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The Story of English by Robert McCrum

The Story of English (1986)

by Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil

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Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
Read the book, see the television series. No actually, skip the book and just see the thing on television. It's not bad..but for a story about the English language it could have been written more engagingly.. ( )
  nandadevi | Jul 22, 2015 |
An easy read which is fun for the language buff.
  kristena | Sep 5, 2014 |
Predominately a history of the English language, as the title promises, it also offers a fine selection of world history and provided me with some great tips on literature to pursue. I count myself lucky to have found and read a copy of the first edition from the mid-1980s. Later editions are of course more up-to-date (mine has never heard of the Internet), but only my original features the large number of colour photos and maps, etc. I found it very engaging in small doses: I'd read a chapter, read something else, then return. Sometimes it is clear this was published as a tie-in to a televised version, when there's a profile of a person, place or event that is really a digression but must have lent something visual to the program.

Chapter One of the first edition describes the 'current' state of English in the world, now a thirty-year-old snapshot. This is the chapter that was most in need of updating as it predates the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It amounts to a pep rally and contains some hubris: the argument that "my language gobbled up and absorbed elements of yours, while yours is infected with influence from mine" is entirely circular and a game of adjectives. It was interesting however to read about the use of English outside of traditionally English-speaking countries, and the context of that use.

Chapter Two is a very good overview of the successive waves of early influence on development of the language: Celts, Anglo Saxons, Christianity, Vikings and the French Normans. Essentially serves as an early history of England. Chaucer is introduced as the first major artist of Middle English after it evolved from Old English. I learned some interesting facts about common surname origins.

Chapter Three puts focus on the Elizabethan age, a golden age for English as it featured Shakespeare and the first English settlements in America. American English received a lot of early influence from other languages: French, native American, and especially Spanish.

Chapter Four corrected my naive misconception that Scots was its own language rather than a dialect. Tucked into this chapter is the story of the first English dictionaries. There's interesting contrast between Scots voluntarily giving way to standard English and what happened in the prior chapter, when English refused to give way to Norman French.

Chapter Five was the Irish story, a sadder one where the native language Irish Gaelic was overcome by English, and not because the Irish wished for it. The good news was that Irish brought much positive influence to English and this melding provided for heralded writers such as Keats and Joyce. Interesting to read about Newfoundland being a lasting haven for Irish Gaelic; I'd known their speech was unique in Canada but not made this connection.

Chapter Six addresses the influence of African languages on English, via pidgin/creole tongues. It follows the thesis that black English influenced white culture, but presents this as controversial in the American south. It was accomplished in large part through music. What I can't get past is the horrible choice of frontispiece - where it should be Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, or some other heralded writer as was done for previous chapters and those to come, in the first edition we get the propagation of a racist caricature.

Chapter Seven taught me that Noah Webster is largely to blame for the nuisance differences in British/American English. There's an interesting section on Canadian English I didn't entirely agree with, or perhaps it's just that old. The California gold rush lent itself to the surprising uniformity to American English during that country's rapid westward expansion.

Chapter Eight explores the cockney speech of east London, England and how this may have contributed to the modern English spoken in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Chapter Nine is a study of what new languages might possibly be born from English and how this could happen, taking examples from Jamaica, Sierra Leone, India and Singapore.

The epilogue is a nice wrap-up, highlighting modern journalists who continue to decry the manipulation and mutation of the language as they lay claim to some pure standard, in contrast with the book's thesis that language must evolve if it is to survive and no single clear standard for English really exists or can be objectively ranked superior. If I come across a later edition I think I would like to read this portion to see what different summation it makes in light of the electronic communications revolution, during which the medium has evolved even faster than the message. ( )
1 vote Cecrow | Apr 4, 2014 |
the colonial englishes were less interesting. the one on canada i didn't really agree with. ( )
  mahallett | Dec 3, 2013 |
Enjoyed it. Backs up the whole descriptive grammar movement. Read it only if you are really intrigued with the language. Otherwise, I'm sure this book could be rather dry. ( )
  TJWilson | Mar 29, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (61 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert McCrumprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cran, Williammain authorall editionsconfirmed
MacNeil, Robertmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises o prolong life to a thousand years, and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who, being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay...
--Dr. Samuel Johnson, from his Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755
A living langage is like a man suffering incessantly from small haemorrhages, and what it needs above all else is constant transactions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, that day it begins to die.
--H. L. Mencken, from The American Language, 1919
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"The English language", observed Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670804673, Hardcover)

Now revised, The Story of English is the first book to tell the whole story of the English language. Originally paired with a major PBS miniseries, this book presents a stimulating and comprehensive record of spoken and written English—from its Anglo-Saxon origins some two thousand years ago to the present day, when English is the dominant language of commerce and culture with more than one billion English speakers around the world. From Cockney, Scouse, and Scots to Gulla, Singlish, Franglais, and the latest African American slang, this sweeping history of the English language is the essential introduction for anyone who wants to know more about our common tongue.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:52 -0400)

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Library Journal: A tie-in for a nine-part television series to be broadcast over PBS beginning in September, this is a wide-ranging account of the travels and changes of the English tongue from its beginnings to tomorrow, from England to America to Australia to Africa and India and the Pacific. Despite an occasionally perceptible British bias, the authors have tried hard to paint a colorful, vivid picture of the many faces and varieties of English. The text is never dull, but is enlivened by innumerable examples and by interviews with representative individuals: a minister in Scotland, a couple from the Appalachians, a storekeeper in Newfoundland, a Philadelphia shoeshine man, a cockney fruitseller, an Australian farm family, the president of Sierra Leone, a writing professor in India. A readable book that all public libraries should have. BOMC alternate. Catherine V. von Schon, SUNY, Stony Brook.… (more)

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