David Crystal provides, in The Stories of English, an immense treasure trove of English language history. It is the stories of English because there are a great many more than one—there are no straight lines make up the evolution and development of the language–and Crystal covers them all. Anyone who is at all interested in the history of the English language, nay, the history of English speaking peoples, would be hard pressed to find a better overview. It is sweeping in grandeur, yet intricate in detail. David Crystal is an academic linguist by trade, but one of such extraordinary merit that he was knighted by the British Crown for his service to the English language.
Suffusing all the stories of English that Crystal relates is the egalitarian nature of its development, and the personal philosophy (shared by every linguist I have encountered in regard to every language I’ve studied) that there is no such thing as one correct and proper English. Even so-called “Standard English” varies according to locale. The best can be said is that Standard English is an aspirational abstraction for those using English as a lingua franca. Further, Crystal will not abide the notion that the particular type of English one speaks reveals the value of one’s character. Crystal decries the way that dialect is used to stereotype in much the same way as skin tone. Language is language. It is the currency through which ideas are exchanged between human minds. But people being people, language, particularly dialects of a language (e.g., for English, cockney, London, etc.) are the second most powerful indicia of tribal membership, coming in just behind more readily ascertainable visual cues like skin tone or sartorial choices.
But enough of the adulation and praise. It should be clear that I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the English language and its histories. What I hope to accomplish here is a quick sketch of the high points of English development, mainly so that I might better remember them. This list is mainly derived from “The standard story” on page 3 of the Introduction; some portions are quoted verbatim, but without proper attribution, with apologies to Mr. Crystal:
~In 449, Germanic tribes arrived in Britain from the European mainland, displacing the native Celtic population, eventually establishing a single language, which was Anglo-Saxon, thus is English born as a Germanic language (Anglo=Ingles=English).
~West Saxon, the language of King Alfred, spoken in Southern England around Winchester, became dominant, later known as Old English.
~During the later Anglo-Saxon period, fundamental changes to grammar and pronunciation arose; with the Norman Conquest in 1066, the language accepted a huge influx of new words; this era became known as Middle English. Anglo-Saxon, i.e., Middle English, remained the language of the common people, though Norman French was used in by elites in government, the courts and business.
~During Middle English, literary use of the language gathered force, culminating in Chaucer in the 14th century. Something of a Standard English emerged in this time.
~Printing was introduced in 1476, which greatly expanded literary efforts. It was about this time that spelling standardization arose, haltingly, which commensurately led to the divergence of spelling and pronunciation.
~Early Modern English arose around the time of Shakespeare, with further changes in pronunciation and grammar, and an enormous increase in vocabulary.
~Beginning in roughly the 17th century, the increase in range and creativity brought about an impulse to catch the language tiger by the tail through its first dictionaries, grammars and manuals of pronunciation.
~As the British Empire reached its apex, there emerged a sharpened sense of correctness in relation to a standard form of English, which was complicated by American English from across the pond, which also developed a standardized version, but that was incrementally different from British English.
~By the end of 18th century, standard language had become very close to present-day English, i.e., Modern English arose. But the language, as standardized as the dear British would liked to have kept it, just kept evolving, adding vocabulary at an explosive pace, and spreading relentlessly across the globe, as the American Empire acceded to much of the detritus of the fallen European, particularly British, empires.
The foregoing is just a bare sketch. Read the book to fill in the details.
In Mr. Crystal’s discussion of British dialects, he made the observation that the pronunciation, or lack thereof, of the letter “H” distinguished between the upper crust, who pronounced, and even stressed H’s, and those who didn’t pronounce their H’s, who were low class. I told my family that we should have a day each year, sort of like Pirate Day (where everybody speaks like a pirate), when we lose the H’s. We would ‘ave a ‘ot cup o’ coffee to start the day, especially if we’d ‘ad a few drinks the night before and felt like ‘ell. You get the picture.
This is a great book. It amounts to an abridged encyclopedia of English language history. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves language or history or simply wants to learn the story of how the English language came to be, which is also a story of how we—every one of the over 1 billion English speakers, either as a first or second language—came to be.