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Book review: The Stories of English, by David Crystal

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There have been many histories of English but nearly all of them focus on what Crystal terms Standard English. His book, he claims, is different. Its title is "The Stories of English" and not "The Story of English", because it sets Standard English in the context of the numerous other varieties of the language that have existed and still exist today. All of these, Crystal believes, are equally valid and deserving of respect.

The book covers the whole history of English, starting with Old English and continuing up to the twenty-first century. At all stages on the way we meet a great number of variations, which are illustrated with often lengthy quotations (this is a long book).

Crystal identifies three main stages in the development of the language. The first is marked by something approaching anarchy, with wide variations in spelling, vocabulary and grammar due to regional differences and other causes. The introduction of printing by Caxton in the fifteenth century imposed a degree of uniformity, but it was by no means complete and there was still no standard form of English.

With no standard to act as a control, Middle English illustrates an age when all dialects were equal, in the sense that the written language permitted the use of a wide range of variant forms, each of which was acceptable. There was no hint of a prescriptive attitude… One person may not have liked the way other people spoke or wrote—that is a characteristic for the human race—but there was no suggestion that they were somehow 'incorrect' as a result of doing so.


Standard English, which was largely southern English, began to develop at the end of the Middle Ages although this was a gradual unplanned process that took some 300 years to complete.

It is important to reiterate: only the basis of Standard English existed by 1500. Comparing the kind of language which was being written and spoken in those days to the kind of language we associate with Standard English now, we see a wide range of differences. The clear-cut distinction between 'correct' and 'incorrect' did not exist in late Middle English—that was an eighteenth-century development.


The trend towards control and formality became stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when schoolchildren were firmly taught what was correct English and what was not. The abandonment of such ideas, which Crystal welcomes unreservedly, is well under way today although the process is not yet complete.

Crystal is dismissive of people who seek to resist change in the language. They often object to violations of rules such as not splitting infinitives and avoiding ending sentences with prepositions. Crystal insists that such shibboleths should be ignored; they derive from pronouncements by self-styled 'authorities' and lack any objective justification.

Punctuation pundits are not spared either, especially those who agonise over the apostrophe. The rules about this date from the introduction of printing and are simply conventions that cause unnecessary difficulty to many students and are not based on rational choice. Crystal doesn't have much time for the notorious arguments about 'its' and 'it's'. (I hadn't realised, incidentally, that the use of the apostrophe as a mark of possession was an eighteenth-century innovation; previously it had only indicated omission of a letter.)

For Crystal, as long as there is no loss of clarity, that's all that matters. So, for example, 'between you and I' is perfectly acceptable because there is no risk of misunderstanding what is meant. Like most linguists, Crystal does not accept the idea that languages 'deteriorate' with time; see, for example, Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language.

So are we to conclude that anything goes? Well, not quite.

Of course, it also has to be firmly stated that certain standards have to be maintained in linguistic schooling. It is important for students to be able to write and speak clearly, to avoid ambiguity, to be precise, to develop a consistent style, to spell properly, to suit their language to the needs of the situation, and to bear in mind the needs of their listeners and readers. Everyone needs help to shape their own personal style and to develop their ability to appreciate style in others, and the role of teachers and of good linguistic models (the 'best authors') is crucial. The more people read widely, acquire some analytical terminology, adopt a critical perspective and try their hands (and mouths) at different genres, the more they will end up linguistically well-rounded individuals.


In this revealing passage Crystal concedes quite explicitly that there is such a thing as good writing, and this admission doesn't sit entirely easily with his rejection of 'correctness'. I'd say that it's one thing to flout the rules selectively and deliberately and quite another to ignore them completely because either you have never heard of them or you hold all rules in contempt. There is a potential tension in writing between old and new, formality and informality, and how you resolve this tension depends partly on personal preference and also on the audience you have in mind. Getting the tone right is crucial but often difficult. This is something that is hardly touched on here, but I find I'm constantly aware of it myself when I'm writing.

Crystal suggests that our linguistic prejudices largely reflect our age. If you were brought up to adhere to certain standards in writing you will probably object when these are ignored. Up to a point I agree, so I keep my own linguistic preferences (prejudices?) under review to test their validity. But I don't want to jettison them wholesale. I know there is no good reason not to split infinitives or place prepositions at the ends of sentences and I already feel free to do both at will. But nothing will persuade me to use 'bacteria', 'data' or 'graffiti' as singulars or to write 'between you and I'. To do so would feel like the literary equivalent of deliberately playing a wrong note or dragging my nail down a blackboard. And I shall continue to distinguish between 'infer' and 'imply', 'disinterested' and 'uninterested', and 'lay' and 'lie'.

It's a losing battle, of course. Changes are on their way in all these matters and in ten or so years' time the usages I now reject will probably be the accepted norm, but they aren't there yet, at least for me. I don't intend to adopt them myself, but I'll try to be less censorious when others do so.

It isn't only the written language that Crystal takes a critical look at; he does the same for spoken English too. As usual, taking the historical view brings plenty of surprises. For example, the increasing use of the glottal stop in many parts of the country goes a lot further back than you might think. Nor is it uniquely a lower-class phenomenon; there is evidence for its use by the actress Ellen Terry and even Bertrand Russell.

Whether one fully agrees with Crystal or not, there is no doubt that he has written a fascinating book It contains unexpected information on all kinds of subjects. One that particularly surprised me was the rapid evolution of a local dialect on Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers established a colony. To illustrate this he quotes, verbatim, the transcription of an islander's oral description of how to cook a local dish.

Reading this book has given me a useful term to describe something I'd often noticed while reading but didn't know how to describe: eye-dialect. When authors want to represent the speech of a rustic or uneducated character they may write something like "That's wot I sed". In fact, this isn't dialect; it's how a speaker of Standard English would pronounce these words, but the comic spelling is used to show the status of the speaker. This is an example of eye-dialect.

There are also some nice examples of myth-busting. For example, it is often claimed that rural Americans, especially the Appalachian mountain dwellers, preserved a lot of Elizabethan English in their dialects. In fact, there are relatively few such usages and, as would be expected, all the dialects have changed a good deal over the two centuries since the settlements.

This is a book that anyone with a serious interest in writing will enjoy reading and learn a lot from. But I don't think we need to throw out all our books on style, even if we should perhaps read them with a more critical eye. I shall certainly hold on to my copy of F.L. Lucas's Style.


Book %T The Stories of English
%A Crystal, David
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2004, 2005
%G ISBN 978-0-141-90070-4
%K language
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018 review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

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