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History of the English Language, 2nd Edition

Investigate 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. with the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego.
History of the English Language, 2nd Edition is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 112.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from What should have been an interesting blend of history and linguistics was a painfully boring few hours of verbal diarrhea only the author could enjoy. Unfortunate...
Date published: 2023-05-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Concentration required I found myself wishing that Dr. Lerer had been allotted 48 lectures instead of 36 for this survey course, to allow him to devote more time to Old and Middle English, particularly Chaucer and Shakespeare. For this reason, I read Lerer's recommended textbook "A History of the English Language" by Baugh & Cable concurrently with his lectures, to get more detail. I found Lerer's last six lectures to be the most absorbing, and his summation in the final lecture is excellent. However, there are problems with Dr. Lerer's delivery that make listening to him somewhat tedious. He repeats certain pet phrases such as "if you like," "in other words," and "the way in which" over and over again (why not just say "how"?). Also, he has a habit of enunciating each word individually, which impedes the flow of his delivery and makes him sound pedantic. In spite of these difficulties, I recommend this course for its comprehensiveness and Dr. Lerer's passion for his subject. He includes a handy timeline, glossary, and useful basic bibliography of further reading in the course guidebook. I intend to use his bibliography to further my study of the history of English.
Date published: 2023-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good course Good coverage of material. Instructor was knowledgeable and had good presentation skills. Personally I would have liked more emphasis on Old and Middle English, but the course was informative and enjoyable.
Date published: 2022-07-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable It looks, from a few other reviews I've glanced at, as if this lecturer isn't to everyone's taste. That said, I really enjoyed him! He is clearly knowledgeable and cares deeply about his topic. I'm happy to have taken the time to go through his course.
Date published: 2022-02-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from almost painful I've listened to many Great Courses, on a number of different topics; the vast majority have at least been informative and engaging on some level. This one was a tad outside my general interests, but even so I can only conclude a different teacher would have had a much better chance of making it more interesting, on even the lowest level. It's the only course taken where I had to literally fast forward through a (several!) lecture(s) to sooner get to the next one in hopes of improvement. Too often the next one was no better. There were some interesting facts, stories etc here and there , but wading through the other to get there was definitely not worth it.
Date published: 2021-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well researched I bought this 3 weeks ago. It is very detailed and enlightening.
Date published: 2021-11-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course Very interesting but rather lengthy course. The lecturer was very good and touched on many different aspects of the history of the English language. I learned a lot.
Date published: 2021-10-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A lecturer out of his depth One expects at least two things of any course in this series: one, that the lecturer will have a thorough and comprehensive command of his or her chosen subject; the other, that the lecturer will be adept at making that subject accessible and interesting to learners. In this course, Professor Lerer falls short on both counts. Take subject matter first. Professor Lerer’s course runs through several disciplines: ancient philology; historical linguistics; modern structural linguistics; stylistic analysis; the history of lexicography; the history of attitudes toward usage; dialectology; sociolinguistics; and perhaps others that I have failed to recall. It can hardly be expected that a single lecturer can have a command of all these disciplines, even in the restricted field of the history of the English language. In this light, the blunders that Professor Lerer commits are perhaps forgivable. But then the decision of the Great Courses to offer a course in a topic that is beyond the capacities of the person teaching it is surely unwise in its own right. A few examples: Professor Lerer asserts that “American English has different grammatical categories” than British English. Professor Lerer offers no facts to justify this claim—quite rightly, as there is not a single fact to support it. There is not a single grammatical category applicable to the one variety of English that is not applicable to the other. Perhaps what Professor Lerer was thinking was that in some grammatical categories there are *items* that occur in the one variety of English but not in the other (e.g., the word “immediately” occurs only in the category of adverb in American English, but in British English is sometimes used as a conjunction). If so, he should have said that. To confuse that utterly humdrum fact with the extravagant and preposterous claim that the two varieties of English have different grammatical categories is irresponsible. Professor Lerer spends much of one lecture explaining the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I watched this in surprise that he was explaining the hypothesis in much detail, as surely the only point in expounding it can be to expose it as as a sham; for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has a status in linguistics today that is much like the status of phrenology in biology or phlogiston theory in thermodynamics. My surprise was succeeded by dismay and disgust when I found that no debunking of this long-debunked idea was forthcoming. Apparently, Professor is not even aware that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been thrown upon the junk-heap of linguistics. Much of the course concerns details of phonetics and phonology. Professor Lerer appears not to be in command of these disciplines. At one point, he emphatically asserts that vowel *quality* concerns