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Inventing English

This article is more than 15 years old.

Evelyn Waugh called the English language a "potent intoxicant." It didn't get that way by accident. From Beowulf to Eminem, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Mark Twain and FDR and Elvis, English has been a wild communal project.

Loaded with earthy German and sensual French, demanding Latin, and hints of Arabic, English has been propelled by individual creative voices, and the way they heard and shaped the words in our mouths.

Stanford professor Seth Lerer has plunged into the invention of English, and come out with a great tale.

This hour On Point: the history of English, from Beowulf to Eminem.

Quotes from the Show:

"A language is made by the people who speak it. It's a form of social behavior. The history of the English language shows us the way in which English is a product of languages and dialects and contact, imagination, and cultural and social experience." Seth Lerer

"You can say that languages are made rather than born because they're constantly changing in the ways in which the speakers encounter new things, new peoples, new ideas." Seth Lerer

"What I want to stress is that you can hear words from old English that are still in modern English." Seth Lerer

"Shakespeare is a greater coiner of terms." Seth Lerer

"Mark Twain is the first person to use the words 'dude' and 'hello'." Seth Lerer


Seth Lerer, English and Comparative Literature professor at Stanford and author of "Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language"

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly

This program aired on April 12, 2007.


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