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61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable Historical Linguistics
David Crystal's "The Stories of English" is an excellent book. Here's why. For one thing, his approach to the history of the English language is significantly different from that taken by most other authors on the subject. For another, his presentation is linguistically professional without being dull.

The title of the book is important: it focuses the...
Published on February 11, 2005 by Larry K. Uffelman

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82 of 89 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but heavy going at times
I am very pleased to have read this book, but I was glad to reach the end on page 534. I found the multitude of facts incredibly detailed and sometimes repetitive. The occasional flashes of humour and interesting snippets kept me going, particularly as the author came closer to modern times. This book is probably required reading for students of the English language. For...
Published on October 1, 2004 by Calum in the Caribbean


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61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable Historical Linguistics, February 11, 2005
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
David Crystal's "The Stories of English" is an excellent book. Here's why. For one thing, his approach to the history of the English language is significantly different from that taken by most other authors on the subject. For another, his presentation is linguistically professional without being dull.

The title of the book is important: it focuses the thesis. Crystal traces the development of standard English, as do other historical linguists and such popularizers as Robert MacNeil and Bill Bryson, but-different from them-he traces it alongside the development of competing non-standard, dialects. He insists that one needs to see standard English developing and then existing alongside these other dialects. There are, he urges, several "stories of English," each of which can and should be appreciated.

Crystal argues that there are, in fact, several standard forms of English, each with its own history as it diverges from standard British English. There is, for example, standard American English, standard Canadian English, standard Australian English, and so on, each with a number of non-standard varieties existing alongside it. And there are varieties of English employed in such nations as India, where they provide communication across native language lines and exhibit their own characteristics. The very term "standard" English requires definition.

Amazingly, given the subject he covers and given that he is a professional linguist, Crystal writes accessibly for an educated general audience. For one thing, he breaks into his narrative to offer specific examples and details set off in boxes from the main text. The material presented in his boxed examples clarifies points raised in the main text and, if they occasionally prove a bit heady going for non-specialists, they can be skipped without significant loss. His writing itself is clear, detailed, and often witty. Crystal has done a fine job of explaining sometimes arcane matter without dumbing down and without writing in so technical a manner as to baffle understanding.

Finally, Crystal reviews several implications of there being "stories" and not "a story" of the English language. He says we need what we refer to as "standard" English because of the advantages it provides: we can speak to other English speakers in other countries easily, we can have easy access to their written and oral cultural artifacts, and so on. However, we also need to become less judgmental about non-standard dialects and learn to appreciate them. They are, after all, a part of what we mean when we speak the word "English."

This book would make a fine textbook or corollary reading for a college course dealing with the history of the English language. But it is also just a plain good read for a terrified amateur interested in the subject.
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82 of 89 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but heavy going at times, October 1, 2004
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
I am very pleased to have read this book, but I was glad to reach the end on page 534. I found the multitude of facts incredibly detailed and sometimes repetitive. The occasional flashes of humour and interesting snippets kept me going, particularly as the author came closer to modern times. This book is probably required reading for students of the English language. For interested amateurs it might at times prove to be heavy going.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From Anglo-Saxon to modern English, April 25, 2006
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
David Crystal makes an ambitious attempt to provide a scholarly account of the development of the forms of English that we speak today from the highly inflected language -- virtually unintelligible to the modern English speaker -- that existed before the Norman Conquest. It is not primarily an academic work, as it largely avoids the technicalities involved in analysing and reconstructing the grammar and vocabulary of historical forms of English, but it is uncompromising in providing a wealth of examples from over the centuries. It is not light reading, therefore, but it is perfectly accessible to anyone who makes the effort.

There are at least two surprising aspects of the early history of English that Crystal tries to explain. First of all, how did it pass from the Anglo-Saxon of the 11th Century to the Middle English of the 14th, recognizably the same language that we speak today, in such a short time, with relatively little change in the longer period since? Nearly all of the old inflections disappeared in this period, and a torrent of words of French origin were adopted. Clearly this happened during a time when English was not the language of power in England, as the rulers were speaking French. That in itself brings us to the second surprise, one that is rarely pointed out, but is obvious once it is: why was it English that ultimately survived in England, and not the language of the conquerors? In other cases, such as the use of Portuguese in modern Brazil, it is the language of the conquerors that displaces whatever existed before. As with all such questions there is no one simple answer, but Crystal explains this partly in terms of the relatively small numbers of the Normans -- always a small minority in the country they had conquered, and partly in terms of increasing political rivalry between England and France, with increasing awareness of England as a country in its own right.

