Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked of English that it is 'the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven.'
The English language is certainly a sea of words and constructs which has been fed into by almost every major language and ethnic tradition in the world. English began as a hodge-podge of languages, never pretending to the 'purity' of more continental or extra-European languages (which, by the by, were never quite as pure as they like to assume).
The book `The Story of English', as a companion piece to accompany the PBS-produced series of the same name, hosted by Robert MacNeil, late of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, is an articulate, engaging, wide-ranging and fair exposition of an ordinarily difficult and dry subject.
The study of English is difficult on several levels. 'Until the invention of the gramophone and the tape-recorder there was no reliable way of examining everyday speech.' What did English sound like 200 years ago, or 400 years ago? 'English is--and has always been--in a state of ungovernable change, and the limits of scholarship are demonstrated by phrases like the famous 'Great Vowel Shift', hardly more informative than the 'unknown land' of early cartography.'
Of course, written language has until modern times been the limited and limiting commodity of a very small minority of people. The balance between the written and spoken language has a variable history, which can still be seen today (compare the writing of the New York Times against the speech patterns and vocabulary choices of any dozen persons you will find on the street in New York City, and this divergence will be readily apparent).
English has many varieties, and this book explores many of them, explaining that the writings and speech-patterns we see and hear as being foreign are actually English variants with a pedigree as strong as any Oxford University Press book would carry. From the Scots language which migrated to the Appalachian mountains to the Aussie languages adapted to Pacific Islands, to the ever-changing barrow speech of inner London, English speakers have a wide variety of possibilities that no one is truly master of all the language.
`If our approach seems more journalistic than scholastic, we felt this was appropriate for a subject that, unlike many academic studies, is both popular and newsworthy. Hardly a week goes by without a news story, often on the front page, devoted to some aspect of English: the 'decline' of standards; the perils and hilarities of Franglais or Japlish; the adoption of English as a 'national' language by another Third World county.'
English is, for international trade and commerce, for travel, for science and most areas of major scholarship, and many other groupings, the language not only of preference, but of required discourse.
In trying to find the length and breadth of English infusion into the world, past and present, MacNeil and primary authors Robert McCrum and William Cran have produced an engaging history, literary survey, sociology, and etymological joyride. By no means, however, are the major streams of English overlooked in favour of the minor tributaries--Shakespeare warrants most of his own chapter, as is perhaps fitting for the most linguistically-influential of all English speakers in history.
Of course, about this same time, the Authorised Version of the Holy Bible (better known as the King James Version) was also produced, with its own particular genius of language. `It's an interesting reflection on the state of the language that the poetry of the Authorised Version came not from a single writer but a committee.'
There is a substantial difference in aspect of these two works -- whereas Shakespeare had a huge vocabulary, with no fear of coining new words and terms to suit his need, the King James Bible uses a mere 8000 words, making it generally acceptable to the everyman of the day. `From that day to this, the Shakespearian cornucopia and the biblical iron rations represent, as it were, the North and South Poles of the language, reference points for writers and speakers throughout the world, from the Shakespearian splendour of a Joyce or Dickens to the biblical rigour of a Bunyan, or a Hemingway.'
From Scots to Anglesey, from the Bayou to the Barrier Reef, English is destined to be a, if not the, dominant linguistic force in the world for some time to come, particularly as the internet, the vast global communication network, is top-heavy with English, albeit an ever changing variety.
Revel in the glories of the English language, and seek out this fun book. Everyone will find something new.