Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Book 2 of 2014: The Stories of English by David Crystal

Way back in 2010 when I decided to study my first linguistics module with the Open University I found myself looking out for books about words and language. It’s something that had always interested me but I’ve never been particularly big on reading non-fiction books once I grew out of the Horrible Histories series so I never bothered picking up books even if the subject matter appealed to me. Studying the U211 module gave me the excuse I needed to start looking at some of those books I’d previously ignored.

One of those books happened to jump out at me in a charity shop. I’ll admit, I totally judged this book by its cover. Something about the title The Stories of English grabbed my attention and I knew I had to buy it. At the time I didn’t know who David Crystal was, or that it was going to crop up an awful lot in my course as he’s a leading linguist. During the two linguistics courses that I studied I would occasionally dip into this book for a reference during an essay, but I never actually sat down to read it.

Until this January that is.

Predictably, I found it really interesting. The kind of interesting that people who don’t share quite the same level of interest in a subject as you do don’t really get. I’m sure Mr Click and my colleagues were frequently baffled by my mini-dissertations on the history of particular aspects of the English language.

This book really is about the history of the English language, though as Crystal points out, technically it’s the stories not story of English. It’s a language which is taken away from its country of origin, changed and modified, then brought back again to find that it doesn’t necessarily fit back exactly where it left (kind of like what happens when you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle and you drop a bit in your orange juice). It’s also a language which borrows from other people and countries; the odd word here, a random phrase there, a whole group of words to do with a particular subject from someplace else. As a result of that the language evolves in lots of directions simultaneously, hence stories.

The way the book is organised is good, but not totally flawless. I love the fact that it goes right back to the earliest possible point and then works forward, with little boxes containing additional bits of information inserted into the main text. The information in these boxes is handy; stuff like where the boundaries between different areas were at a certain point in history, or giving examples of different translations of parts of the Bible. But I also found them a little bit distracting at times. It’s a silly complaint but sometimes you’d get one in the middle of a sentence during a page break that meant you had to sort of jump back and forth in your reading.

There were also main chapters with little sub-chapters right after them which usually elaborated on some point from the main chapter. I liked the way this was done. I especially liked that the one dealing with dialect was followed up by a discussion of how Tolkien used dialect in his writing. Considering Tolkien’s philological work it was nice to see him acknowledged in that way.

I wouldn’t say that this was an easy read. There was an awful lot of ground covered in these 584 pages. Although I enjoyed reading it, it did take me over a fortnight to get through. I do think that I benefited from reading it from beginning to end though, there was so much I was missing out on by just dipping into it in the past. I think if I was to read this again in the future, I’d make a point to read a fiction book alongside it, just because it’s a bit heavy going to just read for enjoyment; even when it is a subject that fascinates me.

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