of English sohoul listen to it!
Date published: 2010-08-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Superb content hampered by bad presentation The content of the course is interesting and captivating. Unfortunately, the professor's presentation is not. The conversational, relaxed and happy figure shown interacting with students at the beginning of each DVD, disappeared at each lecture. Instead, he looked like a deer caught in headlights - haltingly reading cue cards or losing all meaning of his presentation with disconnected speeches that looked like a ninth-grader's first attempt at performing Shakespeare. I almost returned the set. He eventually reached his presentational stride at the last third of the set, which was almost too late.
Date published: 2010-06-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting on many levels I am thoroughly enjoying the passionate, knowledgeable professor, and his renditions of Middle English. He made the Great Vowel Shift into the most important cultural/phonetic movement i'd never heard of. But if he says "as it were" one more time, I may tear my hair out. Interesting that one so interested in how the language is constructed pads his lectures with such a meaningless phrase! He seems completely oblivious to this verbal tic.
Date published: 2010-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Course A very well presented series of lectures. Presentation style is clear and entertaining. If you're looking for just one linguistics course i'd recommend McWorter's "Story of Human Language" its a little more general and broader in scope, but in terms of quality of presentation this comes a very, very close second in my opinion.
Date published: 2010-04-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A way to explore both histroy & humanity Linguistics is a field that helps define what it is to be human. English language is a way to explore my own history. Together, what a deal! To note, the linguistic principles discussed in this course are consistent with those of Professor McWhorter's Teaching Company course on human languages. But listen to both courses. They compliment each other well. For the professor: My wife immediately pegged you as being from Brooklyn. She is from Korea, but lived 5 years with me in the Navy Yard area. Although I could not figure out your origin, she had no preconceived notions, and identified your origin immediately. I would never have known had you not so stated during the lectures.
Date published: 2010-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great first order I commute 80 miles each way to work, and am always looking for ways to make the drive go by more quickly. This course was wonderful -- Professor Lederer has an engaging delivery syle and a confident grasp of his subject. I was particularly interested in the lectures on early and middle English -- they were fascinating. I agree with the other reviewers who suggested the course might have benefitted from being split into two sections -- I felt as if we were rushing a bit through the modern English lectures. This was the first order I had ever placed with The Teaching Company, and based on this experience, I'll be ordering again soon.
Date published: 2010-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth two courses Like many reviewers I previously purchased the first edition of this course. I somehow lost the container with the last third of that edition, so I decided to buy this new offering. This time I bought it on CD so I could listen to it in my car. I had previously purchased several DVD courses and felt that the convenience of being able to listen in traffic outweighed losing the graphics. I am glad I bought this edition. It is wonderful to hear the sounds of early spoken English and to hear the changes in pronunciation juxtaposed so that development is made clear. I feel this was even more clear as I concentrated on the sounds in the CD version than when I watched the DVD one, where I was often distracted wondering how he knew which camera to turn to, and how he managed to have his notes on neat white heavy-weight paper rather than yellow legal pads like most faculty. The only (mild) complaint I might make is that 18 hours (36 half-hour lectures) is too few for the breadth of topic he covers. I would have liked to have the first 2/3 or so stretched out to cover the whole 36 lectures, with another 24 or 36 lectures for the last (modern) portion. I felt that there was a lack of depth in his coverage of African-American and regional speech, caused not by a lack of knowledge, but a lack of time. Perhaps the most useful thing that came from this course was to be able to tell my wife that when I say "the car needs warshed," I am not displaying poor grammar - I am indulging in a regionalism. Thank you Dr. Lerer.
Date published: 2010-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now I understand... As an avid reader and also a publisher writer, I have had many questions in my mind about the English language, its origins and its development. In this series of lectures, Dr. Lerer has answered most of them. I found the course very interesting and informative. The way it was presented made everything very clear. I'm glad I took this course, and will view my DVDs again and perhaps even again.
Date published: 2010-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Fun Wonderful course with an excellent lecturer. The information was enlightening and has me thinking about our tongue from a completely altered perspective. (And, there's lots of great tidbits that work well as fillers when cocktail conversation lags.) One of the few courses I've listened to multiple times.
Date published: 2009-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Who Are We? ... We Are Our Language! '...to know the history of our language is to know ourselves." This is Professor Lerer's conclusion, and he offers 18 hours of witty, insightful and fascinating evidence to prove his point profoundly. This course is TTC at its very best -- rock-solid, truly substantive and useful material presented with nonstop, sparkling enthusiasm. Dr. Lerer loves his subject, and it shows in every lecture. I sometimes find that a single lecture within a course can justify the purchase price of the entire course. This was the case in my listening to the audio version of 'History of the English Language.' I happened to be in the middle of editing a client's book on American politics and speeches at the same time I listened to Lecture #27 ('American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln'). Dr. Lerer's analyses of rhetoric helped me to greatly enhance (if not downright electrify) the book I was working on. Alliteration, shocking tall tales, pungent epithets, biblical imagery, bristling phrases, clever cliches -- I had been handed a writer's complete toolbox for grabbing readers' hearts and guts as well as their minds! Additionally, this course was valuable because it taught me things 'I didn't know that I didn't know.' Finally, the professor's speaking style was supremely confident and utterly disarming. The course's valuable content just slipped into my brain like I was putting on an old pair of well worn, comfortable shoes. If Professor Lerer got into race and gender issues, it was in proper context, entirely appropriate, and fact-based. The course is free of political correctness, dubious subtexts, and deconstructive jargon. The course is exceptionally well organized and easy to follow. I rarely found myself reversing the tape to hear a few sentences again to clarify some idea or point. 'History of the English Language' is one more reason why I invest a small fortune in courses from TTC.
Date published: 2009-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful history of English Prof. McWhorter's course on the evolution of human languages was my first Teaching Company course, which I enjoyed immensely. I bought Prof. Lehrer's course on the more detailed history of English and found it gripping and compelling. I found one or two of the lectures a little deep for my taste but overall I loved this course and recommend it highly. It's delivered with a clear love of English and with enthusiasm and humor. It's a great course.
Date published: 2009-08-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The First 3/4 Is Really Good I thoroughly enjoyed most of the course, but did not find the discussions of modern English after about 1700 to be particularly interesting. It might be better if modern English after Shakespeare and the King James Bible were split off into its own course. After a big buildup, the discussion of the great vowel shift was disappointingly short, as was the discussion of the King James Bible. However, the discussion of Indo-European languages, Germanic languages, and early and middle English were detailed and fascinating.
Date published: 2009-08-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from He speak English good I purchased this class to learn more about Old and Middle English, and I was not disapointed. This guy can speak Old and Middle English and goes into a marvelously pedantic indepth analysis of the evolution of our language. The course is more focused on English over the last 300 years, and the professor even discussed modern day hip-hop and text messaging lingo. I found myself getting more interested in the course as it went on even though I purchased it for the earlier history of English.
Date published: 2009-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course This is an excellent course, especially the first half on the ancient history of language. Prof. Lerer has a great delivery and an august voice. I highly recommend it if you are even slightly interested in English linguistics.
Date published: 2009-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth Every Minute Although there are times that the material is very technical Professor Lerer is masterful in explaining what he is talking about. He is spendid to listen to and I only wish I knew a quarter of what he knows about language. His stories about the history of specific words or spellings are not only interesting, they are enlightening. I learned so much about the origins of English yet I will listen again to absorb even more.
Date published: 2009-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Spectacular Fascinating account of the English Language and a great presentation. A must listen for anyone who works with words.
Date published: 2009-05-03
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