The Stories of English
by David Crystal
I write for a living, and I write in English. A history of the English language is of interest to me, because of this:I have wondered why a relatively new language like English has such complex grammar. True, we have just one word for "the," whereas the French have three (le, la, and les), and the Germans have 16 different grammatical situations that determine if der, die, or das is employed.
Thus I was pleased to receive "The Stories of English" as a Christmas present from my son. The title is unfortunate, for this book is a history, and I suppose in that manner tells the stories of how English came to be. And a complex story it is, hence the complexity of English grammar.
In short, English is what you get when you mix Norse (primarily from Denmark), Saxon (primarily from northern Germany), Norman (France,) and Celtic (from Ireland). Anglo is dog's breakfast. Curiously, the little Latin that is in English comes through Norman, even though England was occupied by the Roman army. (Anglo-Saxon can mean "England german.")
Mr Crystal's primary thesis is that slang is as important to English as is "proper speech." Normal usage encompasses local isms, formal speech, idioms, and more. He points out that the foreign speaker (politely called "an ESL speaker" -- english as a second language -- here in Canada) is easily identified through the use of consistently formal English. It may be correct usage, but it just don't sound right. Unknowingly, we mix idioms and correct speech; perhaps the best example is the weatherman, who can say, "Further outlook is for frequent showers over the next several days, so get yer brawlies out.
That ESL speakers have difficulty with English's infamous "th" becomes clear when you slowly pronounce two similar words:
-- THIN, the 'th' is pronounced with the tongue at the front and sides of the mouth.
-- THAT, along with the 'th', there is also a bit of an 'r' rolled in the throat, even though the word contains no 'r'.
Mr Crystal feels that the impact of idiom on language is often ignored by his fellow linguists, and so he incorporates it in this book. But it is also a history of the English language, from the earliest writing of around 500AD -- Old English -- through the Middle English of the Middle Ages, about 1000AD to 1500AD, and to today's Modern English.
Old English is unrecognizable to us, both in the alphabet and the spelling of words. If you are Scottish, you might recognize 'kirk,' which is Old English for 'church'. 'Mordor' is well-known from The Lord of the Rings, from which we get our word, 'murder.' (But the Old English mordor is a Cain-like murder, a secret killing of someone just because of who they are, and not what they've done.) Most other words are even less recognizable: in some areas of England, 'rood' meant 'cross'; in others, 'rode'.
While we emphasize word order, Old English used suffixes to indicate subject-object-verb. Linguist have a hard time with Old English, for it has only about three million written words; contrast that with the output of Charles Dickens: he alone wrote four million. Added to the relative rarity is the problem of errors made by scribes, and local dialects mixing up the spelling of words.
Middle English is merely the transition period from Old to Modern, and much of Middle English is recognizable to us, even if it appears odd. One question Mr Crystal asks is why French did not replace Anglo, when the French ruled the country following the Battle of Hastings in 1066? England was an occupied country,and so the French rulers did not mix with the English peasants. Any intermarriage tended to have an English wife, at whose feet the children learned their language. And the French speakers were outnumbered by about 1.5 million to 5-10 thousand. Just think: French could have become the universal working language of this world, instead of English.
Why does the Queen of English have her dialect? She avoids the guttural stop, something persons of prestige chose to avoid so as to distance themselves from regional speakers. Pronounce 'Gatwick' by stopping briefly after the 'a' to exclude the 't'. Pronounce it again, this time deliberately including the 't' -- and it sounds different. The first uses a guttural stop; the second is known as "Received Pronunciation" -- the Queen's English.
This book is interesting, but too detailed. Clearly, Mr Crystal loves his field of expertise, but the 584 pages could be easily given the Reader's Digest treatment with little loss. Thus, I found myself skimming the book, jumping past detailed comparisons of Old and Modern English.
Published by Allen Lane/Penguin Books in 2004
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