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The Stories of English by David Crystal

The Stories of English (2004)

by David Crystal

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This is a manifesto for sociolinguistics disguised as a history of the English language, or possibly vice-versa...

In Crystal's view, a language is a form of agreed social behaviour, static neither in time nor in space, varying also according to the purpose for which it is being used at any given moment. Its history is the story of all the millions of people who've used it over the centuries. Unfortunately, only a tiny and unrepresentative proportion of their utterances have made any kind of retrievable mark on the historical record, so when we do historical linguistics we are likely to end up with a model of one particular form of the language, and there's a great temptation to identify Old English uniquely with the language of Beowulf, Middle English with the language of Chaucer and Early Modern English with the language of Shakespeare (for example). Crystal goes through the evidence again and shows us how weak that kind of assumption can be - as can the many others we make about language stability, about "correct" forms, about pronunciation, spelling, and grammar, and so on. Pedants watch out!

This is, as you would expect from Crystal, a lively read, never going deep into the sort of dry philological detail you find in something like the Cambridge History, but staying at the sort of level that would appeal to undergraduates and general readers. There wasn't a huge amount that was new to me, but I did get quite a few new insights from Crystal's way of looking at the evidence, so well worth a read, especially if you don't know much about the history of English. ( )
1 vote thorold | May 10, 2019 |
"The Stories of English" is a necessary, dense, well-researched volume by an expert who clearly has a true passion for the language and its variations. However, it has some clear advantages and some very clear flaws.

Crystal's mandate is clever and clear: provide a history of the evolution of the English language, with a particular eye to studying "non-standard English" in all its varieties. Changes to the language - be they merely regional slang, or international pidgin dialects - are too often forgotten, due to the fact that they rarely appear in surviving print documents, and Crystal wants to lift a light on the subject. We begin with a thorough examination of the growth of Early English, brought together by French, Latin, Anglo, Danish, and so on. Using extensive contemporary texts, Crystal analyses the development of the language, asking such questions as: why do some "loan words" overtake others?; why do some variations remain?; who has the right to decide which language is 'correct'?; and so on, and so forth. Gradually, he moves through Middle English, and into the Modern aspects of the language. Along the way, Crystal continues to provide lengthy excerpts from documents, and finds examples of how the 'non-standard' parts of the language arose, remained, and were treated by those on the 'right side' of English.

There are two particularly notable strengths to the book. The first is Crystal's true passion, which allows him to introduce a variety of texts from centuries ago, and make us feel intrigued by them. The second is his desire to expose the fallacies of those who believe English has exact rules, and should remain within its confines. From the earliest surviving texts, he finds examples of whiners - whether it be those who believe no French or Latin words should be included, or those who are terrified of ending sentences with prepositions - and explains where these mistaken beliefs came from. Crystal doesn't write everything off (he understands, after all, where they come from), but strives to show that strictness for strictness' sake is ridiculous.

However, the book is far from perfect. First of all, despite the claims in the blurb, Crystal's style is often dry and academic. Fair enough, this was never going to be "Gone with the Wind". But particularly in the early chapters, when the subject is six-hundred-year old manuscripts, and the variations of individual letters, it would've been promising to have a slightly more witty tour guide. And, while the first two-thirds of the story are comprehensive, the final third largely covers UK-specific English. There is one fascinating if dry chapter on the development of English throughout the world, but it's quite limited. Again, I understand the need for this, and it actually helps support Crystal's argument that much non-standard English, both on a historical and on a global standpoint, is under-researched, but - to a non-UK reader - things did become a bit specific toward the end.

Crystal has one other adorable but infuriating quirk. He's inclined to make witty - or at least clever - jokes and puns without prior explanation. On several occasions, however, the explanation is so obscure that he's forced to provide an endnote to his explanation of his own witticism. In these cases, he really could've done with just setting up the joke in the main body of the text, as I'd imagine most readers would have had to utilise these endnotes often!

All in all, I'm glad to have read this book. I picked up a lot of fascinating new information, and many of the excerpts were utterly astounding in what they exposed about the lives of our ancestors. At the same time, it never quite found the perfect balance between "popular science" and academia. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 30, 2018 |
A vast info-dump. It reads like the production of a privately-printing seventeenth-century antiquary who has written down many thing that interest him and has had no publishers telling him to remember consumer demographics or to keep it under three hundred pages. Which is not to say that it's a mess, it's not, but arranged chronologically and squeezed in to chapters. But there's a definite sense of spread caused, I think, by the astounding levels of detail. Crystal hates sweeping statements and you'll suddenly realise you're reading about the variant spellings of 'man' in Cotton Aug.ii.64.

Another thing Crystal hates is snobbery. This is a theme that has run through all the books of his that I've read. The thought that one person's English is better than another's makes him bilious and he denigrates histories that provide an over-simplified narrative at the expense of regional forms. Having read one or two of those histories I have to agree with him, but those readings being now some time in the past I could have done with something to reorient myself to the timeline. If you're looking for a straight-forward history of English this is not that book. Look, if you're sitting there with your ignorance in one hand and this book in the other then read the book. You'll love it. It's brilliant. If you know literally nothing bout the history of English and you're looking for a heads-up history read one of those, it doesn't matter which one, and then read this. ( )
  Lukerik | Jul 29, 2018 |
I wasn't as into the last few chapters, but there are just so many interesting details in the rest of the book that I'm giving it five stars. Maybe Standard English just isn't that interesting?

Oh, and for anyone that I haven't told yet, William Caxton had an assistant called Wynkyn de Worde. Hwat?! ( )
  natcontrary | May 21, 2018 |
A beautiful set of anecdotes of how we got from Old English to World Englishes, with all the side shows along the way. ( )
  cjrecordvt | Aug 13, 2016 |
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A history of the English language draws on the diversity of dialects and regional accents around the world, as well as the dialects that appear in a variety of literary classics, to explain the significance of the language.

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