David Crystal is quite probably the best authority there is on the English language past and present, and in "The Stories of English" he has visibly excelled himself. From "Beowulf" and the earliest documents in Old English right up to the specific features of text-messaging, and looking beyond to the twenty-first-century English-speaking world of his grandchildren, here is an impeccably researched history of the language.
The title gives an immediate clue to the originality of this book, throughout which Professor Crystal is at pains to show that, alongside "standard English", there are all the other varieties of the language which, in the name of a purism which he skilfully shows to be misplaced, have most often been either denigrated or ignored by other historical works of this kind.
Perhaps David Crystal's major achievement is that he succeeds in being scholarly without ever being pedantic. His attention to detailed research is impressive, and yet the reader never once gets bogged down in theoretical linguistics. The writer's approach is resolutely of a sociolinguistic nature, and he constantly draws attention to the links between language and society and the way in which the evolution of one is always conditioned by the evolution of the other. He is particularly good on the language of Shakespeare, and unsparing in his criticism of the "absolute rubbish" propagated on the subject of the bard by "enthusiastic linguistic amateurs".
But David Crystal's book really makes its major point in the way in which prescriptive norms are demonstrated to be arbitrary - however necessary they may also be. The book sets out an unanswerable counter-argument to all those who earnestly equate "good" English with good behaviour, and even with morality. The writer points out, with wonderful deadpan humour, that "some of the most respectable people I know speak nonstandard grammar; and conversely, there are several villains around whose standard grammar is impeccable."
Professor Crystal's book reads like a novel, and in a sense it is both an adventure story and a love story. The hardback is a work of art, with an index and very complete bibliographical sources. And, as far as I could see, not a single printing mistake. And not a syllable out of place, either.
If you're interested in the history of the English language, don't wait for the paperback, splash out £25 and get this. It's worth every penny.