Archive for the ‘grammatica’ Category

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English as a Global Language by David Crystal

16 June 2009

Cambridge University Press’s Canto imprint has published paperback editions of many excellent works, including several books reviewed on this blog. British linguist David Crystal has been writing and commenting on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written several years before these books — it was first published in 1997 — and focuses on a much narrow scope.

English as a Global Language by David Crystal

The spread of English as a language has prompted much handwringing from most anyone who cares to comment on the matter, whether in support of a still more global role for English or in concern about the effects that the widespread use of English has had on other languages. In the preface to English as a Global Language, David Crystal states that this idea for this book came about as a project for U.S. English, an organisation that campaigns to make English the official language of the United States. The organisation was interested in a short, factual (and politically unbiased) account of how English came to be such a commonly used language, and because Crystal could not find a book that suited this request he decided to research and write one himself. The book, as he puts it, poses and addresses the following three questions: (1) What makes a world language?; (2) Why is English the leading candidate? and (3) Will it continue to hold this position? Rather than immediately coming down on any particular side of the current debate over the promise (or threat) of English as a global language, Crystal chooses to present an overview of the debate, showing its origins and flashpoints, and expresses a few thoughts on the possible futures of English as it is spoken and written worldwide.

English as a Global Language‘s brief introduction to the concept of a ‘global language’ opens with a simple statement: the spread of language is directly linked to the political (and accompanying military and economic) power of those who speak a particular language. Different spoken and written languages have taken it in turn to become dominant in certain spheres of influence, such as Greek in the days of Alexander the Great, Latin from Roman times through the Renaissance, and Russian in many Eastern European countries during the Cold War. One only need look at the most commonly taught second languages in primary and secondary schools to gain an idea of what languages might be contending for dominance in a particular area at any given time. Crystal takes this introduction a step further by providing a basic history of the spread of the English language around the world, hand in hand with the British Empire, and includes a lengthy table of countries to show where English is spoken as either a first or second language. He also gives short histories of areas of international communication in which English plays a dominant role, such as the very basic, standardised English that air and maritime traffic controllers use to issue instructions and warnings to airplanes in flight and ships at sea; the prevalence of English translations on road signs and maps; and, of course, the vastness of the English-languages offerings available on the Internet. However, he points out that there is no particular linguistic reason why English should remain the global language — and that as the language evolves and gains more native and second-language speakers, the ‘global’ English that eventually may be spoken by people around the world may bear little resemblance to the English we hear today, requiring even native English speakers to be ‘bilingual’ in their own mother tongue.

Readers who might accuse Crystal of taking the easy way out by seemingly refusing to engage in the ongoing debate will be cheered to know that this book is by no means his only contribution to the discussion of the problems of English as a global language. His book Language Death (2002), also available under the Canto imprint, is far more urgent in its call for countries (and even individuals) to be proactive and think on a long-term basis about the kinds of language policies and programmes that are worth supporting in the name of maintaining linguistic diversity. English as a Global Language merely attempts to establish a base point for future discussion; it is by no means the only book that one should read to gain a better understanding of the complexities of English’s place in an international setting.

(Other works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.)

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The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left by David Crystal

21 October 2008

I have read the Lynne Truss book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but even though I often agreed with the points she made I found her general tone to be rather obnoxious and off-putting. I enjoyed the following book far more.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left by David Crystal

David Crystal is no stranger to the peculiarities of the English language. He has written or collaborated on several books about the history and development of English as a language, including the very comprehensive The Stories of English and the 2005 Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. And as someone who has spent quite a bit of time pondering the English language and charting its evolution, he is both intrigued and deeply disappointed by the popularity of books such as Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which its author touts as the ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to punctuation. As he remarks, ‘Zero tolerance? That is the language of crime prevention and political extremism. Are we really comfortable with the recommendation that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?‘ To try to understand the origins of this recent trend in linguistic intolerance, Crystal decided to look into the history of the fight over English usage, the battles that pit the self-proclaimed defenders of ‘proper English’ against those who (for one reason or another) were not exactly prepared to impale themselves upon an upturned semi-colon. The product of that study is The Fight for English, a book that turns an understanding and occasionally sympathetic but nonetheless critical eye on the idea of linguistic fundamentalism.