the duration of vowels. This is perhaps a mere slip of the tongue (though the very deliberate fashion in which Professor Lerer uses the wrong word— “quality” in place of “quantity”—makes it difficult to be sure), but his attempt to illustrate the concept goes badly astray. He chooses the Old English word-pair “god” and “good,” whose respective pronunciations would be phonetically represented as [gɔd] and [go:d], as his example of the opposition between a short and a long “o.” But he pronounces the first word—that is, the one with the short vowel—as [go:d], with a long vowel, and the second one in a fashion that might be represented as [go:::d], with a vowel of such length as is unlikely to occur in unaffected speech in any language. His pronunciation of words from other languages, such as German, are also off the mark. So when he gives a reading of a text in the supposed pronunciation of Old or Middle English or Shakespeare’s English, I simply don’t trust him to get it right. In fact, Professor Lerer does not even reliably pronounce and use words of *modern* English correctly. He pronounces the word “misprision” as “misprison,” and then remarks that it is unrelated to the word “prison”—an error that would never even arise if he pronounced the word correctly (i.e., as [mɪsˈprɪʒən]; “-ision” pronounced just as in “incision” and “derision”). He says “homogenous,” which is a technical term in biology (“of, relating to, or derived from another individual of the same species”—Merriam-Webster), when he presumably means “homogeneous,” a completely different word that has five, not four syllables. Twice he uses the non-word “portentious”: I do not know if this is a mispronunciation of “portentous” or a conflation of the two words “portentous” and “pretentious” into a single portmanteau word, like “misunderestimated” and “flusterated.” He uses the word “dialectical” when he means “belonging to a dialect,” but the term for this in linguistics is “dialectal.” “Dialectical” is a term from logic that means “belonging to dialectic,” that is, the part of logic concerned with the opposition of arguments. He uses the term “homonymy” (which he pronounces awkwardly with stress on the first and fourth syllables instead of the second syllable, where scholarly usage places it) to talk about identically pronounced pairs of words, like “there” and “their.” But these are not *homonyms* at all, as they are words of entirely different origin, meaning, and spelling: they are only *homophones*. Professor Lerer has simply used the wrong word, and he persists in using it, thus spreading error instead of knowledge to the viewers of this course. Now to consider Professor Lerer’s performance as a teacher: Professors of literature, when writing or speaking to their peers, will often say things that are calculated to impress their readers or hearers with the speakers’ cleverness. Professors of literature who are effective teachers of undergraduates know that this sort of thing is largely worthless in the classroom. Beginning students are completely unimpressed, because they *assume* that you are clever: what they need to hear is something that they can *use*. Professor Lerer appears not to have learned this lesson. He uses much of his time constructing and elaborating metaphors that might fly well at an MLA conference but that do not provide typical viewers of this course with anything that they can use. For example, one of Professor Lerer’s mannerisms is his use of the phrase “if you will.” This is a phrase that academics in the humanities typically use in formally addressing colleagues when they want to assert something for which they lack compelling evidence. Professor Lerer uses it incessantly. When he is not saying “if you will,” he is saying “in other words.” It is a mode of speech that is “academic” in the worst sense: it betokens not a wealth of learning but mere professorial self-defense. A more substantive example is Professor Lerer’s treatment of a passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography in which Douglass recounts how he learned to write by copying italic letters in the spaces between the lines on which they were printed. Professor Lerer raises the question of why Douglass specifically mentions italic letters. A naive answer would be that Douglass mentions italic letters because those are the letters that he learned from; and he would naturally start with italic rather than roman letters because the italic letters are closer to the natural movements of handwriting and for that reason easier to copy. But Professor Lerer posits that Douglass cites italics because italics are used for emphasis and Douglass wants to give emphasis to what he is narrating. Now you may or may not find this a credible interpretation of the passage: what you cannot find in it is anything that is useful to you as someone learning about the history of English. If you were to use this nugget in conversation, you would come across as a pretentious twit. Once again, Professor Lerer is offering an exhibition of academic cleverness rather than useful instruction. Finally, as to Professor Lerer’s spoken delivery. The deliberate and emphatic mode of utterance that most lecturers reserve for the most important points is the way that he speaks all the time. I found this fatiguing to listen to. Professor Lerer’s gravelly voice recalls that of Dr. Marvin Monroe of the early episodes of *The Simpsons* (“I’m as sure of it as I’m sure that my voice is annoying!”). So just imagine Dr. Marvin Monroe lecturing to an audience of the hearing-impaired and you will have an idea of what it is like to listen to this course. This is certainly a worthwhile topic, and there is much that is to be learned from this course, but Professor Lerer is not reliable. He is out of his depth in linguistics, and is not entirely sure-footed even in ordinary English. A course on the history of English should be taught by a linguist. And anyone teaching one of these courses should know how to use and pronounce the words that he or she uses.
Date published: 2021-02-14
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Sixteen centuries ago a wave of settlers from northern Europe came to the British Isles speaking a mix of Germanic dialects. 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, and other great writers? And how does English continue develop today? The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition, is Professor Seth Lerer's revised and updated investigation of the remarkable history of English.


