Friday, March 28, 2014

The Story of English in 100 Words

The Story of English in 100 Words by British linguist David Crystal is a fascinating and well-written book in an easy-to-read format. Each chapter deals with only one English word that Crystal thinks is very important and that explains something about the history of English and/or English-speaking countries. Crystal explores words in detail, in an almost archaeological manner.

Some of the words he discusses are roe, riddle, bone-house, pork, grammar, undeaf, bloody, billion, polite, trek, dude, schmooze, doublespeak, blurb, sudoku and chillax. As this list shows, the words come from different time periods (the 6th century up until today), different languages (Old Norse, Latin, Yiddish, Japanese, etc.) and different aspects of life (food, politics, science, slang, etc.). The history of English is broad and interesting.

Crystals book is different from other language books because he talks about the history of the language through individual words. Most language books either just tell the story of the language through the people (i.e. the Vikings came in this year and they changed the language like this…) or through just describing the important words; Crystal does both here, at the same time. He explains, among other things, that after 1066 in England, when the Normans came, “Anglo-Saxon words could not cope with the unfamiliar domains of expression introduced by the Normans, such as law, architecture, music and literature. People had no choice but to develop new varieties of expression, adopting continental models and adapting traditional genres to cope with the French way of doing things.” (p. xv) New words included chattels and dame.

Another good example of an interesting history is the word “hello”. Crystal writes, “It’s such a natural expression, used every day as a greeting. Surely this is one of those words which has been in the language for ever? In fact, its first recorded use is less than 200 years old.” (p. 163) During the 14th century, people said hal/hail, which meant be healthy. Then they started to say hallo, hella, hillo, hollo and hullo, but now it’s most often hello and sometimes hallo. But why? “The word was around in the early 1800s, but used very informally, often as part of street slang. The more formal usage seems to have emerged when the telephone was invented. People had to have a way of starting a conversation or letting the other person know they were there, especially if they were using a line where the connection was always open…Thomas Edison, the inventor of the telephone, evidently preferred Hello. This was the word he shouted into the mouthpiece of his device when he discovered a way of recording sound in 1877.” (p. 165) Technology has influenced the development of language in many ways.

Crystal has written many books on language, including about texting language, the Bible and language, Shakespeare’s language, and dialects, and his books are always fun and interesting. You can dip into The Story of English in 100 Words as you like and learn something new about English. It’s an enjoyable read.

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