As Crystal relates, the fight for English is by no means a thing of the recent past; it is almost as old as the language itself. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, are peppered with instances of educated people mocking the speech of the uneducated, and vice versa, with both sides claiming that the other has no real understanding of how English works. Over the centuries, various waves of invasion and the steady rise in cross-Channel trade continually brought new words into the English language and sparked arguments over whether these words were proper additions to the language. Revisions in spelling conventions, often carried out by those who wanted to make English words more closely resemble their ancient origins (as in the silent ‘b’ in ‘debt’, to match the Latin debitum), ran into resistance from those who preferred to spell words as they were commonly pronounced — often with regional dialect variations. As a result, the English language was already a confusing jumble by the time the printing press arrived in England, and the rise of print culture, the expansion of literacy, and the sheer amount of printed material produced prompted further calls for standardisation. Various language authorities, including John Hart in the mid-sixteenth century and Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, pleaded with fellow members of the literary elite to follow particular ‘accepted’ spelling and punctuation styles. Grammar books, mostly based on the Latin grammars that were beaten into English schoolboys’ heads, sought to enforce some sort of order and regularity on a frequently irregular language. As English spread across the Atlantic Ocean, new variations in spelling and punctuation sprang up that continue to cause confusion to this day. And still the language debates continue, with periodic squabbles over comma usage and the best location for quotation marks at the end of sentences…up to the present day, when educators bemoan the rise of netspeak and self-identified language authorities (like Lynne Truss) can find a lucrative audience for their zero-tolerance guides.

Crystal’s linguistic history is lucid, fast-paced, and entertaining, but toward the end of the book The Fight for English starts to dissolve into a rambling authorial attempt to defend himself against the ‘pedants’ who criticise him for having too much of an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards the English language for their liking. One can readily agree that the zero-tolerance mindset is often counterproductive — the very phrase ‘grammar Nazi’ is proof of that, if nothing else. It also tends to breed the sort of tiresome Internet flamewars involving scathing critiques of the original poster’s spelling or grammar in lieu of an actual rebuttal to what the poster wrote. (Is there a Godwin’s Law for grammar Nazis?) Yet it is equally true that attention to the finer points of English grammar, spelling, and punctuation improves the clarity and readability of ideas, reducing ambiguity and suggesting that the writer has taken the time and effort to write well. Arguing over these standards forces us to continuously evaluate the English language and to be conscious of how it is changing — in short, to be more self-critical and aware of what our words and our usage standards convey to others. If, as Crystal claims, the language fundamentalists are useful because they define one end of the tolerance spectrum, then they are also useful because they keep the debate going on some level. At the risk of making an overly Orwellian metaphor, the fight for English will only be truly won when we all use Newspeak — and most any kind of debate would be preferable to that alternative.

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Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

21 September 2008

I’ve had this book on my Current Reading List for quite a while now, so I’m glad to finally post this review.

Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

It is something of a truism to say that the English language is a constantly evolving language, one that flourishes by borrowing words from other languages, mashing two or more words together, or developing entirely new words from fragments of existing ones. This linguistic flexibility is part of what makes the English language so complicated, even for native speakers — particularly when it seems that the same word has any number of distinct meanings, depending on the context. A word like ‘wit’ or ‘wits’, for instance, can mean ‘sanity’ (‘I was nearly scared out of my wits when that car backfired!‘) or ‘intelligence’ (‘do credit me with having some wit here‘) or ‘amusing cleverness’ (‘he’s quite witty once you start talking to him‘) or even ‘a person skilled in humourous repartee’ (‘Oscar Wilde was a notable wit‘). With these subtle shades of meaning, it is not always easy to determine how these meanings developed over time and where and how new definitions slipped into everyday use. C.S. Lewis, who spent many years teaching medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, found that even his more perceptive and intelligent students often grasped the wrong meaning of certain words because the author’s definitions (in the context of the work) were ever-so-slightly different than the meanings that the students expected to find. To address this confusion, Lewis began to delve into linguistic scholarship, attempting to trace the development of particular words with deceptively complicated origins. The result of his labours was Studies in Words, a set of essays about nine different English words (and one turn of phrase) that looks into the history of these words and explores how their meanings and uses have changed over time.

