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The Stories of English
David Crystal

London: Allen Lane, 2004.
£25.00, 592 pages, ISBN 0-713-99752-4 (hardback).
London: Penguin, 2005.
£8.99, 592 pages, ISBN 0-141-01593-4 (paperback).

Manuel Jobert
Université Jean Moulin - Lyon 3


The Stories of English is made up of 20 Chapters and 20 Interludes, representing some 534 pages of text. It includes 12 maps and 11 illustrations. The bibliography is of reasonable size and the two indexes are particularly useful. Unfortunately, the notes are gathered at the end of the volume, which is not practical.

A new perspective on the English language

David Crystal's The Stories of English comes at a moment when particular attention is being paid to linguistic variation at large, both synchronic and diachronic. In his English as a Global Language (1997), Crystal focused on spatial variation despite an aptly misleading title. In The Stories of English, he now turns to temporal variation. The book is in the same vein as Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue (1990) and Melvyn Bragg's The Adventure of English (2003), while adopting a more academic posture. Despite its erudition, the book remains highly readable and will appeal both to linguists and to non-linguists. But The Stories of English is not simply a "sexed up" history of the English language: it is also a statement. Indeed, along the traditional linguistic presentation—in some way comparable to what can be found in Charles Barber's classical The English Language (1993), Crystal offers the "unauthorized version" of the history of English, i.e. the history of its diversity. As Crystal points out in his introduction:

Even in the modern period, when there is no shortage of literary dialect presentation, language histories tend to treat regional usage in a disproportionately minimalist manner. The Stories of English is, accordingly, an attempt to redress the balance. [7]

This novel perspective is maintained throughout the book. It is announced in the title ("story" appears in the plural and, as opposed to "history," implies a more subjective account) and is echoed in the division into "Chapters" and "Interludes." The presentation of the hard linguistic facts is always followed by a shift in perspective. The introduction presents language diversity synchronically and makes it clear that defining "standard English" is an arduous task, considering the host of factors that have to be taken on board. Quite naturally, Crystal pinpoints age, gender, locality, register, context, etc. English, Crystal argues, is at an even greater disadvantage as two major standards co-exist (British English and American English), not to mention the Australian or even Indian varieties spoken by so many speakers that British English looks like "a tiny minority dialect." All this is well known but the merit of the introduction is to make it clear that his book is not an attack on "Standard English" but rather the addition of a never-before-told story. By doing so, Crystal presents his vantage point as an improvement intended to change our understanding of the language. He implicitly shows that the arguments so often put forward by the likes of John Honey clearly miss the point. The Stories of English is an ambitious book that lives up to its expectations.

The overall structure

The overall structure of the book is chronological. No fewer than eleven Chapters and Interludes are actually devoted to Old and Middle English. They address questions of grammar (such as the origin of the -s ending, Interlude 9), and lexicon (the emergence of doublets, Chapter 7), but also questions of stylistic variation (Chapter 4 or 8) or conversational analysis. Interlude 8, for instance, is entirely devoted to the use of "well" as a topic-shift marker. Crystal shows that this particular use hardly existed in Old English (apart from "wella" or "wel la," but with a slightly different meaning). In Chaucer, "well" was used as a direct speech marker and, in Shakespeare, we find all the possible nuances encompassed in "well" (to add emphasis, to express emotions, to put an end to somebody's speech, etc.). Crystal concludes the Interlude with an example from Macbeth [V.i.51] in which the Doctor's comment,"Well, well, well" is wrongly taken literally. It is difficult to assess whether, as Crystal claims, this is the first written instance of "someone failing to understand a discourse function of well" [193] but the many examples that he unearths will prove an invaluable database for future research.

The structure of the second part (Chapters 12 to 20) follows the same pattern and alternates grammatical and stylistic topics, (the choice between Thou and You, Interlude 12, the case of the phrase "y'all," Interlude 17, as well as phonetic issues: glottaling, Interlude 16, -ING coalescence, or lack of it! [466-467]. The question of rhoticity, as well as a presentation of sandhi phenomena are also discussed. Crystal argues that the use of an "intrusive r" as in "Africa[r] and Asia," for instance, is still looked down upon by R.P. speakers while John Wells (1982) presented the use of an "intrusive r" as a means of distinguishing between Mainstream and Adoptive R.P. speakers.

This multi-angled approach only helps to gain a clearer linguistic picture while it encourages the reader to re-adjust his views according to the material presented. The same is true of the link between Chapters and Interludes.

