The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

There’s a bit of trend right now of explaining complex and lengthy topics using a specific number of short examples. I was first aware of it from “A History of the World in 100 Objects” where one of the British Museum curators picked 100 items from the BM’s collection that he felt best represented the scope of world history. (It’s a great podcast, and I learned a lot about non-European history while listening to it. It’s still available for download from the BBC, too.) Since then, I’ve seen several other “history of x in x objects” things, including a podcast called “Shakespeare’s Restless World” which is basically “The History of Shakespeare’s London in 20 Objects” or however long it ends up being.

And there’s this, The Story of English in 100 Words, which basically does the same thing as AHOTW, but with the English language in place of world history and with words instead of objects. David Crystal starts at the very beginning – or one of the recorded beginnings – of language in the British Isles, with what we know of Celtic, and goes through the words until he reaches the twenty-first century and “twittersphere”.

The most interesting thing about this book, besides just the etymological information about the words (“warrant” and “guarantee” share a ultimate derivation, but entered English at different times, for example) is its mix of cultural history and etymology. There’s history on the individual words, sure, but a lot of the words are picked not for themselves, but for the type of word they are. This word is from Church Latin, for example, and here are some of the other words that came in about the same time and for the same reasons. This word has shifted meaning for cultural and social reasons, and here are some other examples of how this happens. It’s not just a history of these particular words; it’s a history of how English has worked over the years.

Of course, with a combination of cultural history, linguistic history, and specific etymologies, there are only two ways you can go: ridiculously dense or skimming over the top. This book chooses the latter option. It’s definitely the right choice, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the lack of depth in some entries. There were times when I wanted etymology but got history, or wanted history but got etymology. But that’s my problem, not the book’s.

If you like bite-sized history, if you like words and stories and stories about words, if you are at all interested in English, this book is a good gateway. An introduction to the craziness that is English grammar and orthography, and the way that people have treated both of them over the years.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

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