The Story of English by Joseph Piercy

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The Story of English by Joseph Piercy

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Category: Trivia
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A well-meaning but muddled gallop through the history of the English language.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Michael O'Mara Books
ISBN: 1843178834

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The Story of English sets out to be a potted history of the influences that have shaped our language, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to Starting with the pre-Roman Celts and their Ogham alphabet, it goes crashing through fifteen hundred years of linguistic history at a terrific pace to end with an almost audible sigh of relief at the internet age.

This is all very laudable. However, as you may have detected from my tone, this surprisingly slender volume contains a fair few problems. First of all, it’s suffering from a crucial identity crisis. I suspect that it started life as an academic survey, but then somewhere along the way it got crammed into gift-book sized packaging. As a result it has no idea who its audience is supposed to be. Is it Linguistic History For Dummies or a geeky English: The Greatest Hits for pre-existing etymology aficionados? It’s not sure, and in trying to be both it stumbles.

Its language veers from chatty to didactic within a few pages and the information it gives out is weirdly pitched. There’s an entire page on the rise and fall of the virgule (that slash that these days exists mainly in internet addresses) as well as a section called 'Thomas Hobbes: Twisted Fire-Starter'. The word chosen to demonstrate the concept that certain terms have altered their meanings since they first appeared in writing is 'gay' (Piercy does this by quoting Chaucer, which is odd since the word was still being used to mean 'happy' as recently as the 1930s). From that example, you’d think that the book was taking a tabloid-sensational approach to linguistics. But if that’s the case, why do we also get a thoughtful, literary close reading of two of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?

There’s confusion, too, over exactly what is being covered here. Is this a history of spoken English or of the most influential works that committed it to the page? The Story of English does well when it focuses on texts – Beowulf, Johnson’s Dictionary, the King James Bible – and textual issues. I loved reading about Caxton’s great eggys/eyren dilemma, and the sections on the chequered history of the various Bible translations give just enough information to seem fun and interesting.

Maybe I’m showing my preferences, but I think that The History of English works best when it gives in to unashamed geekery about the written word. The kind of people who are going to be moved to buy this book will be fascinated by facts about the first time the pronoun she appeared in writing (in the 9th Century AD Peterborough Chronicle) and the origins of the word slaughter (from those rampaging Vikings, of course). On the other hand, the section which explains who John Donne is will probably leave them cold.

At times The Story of English can be charming and surprisingly quirky. There are some great anecdotes: did you know, for example, that King James had a particularly large tongue? Or that the first Poet Laureates were paid in wine? But Piercy can’t identify which facts or stories are really interesting and pause to spend more time on them. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any faith in his primary material. He keeps panickily trying to cram in more and more anecdotes until the reader sinks, exhausted, under a relentless hail of slightly pointless information.

The Story of English is based on a lot of fascinating history. Unfortunately, not only does it not have enough space to do its material justice, it wastes precious pages trying to cram in too much disparate information. Describing the journey of the English language is a laudable idea, but this slender volume lacks both the space and the focus to properly carry it out. The result is as odd and mixed as the English language itself. I’m sad to admit it, but this book, while well-intentioned, is just a muddled series of factoids too nerdy for an average reader but too basic for an English linguist. Yes, I enjoyed parts of it, but its wasted potential ultimately left me frustrated.

Word nerds may get more out of The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

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