The words that Lewis chose to examine in Studies in Words seem rather ordinary at the outset, but a bit of careful probing reveals intricacies of meaning that are often so minute that native English speakers scarcely think about them in everyday speech and often misunderstand them when attempting to be more formal in speech or writing. A word like ‘simple’ seems a good deal less simple after Lewis has picked it apart from its origins in the term simplex, or something akin to an unfolded sheet of paper. Words like ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’, for instance, are tied up in complicated notions about being privy to information or knowing something within oneself, usually something that is supposed to be kept secret. Through linguistic leaps and bounds from this original meaning, we have created the idea of a ‘guilty conscience’ — not a conscience that is guilty in itself, but a conscience that makes you feel guilty for something you did or did not do. These examples are only two of the words explored in the book; others include ‘free’, ‘sad’, ‘world’, ‘nature’, and even the phrase ‘I dare say’ (which seems to have fallen out of favour in contemporary English). Two shorter chapters serve as bookends to the text, an introduction that sets out Lewis’s reasons for looking into this collection of words and a conclusion that examines the role that emotions and mental images often play in changing the nature and use of various words.

Studies in Words is as much a work of literary history as it is an extended study of linguistic development. Lewis supports his analysis with examples that range from ancient Greek and Roman texts and the classic works of Chaucer and Shakespeare to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. The essays are not difficult to follow, but they do demand a certain level of attention to detail and a willingness to go back and reread an essay from the beginning if you fear that you are starting to lose the thread of Lewis’s argument. Most anyone with an interest in etymology, the history of language development, or literary history will find much to enjoy in Studies in Words — particularly as a refreshing look at a phenomenon best illustrated by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

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Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley

23 October 2007

I was quite surprised to see the response to my last language-related post. I doubt I’ll get the same reaction for this one, but it’s as interesting a book as the other one was.

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley

Most books that deal with threatened or extinct languages set out from the start to demonise English. I’ve seen the words ‘parasitical’, ‘pernicious’, and ‘malignant’ used to describe the effect of the English language on other languages in the world. Mark Albey’s book does point to the spread and popularity of English as a significant factor in the decline of many languages, but instead of simply lamenting the loss of some of the world’s more complex tongues, he takes the time to go to places in the world where languages that were threatened with dying out have made a comeback, or are trying to make a comeback. And more importantly, he attempts to analyse the success stories, and see if there are ways that techniques used by revitalised language-speakers can be harnessed to save languages that have not been so fortunate in the past few decades.

In Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Abley travels to remote villages in Australia and the American Southwest, to the Isle of Man and to the south of France and to the Caucasus mountains in search of languages that are struggling against extinction. As well as indigenous languages, he also explores the languages of immigrant communities, most notably when he interviews a group of Yiddish speakers in his native Canada. And arguably the best parts of the book are the parts where he speaks about the languages themselves, describing patterns of speech and turns of phrase that would sound unutterably alien to a native English speaker but which are extremely revealing about a language’s history and its ties to the culture in which the language developed.

All in all, Abley argues, it is the linguistic ties to culture that makes the preservation of languages so important. The subject-verb-object structure of English says quite a bit about the importance of the self/subject to an English speaker, but what can be inferred about culture from a language where the subject appears in the middle of the verb, or where verbs can exist without separate subjects, or where the concept of both subject and verb don’t really exist in that language? Spoken Here is a travel book and a linguistics book combined, and the combination works well enough to make it worth looking at.

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English-Only Europe? Challenging Language Policy by Robert Phillipson

4 October 2007

Considering that I’ve studied quite a bit of European Union history, it surprised me to look back through the reviews I’ve written and find that I haven’t really posted many reviews for the books I’ve read on that subject. Here’s one of them, at least.

English-Only Europe? Challenging Language Policy by Robert Phillipson

It is no secret that over the course of the last century, English has gradually replaced French as the international language of diplomacy and business and even general conversation. One might say that the path to English-language dominance began shortly after the end of World War I, when English and French were used as the official languages of the peace negotiations at Versailles. But with about 20 official languages used in the institutions of the European Union — not to mention the scores of other languages commonly spoken in Europe today — the predominance of the English language has caused no small amount of controversy amongst EU member states. Language is an extremely sensitive subject across the board in Europe, intricately tied to national and regional identities and never far out of the forefront of political and social debate. And while many people in Europe can converse or do business in languages that are not their native tongue, language policy in the European Union is far from cohesive…or even, at times, coherent.

