Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Guided Tour Of The English Language

On the scent of an aging book is so welcome to bibliophiles.  I was able to sniff the smell of yellowing paper when I turned the cover of The English language: A Guided Tour of the Language, by David Crystal. What a pleasure!

This is the revised version, from 2002, of his 1988 classic.  It explores English with a global perspective and begins by identifying how only about half of the world’s English speakers use the language as their main form of communication.  As of about 15 years ago, some 400 million people in America, Canada, India, Great Britain, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere spoke English as their primary language.  Another 500,000,000 people speak it as their second language, meaning ESL-speakers exceed mother-tonguers.

English is spoken throughout the world.  The author identifies 70+ territories where English is an official or semi-official language, including Jamaica, Fiji, Pakistan, Rwanda, St. Lucia, and Cameroon.

In the three-and-a-half centuries since Queen Elizabeth ruled (1558=1603) in England, the number of English speakers rose from 5-7 million to 350 million worldwide in 1952.  A half-century later, that number more than doubled.

The total number of people who speak English at some level was estimated to be 1.5 billion people in 2000 – or one in four global citizens at that time.  No other language is as widespread across the planet, and yet 75% of the world doesn’t speak English.

The book covers a lot of territory, including things like “top 10 complains about grammar.”  For instance, the list notes: “I shouldn’t be used in between you and I.  The pronoun should be me after a preposition, as in, Give it to me.”

Perhaps the best section was the one on vocabulary.  He notes the following:

How many words are there in English?  This apparently simple little question turns out to be surprisingly complicated.  Estimates have been given ranging from half a million to over two million.  It partly depends on what you count as English words, and partly on where you go looking for them.  Consider the problems if someone asked you to count the number of words in English. You would immediately find thousands of cases where you would not be sure whether to count one word or two.  In writing, it is often not clear whether something should be written as a single word, as two words, or hyphenated… The more colloquial varieties of English, and slang in particular, also tend to be given inadequate treatment.  In dictionary-writing, the tradition has been to take material only from the written language, and this has led to the compilers concentrating on educated, standard forms.  They commonly leave our non-standard expressions, such as every day slang and obscenities, as well as the slang of specific social groups and areas, such as the army, sports, thieves, public school, banking, or medicine.”

The English language, like America itself, borrows from other countries.  The Greeks gave us “schizophrenia” and “stigma,” China gave us “ketchup” and “typhoon,” Italy exported “traffic” and “studio,” and Spain gave us “rodeo” and “cannibal.”  An interesting list of such words can be found in Crystal’s informative book.

The book also discusses spelling, pronunciation, the size of one’s vocabulary, which dictionary should be used, the variations of the language, Old English, and the modernization of the language.

One study featured in the book noted the 20 most common adjectives used in TV advertising. Note how positive they are:

1.      New
2.      Good/better/best
3.      Free
4.      Fresh
5.      Delicious
6.      Full
7.      Sure
8.      Clean
9.      Wonderful
10.  Special
11.  Crisp
12.  Fine
13.  Big
14.  Great
15.  Real
16.  Easy
17.  Bright
18.  Extra
19.  Safe
20.  Rich

At the end of the book, there’s a timeline about scores of events in English language history that could be of importance.  Here are a few:

450-480           Earliest runic inscriptions in Old English
650                  Composition of Beowulf
1362                English is first used at the opening of Parliament
1375-1400       Chaucer’s main works written
1476                Introduction of printing
1590-1616       Shakespeare’s main works were written
1604                Publication of Robert Cawdrey’s A Tale Alphabeticall
1611                Authorized version of the Bible
1721                Publication of Nathaniel Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary
1755                Publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language
1762                Publication of Robert Loweth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar
1794                Publication of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar
1828                Publication of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language
1884-1928       Publication of the Oxford English Dictionary
2000                OED goes online

The book concludes with a chapter on the English of tomorrow, concluding the following:

“The future of a language is closely bound up with the influence and prestige of its speakers – and who can predict such things?  What will be the balance of power among the major nations of the world a century from now?  Will American supremacy continue to underwrite the role of English?  Or will some momentous political or economic event motivate people to look elsewhere for their world language?  The role of English has developed to such an extent, unprecedented in world history, that it is difficult to see how it can now be dislodged.  But people must have thought that way about Latin once.”


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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