Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE STORIES OF ENGLISH by David Crystal Kirkus Star


by David Crystal

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2004
ISBN: 1-58567-601-2
Publisher: Overlook

A celebrated linguist argues that all versions of English are created equal and that the reign of Emily Post–prescriptivists who insist that Standard English is “right” and all the rest “wrong” is nearing its end.

Crystal (Language Death, not reviewed) has an interesting point: If Standard English is really so standard (and invariable), why are there so many different usage manuals out there? Why do so many English words have variant spellings? The author insists that one of the functions of Standard English is to marginalize those who don’t (or can’t) employ it, and he realizes, too, the ugly class and racial implications. He does not urge schools to eschew the teaching of Standard English, but he does suggest that teachers lighten up, that they not make students feel their particular version of English is inferior. Crystal says that the best users of English are those who have a capacious closet full of linguistic clothing to wear. Throughout this massive and learned and often provocative tome, the author demonstrates repeatedly that common conceptions about language are often historically inaccurate—split infinitives bothered no one until recently (likewise sentence-ending prepositions). Crystal educates in a variety of ways. He expands his fairly traditional discursive text by following each chapter with an “interlude” that focuses on some particular issue (e.g., the history of “y’all”), and each chapter contains boxed inserts that expand the context of the subject (e.g., details about John Caxton and Noah Webster). And there are numerous maps and charts of various sorts, including a dandy that illustrates why, in our legal system, we often use double constructions (“fit and proper,” “will and testament”). It’s principally ignorance that fluffs Crystal’s feathers: Ahistorical language purists annoy him as do those who make spurious and excessive claims for, say, the contributions of Shakespeare to the lexicon.

A dense, significant history. Had it been shorter and otherwise more reader-friendly, it could have made waves. Regrettably, only ripples will likely ensue. (9 b&w illustrations; 12 maps)