As English before the 17th century evolved entirely in the British Isles, and as the major changes occurred before then, it is inevitable that the diversification of the language into American and other modern variants comes late in the book. One can hardly describe the American English of a time when American English did not exist. Thus the complaint by an earlier reviewer of a British bias is not justified, and the later chapters discuss all of the variants of English that exist today.

The organization of the book is somewhat unusual: each chapter presenting a fairly conventional account of the development of English is followed by an "interlude" that discusses some feature, often an anomaly, that is not easily understood in terms of the conventional picture. This is a useful touch, and helps to emphasize the reality that many forms of English have always existed simultaneously, from the various forms spoken by the different Germanic tribes who arrived in England after the middle of the 5th century, right up to the present day.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful effort, November 22, 2005
By 
Tim North (Perth, Australia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
I had the good fortune to stumble across this wonderful book recently, and I found it both entertaining and informative.

As the title suggests, the book tells the various stories by which the English language has come to be what it is today. (It's as much about history and politics as it is about language.)

This isn't the only book to cover these topics, of course, but at 584 pages this is certainly one of the most comprehensive and well researched.

What makes this work so special is that it doesn't just concentrate on the history and character of "standard" English:

Indeed, for every one person who speaks Standard English,

there must be a hundred who do not, and another hundred

who speak other varieties as well as the standard. Where

is their story told? (p. 5)

In this vein, it tells the stories of the rise of British English, American English, Scottish English, creoles, street slang and, most recently, Internet English.

It argues that we're presently in the middle of a period of rapid change and growth of English, and these are among some of its many conclusions (p. 529):

1. Language change is normal and unstoppable, reflecting

the normal and unstoppable processes of social change.

2. Language variation is normal and universal, reflecting

the normal and universal diversity of cultural and social

groups.

...

4. A highly diversified society needs nonstandard varieties

('nonstandard language') to enable groups of people to

express their regional or cultural identity.

I recommend this enjoyable and instructive work to anyone who has an interest in this wonderful and diverse language: English.

(c) 2005 Tim North: [...]
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heavier material a great pleasure here!, November 16, 2005
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
Interested amateur here: I picked this title up because I've always enjoyed popular philology books - such as Bryson's. They left me wanting more and this book does have it.

It includes more examples from the language (Old, Middle English, Early Modern, etc.) than I remember from other popular books.

It was slower going but I loved the detail. I highly reccommend it for those who won't be discouraged after a couple hundred pages to still be in the 14-15th century.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars British English v. American English, September 1, 2005
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
May I point out to reviewer Jon Hunt and any who are influenced by his review...Bearing in mind the length of the history of Britain compared to the lenght of the history of America, as far as English is concerned, it is hardly surprising that one would find the parts of the book specifically relating to American English near the end! I would have thought the whole history of the language was relevant whether it occured in this land or elsewhere.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, September 2, 2005
By 
Bruce R. Gilson (Wheaton, MD United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
This book, as stated in the preface, unlike many other books on the history of the English language, tries to include nonstandard English forms as well, and the author also claims that he is not emphasizing England (as opposed to the rest of the English-speaking world) as much as is traditional. As another reviewer has pointed out, he does not succeed very well in the latter goal, but in the rest of his goals he succeeds very well.

The book is quite thick and will not read quickly, but there is a lot of interesting material in it. I'm not very fond of his organization, where he has a chapter on the standard language followed by an "interlude" on nonstandard varieties, but at least he gets to cover both that way.

I would recommend the book, but not so whole-heartedly that I'd give it a top rating.
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35 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More of a textbook than a good read, December 25, 2004
By 
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This review is from: The Stories of English (Hardcover)
After reading a glowing review of this book in the New York Times's Book Review section I had high hopes for "The Stories of English" by David Crystal. However, by about page twenty I knew I was in trouble. While the author makes some terrific points about the evolution of English, dialect changes and linguistic notations, this book just isn't an easy or pleasurable read. Since the bulk of the book mainly focuses on British English, as an American reader it didn't really pick up for me until toward the end when Crystal writes a chapter entitled "New Horizons".

