The Story of English

by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil
384 pages,
ISBN: 0142002313

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Since this is such a big, sprawling book about such a big, sprawling subject, it's hard to go into much detail about what It is and what it accomplishes; it is possible to say that it's as good a read as a gripping novel. Yet, one can also browse in it with pleasure, at random. As a companion to the television series, which it declares itself to be, it points up weaknesses and strengths in both versions. An obvious shortcoming is that print cannot convey accents and pronunciations - or can do so only approximately - as television does so splendidly. But the intricacies of what has happened and will continue happening to the language are explained much more copiously in print.
Questions do arise. Although one must suppose that most of the statements in the book are factual and accurate, the reader with a Canadian viewpoint may raise an eyebrow about some Canadian references: and by extension it must be wondered how much else can be questioned by those with other special viewpoints. The Canadian picture is presented by MacNeil, who has a Nova Scotia background. Dealing with the Canadian pronunciation of the diphthong ou, as in hoarse and out, he asserts that when Canadians say "out and about in a boat," it sounds as if they ace saying "oat and aboat in a boat." Well, possibly; more possibly not. Of course, phonetic spellings may not be subtle enough, but I am not aware of ever having heard anything like this. He also asserts that "Welsh nationalists have successfully campaigned - like the Quebec separatists - for bilingual road signs." My impression is that Quebec used to have bilingual road signs, but that now they are mostly unilingual - in French.
Such quibbles aside, the book instils remendous respect and admiration for a language that did not exist 1,500 years ago, but is now spoken in some variety almost worldwide and has a larger vocabulary than any other - five times as many words as French. How can a language be other than poverty-stricken when it has to translate eggnog as last de poule?
But that's being pedantic, and She Story of English can almost disarm pedants by showing them how quickly language changes, and how important it is that it should do so.

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