Guest professor discusses future of humanities, changes in language over time

Posted on Sep 20 2017 - 9:32am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

Seth Lerer, distinguished professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, took the stage Monday evening in the Bondurant Auditorium to discuss how we can enliven the past by analyzing the way language has changed throughout history.

“The future of the humanities will be not just studying the past but making that past vivid – making it alive,” Lerer said. “The study of the history of language is not the study of laws. It’s not the study of sounds. It’s the study of people. It’s the study of individuals working, breathing and writing in times as challenging as our own.”

By studying language, he said, we can essentially understand the way individuals thought and perceived the world during that time period, and this is why we study literature.

Lerer said the most celebrated American authors are worthy of our time not because their writing is in our syllabi but because they were able to enrich literary construction of language by introducing new words and phrases.

“The history of the English language is not something that moves along a vectored trajectory – it is a constantly challenged, personalized phenomenon,” Lerer said. “As you read literature, I want you to pay attention to the ways in which our collection of authors is based on linguistic innovation.”

Lerer used Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel “The Naked and the Dead,” which conveyed the “flavor of the language in the military,” to explain how the introduction of new words can point to political or cultural events.

In the novel, Mailer uses the military vernacular in his characters’ dialogue and one of his characters says the word “man” in between clauses as a way to emphasize his meaning and engage with the listener.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Lerer said, the word “man” in this context is an African-Americanism, used only when writing about jazz and the African-American experience, so when Mailer used it in his novel, it represented the integration of language.

“Mailer’s use of the word ‘man’ in this way was the first recorded literary use of the word in the mouth of a character who is not African-American,” Mailer wrote. “The impact of this is that it takes a phrase readers would have recognized as limited to a specific community and makes it part of everyday language.”

“The English language in America had been integrated long before any American president had signed a piece of paper,” Lerer said. “This is what the English language shows us  – not necessarily the beauty and the light, not necessarily what we should be ardent about –  but that the history of our politics and the history of our passions are written in individual words.”

For this reason, Lerer does not think people should follow the grammatical standards of English because they inhibit the creation and fluidity of the development of language.

In response to a question from an audience member, Lerer said there is a blurry line between integration and appropriation and he is not sure where or how that line should be drawn.

“At different times, it may be seen as appropriation,” Lerer said. “Who is empowered to use that word changes all the time.”

Allison Burkette, associate professor of linguistics, and Mary Hayes, associate professor of English, invited Lerer to give a lecture because he contributed to the their edited volume, “Approaches to Teaching the History of the English Language: Pedagogy in Practice.”

Burkette said she thought the talk went well because Lerer is such an energetic and engaging speaker and is one of the finest modern scholars of English language studies.

“Personally, I like how his ideas are at once large and encompassing but are also applicable to smaller, local situations,” Burkette said. “He totally knows what he’s doing.”

Sophomore integrated marketing communications major Antoinette Collins said she feels a lot more knowledgable on the topic of the history of the English language after listening to Lerer’s lecture.

“He brought up some interesting points that I wouldn’t have even thought to consider,” Collins said.