Seth Lerer

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


University of California, San Diego

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

By This Professor

Introduction to the Study of Language

01: Introduction to the Study of Language

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

32 min
The Historical Study of Language

02: The Historical Study of Language

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

30 min
Indo-European and the Prehistory of English

03: Indo-European and the Prehistory of English

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

28 min
Reconstructing Meaning and Sound

04: Reconstructing Meaning and Sound

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

30 min
Historical Linguistics and Studying Culture

05: Historical Linguistics and Studying Culture

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

30 min
The Beginnings of English

06: The Beginnings of English

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

30 min
The Old English Worldview

07: The Old English Worldview

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

30 min
Did the Normans Really Conquer English?

08: Did the Normans Really Conquer English?

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

30 min
What Did the Normans Do to English?

09: What Did the Normans Do to English?

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

30 min
Chaucer's English

10: Chaucer's English

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

30 min
Dialect Representations in Middle English

11: Dialect Representations in Middle English

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

30 min
Medieval Attitudes toward Language

12: Medieval Attitudes toward Language

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

30 min
The Return of English as a Standard

13: The Return of English as a Standard

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

31 min
The Great Vowel Shift and Modern English

14: The Great Vowel Shift and Modern English

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

30 min
The Expanding English Vocabulary

15: The Expanding English Vocabulary

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

30 min
Early Modern English Syntax and Grammar

16: Early Modern English Syntax and Grammar

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

29 min
Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English

17: Renaissance Attitudes toward Teaching English

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

31 min
Shakespeare-Drama, Grammar, Pronunciation

18: Shakespeare-Drama, Grammar, Pronunciation

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

30 min
Shakespeare-Poetry, Sound, Sense

19: Shakespeare-Poetry, Sound, Sense

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

31 min
The Bible in English

20: The Bible in English

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

30 min
Samuel Johnson and His Dictionary

21: Samuel Johnson and His Dictionary

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

31 min
New Standards in English

22: New Standards in English

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

30 min
Dictionaries and Word Histories

23: Dictionaries and Word Histories

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

32 min
Values, Words, and Modernity

24: Values, Words, and Modernity

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

32 min
The Beginnings of American English

25: The Beginnings of American English

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

32 min
American Language from Webster to Mencken

26: American Language from Webster to Mencken

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

31 min
American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln

27: American Rhetoric from Jefferson to Lincoln

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

31 min
The Language of the American Self

28: The Language of the American Self

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

30 min
American Regionalism

29: American Regionalism

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

30 min
American Dialects in Literature

30: American Dialects in Literature

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

31 min
The Impact of African-American English

31: The Impact of African-American English

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

33 min
An Anglophone World

32: An Anglophone World

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

32 min
The Language of Science

33: The Language of Science

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

32 min
The Science of Language

34: The Science of Language

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

30 min
Linguistics and Politics in Language Study

35: Linguistics and Politics in Language Study

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

30 min
Conclusions and Provocations

36: Conclusions and Provocations

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

30 min