The Stories of English

By David Crystal

August 7th, 2008

I love David Crystal's writings on language, and so I snapped this one up the minute I saw it. The message of this somewhat long book is simple: there is no such thing as "correct English". There are and always have been numerous dialects of English, and although some dialects may have been more popular with powerful people, there is simply no objective way to declare any dialect superior to any other.

The book follows a straightforward historical narrative, starting with the earliest origins of English and working forwards. I found the earliest chapters the most interesting and the appeal of the book steadily diminished the closer I came to modern times. I suspect, however, that this reflects my own tastes rather than the merits of the book. Along the way, there were some nice landmarks; the most useful of these is the comparison table showing how the Great Vowel Shift that took place around 1400 CE. For example, the word
time would have been pronounced like modern teem, old style fame was pronounced like new style farm, and old style so was pronounced like new style saw

You may have learned that Shakespeare was the most prolific (actually, most
successfully prolific) of English creators of new words. But there were plenty of also-rans: Thomas Nashe with 800 attributions (most now forgotten, such as discernance and chatmate (somebody to gossip with). Edward Spenser (500 words) got jovial into the English vocabulary but not jolliment. Sir Philip Syndey (400 words) gave us refreshing and bookishness, but hangworthy never quite caught on. John Marston gave us 200 words, including discursive, downcast, pathetic, petulant, and yawn.

What you learn from a book depends entirely upon the state of your mind when you read it, and much of the ground for this book had already been prepared by my readings of his other works. Nevertheless, I managed to learn at a deeper level why there really is no such thing as "proper" English – there are just the opinions of its speakers. In the end, a language serves the purpose of communication, and those who disparage understandable but "improper" forms of language are just snobs.

All in all, The Stories of English is a pleasant read, packed with well-written erudition and good sense, especially in its condemnation of usages that aren't considered "proper" but are nevertheless perfectly understandable. I still bristle at double negatives, dangling prepositions, and unconjugated forms of 'to be' – but I'm learning.