Robert Phillipson is a research professor in the English department of one of Denmark’s largest business schools. His book, English-Only Europe?, examines current EU language policies and makes a fairly convincing argument for the EU to take a more active approach to safeguarding a multilingual Europe into the coming century. The book examines the dangers of leaving general language policy up to individual countries, as well as the problems of merely adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward languages and expecting them to look after themselves. By looking at statistics on language use and language learning both inside and outside the EU, Phillipson considers a wide range of options for creating a more forward-looking set of language policies. Granted, I found some of his ideas a little peculiar — one example being his push for the use of Esperanto as a pivot language in intra-EU communications. Yet most of his suggestions make perfect sense to me: do more to promote and encourage the study of foreign languages and foreign study on all educational levels from pre-primary through post-secondary, look more closely at how non-EU countries manage their language policies (Phillipson mentions Canada and South Africa in this context, as countries worthy of closer study), along with other ideas and suggestions that encourage the learning of another language as a key to better understanding one’s native tongue. And as a native English speaker myself, I am very thankful that Phillipson does not make the critical mistake of completely demonising English, or regarding it as some horrible destructive force that should be feared and shunned in favour of a narrow, insular focus on language defence. The prospect of an ‘English-only Europe’ is not a pleasant one, or one that I would ever like to see come to pass, but the blame cannot be placed solely on the English language and its speakers. A more active and positive approach to the study of other languages has the potential to preserve European multilingualism on all levels — and that multilingualism may very well be one of Europe’s greatest assets in this new, information-driven century.

Reading about language policy is not, I will admit, the most thrilling or engrossing means of spending one’s time unless it happens to be your particular field of study. (It’s only tangentially related to mine.) Phillipson nonetheless does an excellent job of keeping his study in plain English, as the saying goes, and not going off on unrelated tangents or throwing in anecdotes that add nothing to the discussion. I’ve looked through books that make points similar to his in language that appears to be twice as complicated and ten times as unreadable. On the whole, anyone who might be interested in the politics of language and how these kind of politics affect international cooperation might find English-Only Europe? worth investigating.

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The Stories of English by David Crystal

25 September 2007

A quick note for readers who happen to come across this post in future — don’t hesitate to leave a comment on my reviews, even if you happen to be coming across a review some time after I originally posted it. I do like hearing what other people think of my book reviews…if for no other reason than the fact that it helps me learn how I can write better ones. Thanks for reading!

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.

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The King’s English by H.W. and F.G. Fowler

17 September 2007

Today’s book is a delightful romp through the fields of English grammar and syntax.

If that hasn’t put you off already, feel free to keep reading.

The King’s English by H.W. and F.G. Fowler

In 1906, Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler published a book that began with following declaration:

Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

A simple and sensible-sounding statement, true, and a fitting introduction to the Fowler brothers’ complex and often contentious study of ‘the King’s English’ — perhaps the earliest style guide to good writing practices. And the recent Oxford University Press reprint of the original 1906 edition, with a few notes from later editions and a sparkling introduction by Matthew Parris, is a witty and welcome reminder of where the ever-changing English language has been and a hint of where it is likely to go.

Recent commentaries on the state of the English language have left me rather underwhelmed. I don’t have many good things to say about Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, for instance, mainly because I found her authorial voice to be snide and more than a little off-putting. By contrast, the Fowler brothers manage to maintain a tone that usually stays on the side of gentle but pointed correction, as they quote example sentences and passages from newspaper articles and the works of popular authors (Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Eliot) and show how certain grammatical mistakes are common but nonetheless avoidable with a little rewriting and careful attention to detail. Along the way, they delve into facets of the English language that have all but fallen out of use today — there’s a lengthy section on the proper placement, conjugation, and uses of shall and will, for instance. And as might be expected from a book that is more than a century old, quite a few of the style choices that the Fowler brothers regarded as ‘vulgarisms’ or other forms of improper grammar in 1906 have become standard and conventional forms in acceptable writing today. Yet the emphasis throughout The King’s English is on the overall improvement of writing style and expression by eliminating or rewriting cliched turns of phrase, malapropisms, misused metaphors or quotations, stilted syntax…in general, the hallmarks of a lazy writer.

Nearly twenty years later, Henry Fowler would write A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the style guide that would simply be known as Fowler’s and would set the tone for future style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style. In that context, comparing The King’s English to Fowler’s is like comparing a writing textbook to a style guide. Both will likely tell you what you need to know and refresh your memory if you have questions on proper use and usage, but the former is better for study and the latter is better for reference. Regardless, both volumes have a place of honour on this editor’s bookshelf.