Wednesday , February 28 2024
I had no idea that linguistics could be so fun.

Book Review: The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal

David Crystal’s status as an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales hardly does justice to his accomplishments in the field. He was also awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1995 for his services in the study of the English language, and has written a number of books on the subject as well. These honors and qualifications are all well and good of course, but I believe that they should be secondary to what he has achieved with his new book The Story of English in 100 Words. The book provides one of the most interesting looks at social history I have read in a long time, done up in the guise of a study of just 100 words.

The first thing I wondered was just how would it be possible to study an entire language using only 100 words? And what words would be chosen? The professor put my questions to rest immediately with the first word, “Roe.” The entry for “Roe” provides an excellent example of what makes this book so interesting, and so enjoyable for the layman.

The word “Roe” has been deemed the first English word, and is traced back to the fifth century. It was not “discovered” until 1929 however, and Crystal’s account of the story behind this discovery is what I found so engaging. In 1929, a group of RAF airmen took pictures of the ancient Roman town of Venta Icenorum. When the photographs were developed, they were able to make out the original street plan, which lies underneath a field.

Archaeologists then went to work excavating the field, and happened upon a forgotten cemetery. At the burial site, they discovered a number of urns, which contained various objects, including what turned out to be a bone from a roe-deer. On the bone were carved six letters. The letters were in Latin, and spelled “RAIHAN.” Through deductive reasoning, the consensus was that this word mutated over the years to “roe,” and thus qualifies as the earliest known usage of an English word.

The 100 words Crystal chose are presented chronologically, and the first 50 bring us up to the 17th century. The 13th word is “English,” and dates to the tenth century. In the entry for “English,” Crystal explains that much of what we know about the early history of Britain comes from The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in Latin by the Northumbrian monk Bede. In it, he tells of how in the fifth century “three of the most powerful nations of Germany –Saxons, Angles, and Jutes” – arrived in the British Isles.

It is from these that the term Anglo-Saxon is derived. In time, “Angle” became “Engle,” and the “Engle-ish” people inhabited the “Engle-land.” As Crystal notes, with a study such as this, exact dates are not really possible, so educated guesses will have to do. “English” came before “England” though, and is thought to have become the accepted form during the years of the tenth century.

Although the book is written chronologically, it is not really necessary to read it that way. Each chapter is a short, self-contained account of the word at hand. I found myself skipping around to words that intrigued me, and the first of these was “LOL.” Actually, I found it a little hard to believe that the professor had included this one, and jumped to it immediately.

In the headings, each word is given a brief sub-head. For “LOL,” Crystal calls it “netspeak,” and dates it to the 20th century. The professor hits the nail on the head with his opening sentence about it, “When LOL first appeared on computer screens and mobile phone screens, it caused not a little confusion,” he writes. I agree as I had no idea what it meant when I first came across it. He says that it was used for both “lots of love,” and for what it has settled in as, “laughing out loud.”

Crystal uses “LOL” as a bit of a jumping-off point to discuss abbreviations in general. We think of these as becoming popular with the arrival of text-messaging in the late ‘90s, but he finds examples of it tracing all the way back to 1875. He has even found them used in this fashion by the author Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria.

A few more of the surprising, recent words that Crystal has devoted entries to include, “Muggle,” “Chillax,” and “Unfriend.” Interesting, and amusing, as are all of the chapters in this book. The final word is “Twittersphere,” sub-headed as “future directions?” Once again, he uses a word to represent a whole body of them. In this case, they are new words which begin with “tw.” There are plenty, including “twictionary,” “twendy,” and “twaffic.” Crystal does not really see a long linguistic life for these, and cites the variations of “blog” as a precedent. The “blogosphere” had its “blogoholics” and often engaged in “bloggerel,” but today? Not so much.

I found The Story of English in 100 Words to be one of the most enjoyable and entertaining studies of the language I have ever read. Each entry is bite-sized, which makes it perfect for reading while killing a little time doing whatever it is you are doing. I took it with me to the DMV the other day, and it most assuredly helped me through that interminable wait. Crystal’s style is highly engaging, and the stories behind these words are often fascinating.

There is plenty of information here, but do not be put off at all by the prospect of it being too scholarly. One of the best things about this book is that it is written for the layman, despite the author’s impressive credentials. After reading The Story of English, I must say that I had no idea that linguistics could be so fun. Crystal’s tone is pitch-perfect, and this is a book that should appeal to just about everyone I know. In a word, “brilliant.”

About Greg Barbrick

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