English language

11th May 2007 at 01:00
By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English. By David Crystal. HarperPress. pound;16.99

Jo Klaces is hooked on this loving look at linguistics

Anyone who has even the most latent interest in the English language cannot fail to be excited by David Crystal's lightly-worn erudition on the subject.

This gorgeously covered book took its inspiration from WG Sebald's reflective travelogue, The Rings of Saturn. Professor Crystal takes the reader down many a lexically-rich side road, indulging in a completely engaging linguistic stream of consciousness. He takes us through vales cloudy with questions about the accents of bees, to observations about the impact of the internet on contemporary language and grammar.

Travelling through Britain (taking in San Francisco, Poland's Lodz and Kolkata in India) at roughly "12 accents per hour", we learn so much about the richness of the language, its remarkable resilience and flexibility, its endlessly fascinating ability to adapt and change - and the paroxysms of rage this inspires in those who would seek to fix the standards in standard English.

Professor Crystal, however, is a benign commentator on change, wondering what the future might bring with optimism rather than dread. He is so knowledgeable about the present and past of our language, so merry about its many and varied manifestations, that he makes the study of linguistics and etymology seem as exciting and rewarding as Tardis travel. And, as such a linguistic democrat, he is genuinely pained by those who seek to establish language hierarchies.

I finished reading this book a week ago, I haven't stopped referring to it since and I've already used extracts in class. Pupils were taken with the fruit-cake density of the content delivered so accessibly; they wanted to read on.

We studied the defence of the maligned Birmingham accent illustrated with, "Good evening each," the catchphrase of Beryl Reid's Brummie alter ego, Marlene, in her 1960s comedy series Good Evening. It gave my pupils, West Midlands born and bred, much to chew on.

Professor Crystal's enthusiasm for English will get you: hook, crook, line and sinker

Jo Klaces teaches English in Birmingham

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