The Story of Be by David Crystal

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The Story of Be by David Crystal

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Anna Hollingsworth
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Summary: A language lover's goldmine, The Story of Be reveals how the little everyday words we use can tell stories of their own. David Crystal's expertise in linguistics shines strong throughout this delightful book about the verb be.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 280 Date: May 2017
Publisher: OUP Oxfrod
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0198791096

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David Crystal is something of a torchbearer when it comes to popularizing linguistics in the UK. He churns out material about language for a general audience at steady pace: he has covered everything from the history of English to how Shakespearean drama was actually pronounced to how language is used in an internet context. Given his previous grand themes, it is perhaps surprising that Crystal has now picked something rather more inconspicuous to present: the verb be.

The thing about language is that it creeps into all aspects of human life, yet we think very little about all the things our everyday language actually entails. In English, when I say we, for instance, I could be referring to a group including you, the hearer, or to a group to your exclusion; but in some languages, there are different words for these two uses. When you tell a child who has cut their finger 'You're not going to die', you most likely want to convey that the child should not be making a fuss about a minor cut, and not that they are immortal – but how do you get to that intended meaning?

Revealing the subtleties and complexities that come with the apparently straightforward verb be, The Story of Be taps into this general curiosity people have for language when they discover that everything is not as simple as it would seem on the surface. Crystal takes readers on a magical mystery tour of be: from 'You're cheeky, you are' to 'I've been with someone' to 'I live in Wales, innit? ', what you thought was simply a nice functional verb to have in English turns out to be something of a show in itself.

I am a lover of language, and have read my fair share of popular linguistic literature, but I have to confess that I had my doubts when I picked up The Story of Be. Its subject matter pales in comparison to other contributions to popular linguistics: Crystal's Internet Linguistics tackles issues of online security through language and thus pertains to wider issues than just grammar, and the likes of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct dive into the mysteries of language talking about everything from isolated tribal languages to feral children. Focusing on one verb just doesn't quite reach the same league.

But perhaps it is not fair to compare Crystal's latest to others in the same genre. After all, it sets out to talk about a rather niche phenomenon, reaching to a different target audience – one already interested in language rather than one waiting to be enlightened. As such, The Story of Be does a brilliant job: it offers a language enthusiast an entertaining overview of the history of be along with social changes affecting its use, dialect features, and much more.

Crystal's expertise shines throughout the book, making it an enjoyable read even to those not very confident in the linguistic terminology. Complex topics are presented in a reader-friendly way that presupposes no prior linguistic knowledge, and the selection of quotes and anecdotes brought in reflects the author's impressive career working with these questions.

To be or not to be on a language enthusiast's reading list – that really is not the question when it comes to The Story of Be. The answer is simply yes.

If this book appeals to you, then you might also like to try The Story Of English In 100 Words by David Crystal.

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Buy The Story of Be by David Crystal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Story of Be by David Crystal at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Story of Be by David Crystal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Story of Be by David Crystal at


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