Book Review: The Story of English (McCrum, & The English Language (Barber)

Generally, we avoid reviewing older books in this space, but we make an exception this month. Over the past few years, several readers of the web site have asked about historical overviews of the English language. The essay A (Very) Brief History of the English Language on the site is available, but this is simply a summary of major events and trends. Those who want a more detailed account have to look elsewhere. Here we take a look at two lengthy treatments of the topic.

The first of these books, The Story of English by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil (of PBS Newshour fame), and William Cran was first published in 1986 as a companion to the BBC television series of that name. The book was (allegedly) revised in 2001.

The Story of English is intended for a popular audience. Written in an accessible style, it scrupulously avoids linguistic jargon and IPA notation. The book also makes wide use of literary and pop culture references. In this respect, the book is a success. It is a good read and makes the linguistic development of English available to a wide audience.

Unfortunately, this comes at a high price. Many of the chapters are woefully out of date. The research and linguistic theory on which the book’s assertions are based are twenty or thirty years old and often have been discounted by more recent scholarship. The 2001 revision has not significantly revised the book at all. The other major problem with the book is sacrificing accuracy for a good story. The authors frequently plump for linguistic tall tales and false etymologies that are fun to tell but that are disproved by only a modicum of research. Finally, the book is also an exercise in linguistic jingoism, repeatedly emphasizing the point that the English language is the greatest, most poetic, most useful, etc.

The first half of the book is significantly better than the second. The tracing of the history of English in the British Isles is a reasonable account. The treatment of Old and Middle English and how these became the language that we know speak is rather a good popular account.

The book begins to fall apart at the midway point. The first glitches appear in the description of early American dialects. The authors hold out several examples of isolated dialects being relics of older styles of speech. They make statements like “it is sometimes claimed that you have to go to the Appalachian hills, or the Ozark Mountains, to hear Elizabethan English,” without providing a factual basis for the claim (there is none). As a linguistic rule, isolated dialects do not represent older modes of speech. Rather the opposite is true, isolated dialects tend to change faster. They may retain specific features that are archaic elsewhere, but this is true of all dialects, not just isolated ones.

The first chapter to show widespread factual problems is the treatment of African-American English. It presents the creolization theory as the basis for the dialect. This theory, which was popular in the 1970s, has been shown to be false. The creolization theory was formed before serious research into African-American and West African dialects had born fruit.

The theory holds that Gullah is representative of traditional slave dialect and is based on a creole of English and West African languages and that the generic African-American dialect is an offshoot of this. Current research discounts a widespread West African influence on African-American speech and holds that Gullah is an isolated dialect of English, neither related to West African nor the progenitor of the general African-American dialect. When the book was first written, plumping for this theory could be forgiven. But given that this is a 21st century revision, the retention of such outdated material is unacceptable.

Which raises the question of what exactly was revised? The revisions appear to be superficial, mainly updating of various pop culture references. There does not appear to have been any serious attempt to bring the book into accord with current linguistic thinking.

Outdated research is not the only problem. The authors often engage in sophistry as an excuse to tell tall tales. A case in point is the previously mentioned promulgation of the Elizabethan English in the Appalachians myth. Note the authors do not state it as absolute fact. They simply note that it is a commonly told story, without mentioning that it is complete nonsense and completely at odds with everything we know about linguistic development in general and the Appalachian dialect in particular.

A similar instance is the association of an American cattleman named Joseph McCoy with the origin of the phrase the real McCoy. The authors say, “he was, as he liked to say, ‘the real McCoy.’” Again, they imply that he is the inspiration for the phrase. They do not mention, as anyone who looked up the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary could tell you, that the phrase was in use before Joseph McCoy was born. There is no excuse for this. It is simply bad scholarship.

The third major flaw with the book is more a matter of style. Take the following passage from the first chapter:

Why is it that English can inspire astonishing affection not only among those who speak and write it as their mother tongue but also among those for whom it is a foreign language? The richness and power of English was summarized in the nineteenth century by the great German philologist Jakob Grimm when he wrote, ‘In wealth, wisdom and strict economy, none of the other living languages can vie with it.’

Such passages crop up repeatedly throughout the book. The authors do explicitly state that English is not superior to other languages in any intrinsic sense, but the constant repeating of such sentiments does create a jingoistic tone.

The Story of English is a good read and the opening chapters do provide a reasonable historical overview of the language. It is, however, a seriously flawed work and should only be used with caution and verification.

In contrast there is Charles Barber’s The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Barber provides a superb introduction to the subject of historical linguistics.

Barber’s book is written as an introductory textbook. He avoids linguistic jargon where he can, but he does use IPA phonetic notation. While this is more accurate and more useful, it detracts from the readability. Barber also avoids the turgid and impenetrable prose that is common in academe. The book is written in a straightforward style that is accessible to the general reader. It is a textbook, however, and lacks the pop culture references and humor that often make popular linguistic books fun reads. In short, it is readable and fact filled, but a bit dull.

Barber approaches the subject of historical linguistics and etymology in a straight chronological fashion. After an initial chapter on general theory of linguistic change, he deals in successive chapters with Indo-European, Germanic, Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and contemporary English. He concludes with a chapter on various dialects of English around the world—a subject that McCrum and colleagues devote half their book to.

Of the two books, Barber is the far superior, if somewhat duller, treatment of the topic. McCrum and colleagues have produced a more entertaining book, but one of dubious scholarship and that is very much out of date.

The Story of English, Third Revised Edition; by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, & William Cran; Paperback; 496 pp.; Penguin; Dec 2002; $16.00.

The English Language: A Historical Introduction; by Charles Barber; Paperback; 299 pages; Cambridge Univ. Press; 1993; $18.00.

Note on IPA: IPA stands for International Phonetic Association. This organization has promulgated a standard notation system for linguistic sounds. IPA notation is preferred by most serious linguists. It allows one to denote pronunciation in virtually any dialect spoken by humans in a way that anyone familiar with the notation system can understand. A passage written in IPA can be pronounced by someone who is utterly unfamiliar with the original language; the meaning is still opaque, but the pronunciation comes through. The chief drawback with IPA notation is that relatively few people, other than professional linguists, know it. Use of IPA sacrifices ease of reading for precision and universality.

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