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The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English First Edition Edition
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From The New Yorker
Top Customer Reviews
Thankfully, what could have been a dry and overly-academic narrative is transformed by his style into a journey of discovery. We are at Hitchings' side as he almost literally revels in the discovery of the ways in which military and cultural invasions transformed English (not new or surprising material) to what was, to me, the fresher and more intriguing topic of how English explorers "repatriated" words from other languages they encountered, from the Americas to Japan. That thematic approach avoids another potential trap: the epoch by epoch survey, which also could have transformed this into a tedious read that none but scholars and the most dutiful or stubborn of readers would have completed. Instead, anyone reading this spend hours engrossed in an absorbing book -- and will never look at words and how he or she uses them in the same way again. Hitchings may not write for a scholarly audience, but this is far and away the best book I have read for the curious layperson on the topic, especially as our language is again being transformed by new technology (not just the vocabulary, but usage & popularity) in the same ways that it was reshaped by the advent of the printing press.
Some quick facts: the average Briton, German, or Norwegian uses about 3,700 words daily. The average American uses about 500 words. Yet Americans are no less intelligent or capable than their European counterparts, so what is going on? The answer lies in the history of British English versus American English. The former has evolved over 1,500 years and has enjoyed a relatively stable population in which each speaker comes from approximately the same linguistic background. The former, on the other hand, has evolved largely over the last 200 years and has never enjoyed a linguistically stable population. To borrow a simile from the world of computing, American English is the RISC version of the language: a Reduced Instruction Set Chip that allows for very rapid assimilation and communication - perfect for a nation that is perpetually being renewed by waves of immigration from all across the globe. In a country where someone from Ukraine needs to communicate with a native of Chile and a refugee from Darfur must talk with a shopkeeper born in Canton, a standard lexicon of 500 words and a much-simplified grammar (no adverbs, no perfect tenses, no subjunctives) is just what is required. The cost, however, is a lack of expressive range in American English which results in the speakers sounding simplistic and cliched.Read more ›
Fewer than a quarter of English words reflect a Germanic origin; the rest have been imposed on Britain by being conquered nearly a thousand years ago, or by conquering or visiting all those centuries thereafter, or by sponsoring successful daughter nations. Our "cheese" is related to the Latin "caseus", for instance, but the Normans gave us plenty of food terms like "gravy" or "mustard". New imports needed new words; walnuts were new to Britain ages ago, and the name is a version of the Old English "walhnutu" which means "foreign nut"; it was from Italy, and the name distinguished it from the native hazelnut. Wherever Britons went, they ate, and they traded foods just as surely as they traded words for them.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I love this book so much that I decided to buy it after reading a copy from the library. The write opens your eyes to how the English language came about and by doing so reveals... Read morePublished 10 months ago by Thomas Caldwell
With some digressions, the entire history of English to the early twenty-first century is given. I admit, I'm an information sponge! Nice to know why 'legalese' developed. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Ragnar
As a college languages major and retired English teacher, I found The Secret Life of Words very, very enjoyable.Published on July 3, 2014 by DeeDee
Hitchings has written a solid, scholarly book. It's very informative, but not a light, casual read. A good source of authoritative information.Published on January 23, 2014 by Mae Newman
Wonderful educational and enjoyable. This is the third copy I bought. Can't go wrong as a gift. One of the best books of the yearPublished on December 26, 2013 by E. Hasson
This book is fantastic. Whenever people would see me reading it they would say things like, "Oh, you must be very smart" or "My the book you're reading looks... Read morePublished on June 20, 2013 by JD
How anyone could take a book about the history of the English language and make it as boring as this is beyond me. This is worse than any textbook I ever read in college. Read morePublished on June 7, 2013 by Scout
When I first saw this book I thought I "oh great another book about words" Don't get me wrong, I like words. Read morePublished on April 23, 2013 by Wulf Alpha