‘History of the English Language’ Book Review

Mount Readmore Book Review, 2017 75/100


History of the English Language By Seth Lerer

Audiobook edition, Narrated by Seth Lerer

Finished on 8/8/2017


Description: 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.

Genres: History, English, Language

From Indo-European to Gullah, this is a complete overview of English.

Spoiler-tastic review

This is my second re-read book for the year, and I am totally glad that I’m listening to it again.

Seth Lerer takes provides a historical, grammatical, intellectual and pronunciation-focused perspective of the English language. He covers topics from Shakespeare to the Great Vowel Shift to French/English politics during the Norman Invasion. The lectures are 18 and a half hours long, so this is a meaty series of lectures even if you set your device to play the audiobook extra fast.

Personally I liked the anthropological perspective the author turned towards the English language. By studying the family tree of Indo-European languages Lerer showed how our ancestors spread across the world, and how their languages changed as they moved around. The word ‘snow,’ for example, was highly conserved in all derivative languages (‘snow’ in Enlish, ‘sneeuw’ in Dutch, ‘snu’ in Sanskrit (snu means ‘top of a mountain’)). After that I liked his explanation of how Old English became Middle English, and then finally Modern English.

Overall, this was a fun read and I would highly recommend the entire thing.

Stay Sunny!


Audiobook notes: Ready by the author, and how! As you can expect, the author has very good pronunciation skills, and never slurred his words at all. One of the best audiobooks in terms of audio quality I’ve ever had the joy to listen to.

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