Linguist Crystal (How Language Works, 2006, etc.), whose learned disquisitions have sometimes bewildered readers, lightens up with an inviting text combining the best features of travel writing, memoir and scholarship.
On assignment for the BBC’s “Voices” project, which aimed to record and celebrate Britain’s many dialects and accents, the author traveled around the United Kingdom, beginning and ending in Wales. His wry humor is evident throughout, as in a passage about the origin of assembly-of-animal expressions like “a murder of crows”—among the new ones Crystal suggests is “a sulk of teenagers.” Loosely arranged into “a linguistic travelogue,” his account centers on the various communities he visited. Though the poet Shelley once claimed an assassin attacked him in Porthmadog, Crystal’s own trip there was uneventful. While many Brits find the Birmingham accent ugly, the author notes that foreigners often describe it as melodious. In the town of Hay, Crystal explored its many antiquarian bookshops and visited the castle once occupied by the man who became the model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Driving out of Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, the author thought of an earlier trip to San Francisco, and the text segues into an exploration of the differences between American and British English. On the same drive, a straight stretch of road recalled the similarly rectilinear Piotrkowaska Street in Lodz, Poland’s second-largest city, whose unconventional use of English in various shop signs Crystal discusses. He goes on to examine the 1960s TV show The Prisoner, Henry Higgins, Lady Godiva, the emergence of standard spelling, punctuation and usage, curious sayings (see the title), English around the globe, language games (an amusing retelling of Hamlet includes only words beginning with h) and the changes in vocabulary and spelling in the American editions of Harry Potter novels.
An informative, transformative trip into the mysterious, mutating, magical thicket of English.