The relationship between Chapters and Interludes

The link between Chapters and Interludes deserves a specific mention as it invites the reader, mimetically, to a multi-layered reading. As suggested, the first layer presents the traditional history of the language (Chapters). The "Interludes" focus on major points or questions often kept silent. The many panels present close-ups (both synthetic and detailed) on specific points. Finally, the book is packed with apparent provocations that actually turn out to be thought-provoking insights. Two examples will suffice to show how Interludes and Chapters interact.

In Chapter 1, Crystal presents Bede's traditional threefold division (Saxons, Jutes and Angles) and casts doubts on the objectivity of such a presentation. In this chapter, an academic panel is devoted to Bede (1.1."Who was Bede?") while another addresses the question of the name given to England (1.5. "Why England, and not Saxonland?") In Interlude 1, Crystal tackles the question of the lack of proper integration of the Celtic languages, apart from a handful of borrowed words. This question is, incidently, also addressed by Melvyn Bragg (2003), though less thoroughly. Naturally, Crystal is tentative in his interpretations and suggests several possible explanations. One panel focuses on the word "cross" (1.6. "The cross question") and asks why the Old English "rode" (deriving from the Latin crux) was replaced by "cross" also deriving from the Latin via the Old Irish cros or the Welsh croes. Crystal ends this interlude with an apparent contradiction: if the Anglo-Saxons did not particularly appreciate the Celts, why did so many of them give Celtic names to their children?

Chapter 14 is devoted to the sociological implication of dialect variation across the ages. Crystal argues that dialect variation at the time of Shakespeare was not the "social disease" [346] it has become and that it would be nonsensical to interpret regional variation in Shakespeare's plays—or indeed in Shakespeare's time—with a contemporary frame of mind. Panel 14.1 indicates that the awareness of regional variation dates back to the sixteenth century. Crystal explains the origins of the words "accent" and "dialect." He offers an instance of "accent" used as meaning "spoken language" in Julius Caesar [III. i. 112] and another one in which "accent" is used with its modern meaning in As You Like It [III. Ii. 328]. As for "dialect," an example from King Lear shows that the word had by then acquired the status of a technical term. The wealth of quotes that Crystal examines with minutia shows that both "accent" and "dialect" were commonly used metalinguistically in the Elizabethan period.

Interlude 14 takes up the same topic and focuses on King Lear's Edgar as epitomising such linguistic awareness. Giving abundant quotes, Crystal analyses Edgar's part from a sociolinguistic perspective. Indeed, Edgar puts on an accent so as not to be recognised by his father. It is only when he confronts Oswald that he resorts to regional speech proper. For Crystal, Edgar is one of the first fictional characters endowed with three different linguistic registers. He further points out that, in a play or indeed in a novel, we simply have the representation of a dialect and that consequently, stage dialects not being true depictions of reality, merge into stereotypes. Crystal rightly argues that these occurrences, although filtered by written language, are a rich source of linguistic and sociolinguistic evidence. Crystal also uses contemporary writing to address topics often left aside by linguists. Indeed, he does not shy away from more unorthodox developments. The best example is to be found in Interlude 19, entirely devoted to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings that he puts in the larger perspective of the encoding of accent/dialect variation in fiction. He gives a brief sketch of this literary tradition, referring to Walter Scott or Emily Brontë. With Tolkien, dialectal features are indeed used in order to be recognised as such, but in a way that prevents too much "localisability." As Crystal remarks, "[…] we would be mildly disappointed if [hobbits] did come out with a realistic Cockney or Geordie or Scouse" [513]. In other words, Crystal goes much further than many linguists and, after observing language in use, he suggests possible interpretations strongly grounded on linguistic scrutiny.

General assessment

Readers of David Crystal's books will undoubtedly notice that some of the facts reported in The Stories of English were already utilised in some of his previous books (notably in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, The English Language and Investigating English Style). Nevertheless, what makes all the difference here is the new perspective from which the linguistic material is presented. Crystal combines the rigorous linguistic description of the language with more anecdotal remarks. But this is never gratuitous. The anecdotes always shed new light on what is discussed. The only purpose of Crystal's systematic desacralisation strategy of "Standard English" is to render the linguistic picture more clearly. In The Stories of English, Crystal shows what linguistics should be about: the living language in its diversity and possible applications and not merely the respectful study of a stale collection of inflections and vowel shifts shrouded in the impenetrable obscurity of an apparently incomprehensible lexicon. Crystal's study is indeed about the history of English, but it is also much more than that. Both diachronic and synchronic, both technical and layman-friendly, The Stories of English is in a class of its own.

Given the wealth of details presented, it is doubtful that readers will go through the book in one gulp. But it is an excellent reference book as well as a source of inspiration for anyone who wishes to apprehend linguistic studies as a whole. The most obvious merit of the book is that it is a plea for well-informed versatility



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