I can't easily recommend this book but I'm sure there are those who would find it to their liking. Two much more fascinating books about our language are Robert MacNeil's "The Story of English" and Simon Winchester's "The Meaning of Everything".
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Preoccupied with Prescriptivism, January 13, 2014
By 
This review is from: The Stories of English (Paperback)
Just between you and I, when I started reading David Crystal’s “The Stories of English” I had no intention of reviewing it. Crystal is my favorite living writer on language – no one else comes close in terms of wideness of interest, vivacious writing, and encyclopedic erudition. As a teacher of English as a foreign language working in the trenches, I figured I had as much business commenting on him as a flea has commenting on the elephant whose backside he is riding on.

The opening chapters were fascinating. The tone was lively, the learnèd Interludes engaging. I particularly liked the treatment of the 14th – 16th centuries as a period of multilingualism (English, French, and Latin all being used to varying degrees). It was a time when Middle English evolved, regional dialects flourished, and no one was condemned or laughed at for not speaking Standard English for the simple reason that it did not yet exist. In Crystal’s telling, it sounds like a golden age, at least for the language, full of promise and free of anxiety. It’s only later that one figures out that he has constructed this paradise for a single purpose: so that he can claim we have been expelled from it.

I even enjoyed the passages on the 18th century. This is the era that saw the rise of prescriptivism, embodied in figures such as Robert Lowth, Lindley Murray, Dr. Johnson and others. They are the ones who came up with Latin-based rules for English that it has taken so long to overcome, such as “do not split infinitives” and “do not end a sentence with a preposition.” Though Crystal clearly disapproves of their influence, he makes an effort to be fair, and does not simply excoriate them.

Until about Chapter 18 (out of twenty), my only criticism was that our learnèd author seemed to think his readers would be incapable of reading the word “learnèd” correctly without that annoying accent. Otherwise my admiration for the book was total, and I was ready to give it five stars. If the book had stopped there, this review would stop here. From that point on, however, I found it increasingly difficult to agree with Crystal. In retrospect, it turns out to be no coincidence that his writing is most persuasive when he deals with ME (Middle English), since for him this period illustrates the ability of English to tolerate widely divergent forms of the language. And this is precisely what he thinks 21st century Standard English should try to emulate, at least in spirit.

In the final chapter he revisits the topic of Middle English literature in order to assert that dialect variation then was widespread and “uncontentious.” Widespread yes; uncontentious hardly, if history is any indication. Here the import of Crystal’s implication that we once lived in a linguistic Garden of Eden really emerges – even though his own record shows that people who lived then regarded the proliferation of dialects as something that was unstable and eventually intolerable. He seeks to shift blame onto the shoulders of a few prim linguistic Puritans – as though they would have found any following without the existence of a wide-spread felt need. The urge towards prescriptivism, if it had merely been an obsession of a few cranks, would never have lasted as long as it has. As Crystal himself documents, the language was generally felt to be in a sorry state, a condition to which the prescriptivists responded. He only tut-tuts that they went too far for far too long.

In essence, Crystal wants us to return to the situation of ME with a new-found, conscious enjoyment of linguistic diversity which the original speakers of the various ME dialects themselves were never aware of enjoying. For this reason, he celebrates passages like the following (pg. 490, hardbound edition): “The sweat wis [was] lashing oafay [off of] Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting their [there, not “their,” pace Crystal] focusing oan [on] the telly, tryin no tae [not to] notice the c…” Except for the word “telly,” this may look like an example of archaic English, but in fact if you want to read the word “c…” in its entirety, consult the opening of “Trainspotting” by Irvine Welsh (1993). The point is that Crystal wants us to admire Welsh’s use of Scots English. The question is: Does anyone really think that Welsh is simply writing the way he learned to speak? Or isn’t it the case that he is demonstrating his skill at imitating spoken Scots in print? The difference is crucial. In the Middle English period, people wrote in dialect naively, as it were; they warbled their native woodnotes wild. Such naiveté today is at best a skill that has been laboriously acquired by some writers of fiction who are well familiar with Standard English but choose to write in an adapted voice; at worst, it is pretence, an affectation. For Crystal to promote the latter as a way back to the former is absurd.

