Intrigued to hear someone speak on the future of reading, writing, and thinking, I took up my husbands’ offer to send me to the One Day University hosted by the Oregonian Media Group here in Portland on Saturday February 28th.
Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego, Prof. Seth Lerer walked us through a short history of the English Language including Old English, Middle English (Chaucer), Modern English (Shakespeare) and American English, with readings from each of the periods – intriguing and entertaining! It was fascinating to hear how “American English” started evolving away from “British English” the minute the colonists landed on our shores, and with the colonists geographically so far apart from each, different regional accents emerged.
Prof. Lerer quoted Noah Webster, in his introduction for ‘A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language’, the first true American Dictionary (1806). Webster stated that “American English language should reflect America – unique and exceptional as the continent”. I wasn’t able to write down all of the introduction read by Prof. Lerer, but Webster also was quoted saying that “American English can’t be regulated, just like the Mississippi River”. What a poetic and thoughtful reflection by Webster. His introduction is so relevant for current discussions about the English language. We can thank Webster for simplifying so many of the English words so they are easier to spell such as “honour” to “honor”, “potatoe” to “potato”.
It was really in the question and answer period that the future of reading, writing and thinking was addressed. Prof. Lerer worked to be as optimistic as possible, saying the language is an always-evolving object, as he had just shown us by taking us through the previous versions throughout the years, but he had to admit that he is not looking forward to having people publish their memoirs in a Tweet. He forecast that there will be many different English’s incorporating words from more distant languages as new, different cultures come to live in America. Reading is evolving from paper to digital, correspondence from a personal letter to a public exchange of information in Social Media and with what content? When one thinks about how the exchange of information has changed in our lifetimes, it can boggle one’s mind to look too far forward.
In researching Professor Lerer, I found that he has published some books, all of which received great reviews, that you may enjoy reading:
‘Inventing English, A Portable History of the Language’, for which he received an Honorable Mention—PSP Awards for Excellence in Literature, Language and Linguistics, Association of American Publishers
‘Prospero's Son - Life, Books, Love, and Theater’
‘Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History, from Aesop to Harry Potter’
Prof. Lerer gave a fascinating presentation, as did the other three presenters at the One Day University and I encourage you to attend the next one coming to Portland, Oregon on September 19, 2015.