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The Stories of English by David Crystal
The old joke about the ‘purity’ of the English language is that it is anything but pure — it has a distinct tendency to not only borrow words from other languages, but also on occasion to chase other languages down dark alleys, club them unconscious, and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. English is a constantly changing, constantly mutating language, and unlike many other languages there are certain facets of English spelling and grammar that make next to no sense to anyone attemping to learn the language. Forget about the irregular verb conjugations and peculiar plurals; students of English have to wrap their heads around the fact that enough, bough, through, and thorough can look very similar but sound entirely different. Sooner or later, the question tends to arise: how and why did the English language get so weird?
David Crystal’s The Stories of English makes a masterful attempt to answer that question, and in the process provides a history of English that is more engaging and fascinating than the history of a language almost has any right to be. He traces the history of English back through the history of the British Isles and weaves together the stories of the many groups of people who have left their mark on English over the centuries. The native Celtic languages; vernacular Latin and church Latin; the Saxon, Norse, Danish, and French of various invaders; the different tongues of the tradesmen who carried goods back and forth across the Channel, the independent development of native dialects and spellings — all of these affected the formation of English and left marks on the spoken and written forms of the language. And as English-speakers left the islands and travelled across the oceans, the language went with them and took on new dimensions: examples Crystal uses include American English, Australian English, and South African English. Crystal’s book is packed full of anecdotes and interludes that embellish his longer narrative, dipping into such wide-ranging topics as the creation of pat phrases like ‘last will and testament’, precisely what happened to the distinction between the formal and informal you (which many other languages have and English does not), and the classification of accents and speech markers as indications of good breeding. Even tricky explanations of complicated grammar patterns and nonstandard spellings are clear and straightforward (in plain English, even), and the chapters are short enough to make them easy to go back and reread them if you feel that you haven’t quite grasped his point or understood his meaning as well as you’d like.
One of the nicest features of The Stories of English, in my opinion, is that Crystal helpfully provides his readers with links to other, related sections of the book. If he happens to be discussing something that is related to a topic he has already covered or even has yet to mention, there will often be a parenthetical link to the appropriate page right there in the text. In a book that covers as vast and as complex a topic as the growth and development of the English language, these parenthetical links are an absolute godsend. Plus, they also offer a perfectly good excuse for skipping ahead if you really want to finish Crystal’s train of thought, or going back if you want to refresh your memory about a part you’ve already read.
The Stories of English isn’t just a book for linguists or literary historians. Anyone with even the most basic interest in why English is the way it is could benefit from flipping through the pages and seeing what’s inside. I constantly found myself stopping and shaking my head in wonder as I followed the different twists and turns in the development of the language. And best of all, I have to say, is the knowledge that the book doesn’t really end when you finish the last page. The stories of English are still being told, still changing and developing as more and more people use English as their primary language of communication. If you’re reading this book review on a computer screen, then you too are part of the newest chapter of one of the many stories…and best of all, no one really knows if or how these stories will ever end.