Crystal has undoubtedly been on the receiving end of many screeds (charitably, he calls them “complaints”) from outraged traditionalists. And they have inflicted wounds that are still raw. Psychological trauma is, I suspect, the root of the only typographical error I noticed in the entire book. He lashes out against prescriptivists by accusing them of wanting to pass on to younger generations their overwrought linguistic “anxieties and preoccupations” (pg. 525). Except, in some kind of Freudian slip, it comes out “precoccupations.” If you don’t think that reveals unconscious anxieties, try saying the word aloud. Sure, Crystal himself is unlikely to be the source of this typo, but even so I find its placement in the text delicious. For further down on the same page, he quotes Bishop Trench: “How deep an insight into the failings of the human heart lies at the root of many words; and if only we would attend to them, what valuable warnings many contain against subtle temptation and sins!” Indeed.

What does tolerance of nonstandard English mean in practical terms? Well, if you think “between you and I” is okay because, after all, it creates no problems in intelligibility (pg. 526), then Crystal’s your man. The problem is, if you set the bar that low, then how can you deem anything wrong? In the end, even “precoccupations” is understandable enough. For what it’s worth, let me add that you won’t hear many people who learn English as a foreign language saying “between you and I.” So isn’t Crystal privileging a native-speaker solecism?

Or take the variety that once characterized spelling. It came about at least in part because people in Shakespeare’s time simply did not value consistency very highly – they could happily write the same word having the same meaning two different ways in a single paragraph, or even sentence. Is Crystal, who generally favors integrating “the low” into standard or “high” English, suggesting that we should embrace the same carefree attitude? Be my gest.

His strongest feelings are aroused when it comes to the modern day descendants of Lowth and Murray, who have allegedly turned us all into linguistic automata, prisoners of proper language (pg. 529). He sees his role as that of prophet for the escapees, cheerleader of the jail break. He seems to think that those who have suffered feelings of inferiority at the hands of harsh schoolteachers are ready to rise up, seize the low grounds and demand language reform in the name of – intelligibility. Perhaps they will occupy Grammarcy Park and unfurl banners reading, “Good – more better – bestest,” and “Admittit – y’all unnerstand us dontcha?”

The thing is, language can’t be made to go where you want. Crystal claims repeatedly (pg. 529) we “have to” become more accepting of nonstandard language, “have to” develop a new kind of Standard English, one that fits with his notions of what is acceptable. Sounds to me like he is prescribing his personal norms – relaxed ones, to be sure. Nonetheless, in his own way he is another sort of prescriptivist, a schoolmaster instructing us all how we ought to use the language. But that’s between you and me.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Even with its size, a regular reread, May 9, 2012
By 
This review is from: Stories of English (Paperback)
I must have reread this book at least five times since I bought it in 2009, and every time has been better. Having just been sort of mean to the prose of Story of English in 100 Words, let me say categorically that in this one he's one of my favorite writers--clear, fluid, totally without condescension, discursive, and consistently fascinating. Like the best histories, The Stories of English reminds you that no matter how deeply you dig down into a particular topic, there are still whole worlds waiting below. Crystal keeps his promise and never sticks too close to the prestige dialects of English, which pays off particularly when you get to a later chapter and can see the incorporation of supposedly lower-class elements from earlier in the text. (The resurgent role of Scots English might be my favorite of these.) His sidebars are often more entertaining than the main text, which is a very difficult feat. And he prints all relevant excerpts in at least two forms--one the original, one the translation into modern standard English--and frequently includes an intermediary transliteration or spelling standardization or punctuation standardization, to make it consistently possible to read exactly what the English under discussion sounded like.

Are there flaws? I guess. Crystal's argument about the role of regional accents in Middle English isn't 100% convincing insofar as it relies on the assumption that people wouldn't notate a prestige dialect in text to make fun of it (tell PG Wodehouse that), and his greatest expertise is on the British Isles so that the book loses some of its verve towards the very end. But these are seriously minor points. Anyone who's ever wondered about the history of the language, or the history of England, owes it to themselves to read this book. And yes, themselves and not themself or his or herself--it's standard in my dialect. :)
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The Stories of English
The Stories of English by David Crystal (Paperback - September 6, 2005)
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