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Waxing lyrical on lexicons

Victoria Neumark enjoys a celebration of English at its most inclusive and incorrect


By David Crystal

Penguin pound;25

The recent success of Lynne Truss's book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, has shown that there is an eager market for reflections on the state of the English language. Could it be as mega (to use a modern coinage) for David Crystal's authoritative book on the varieties of the language? Professor of linguistics, author of more than 90 books, sometime contributor to The TES among many newspapers and journals, Crystal has laid out a history that elucidates how "standard" English is interwoven with colloquial dialects, legal and literary offshoots, foreign incomings and authorial coinages.

Its main thesis is simply told: the usual run of linguistic history which tells of the victory of "received" English throughout the tribulations of social and political events, and upholds a particular version of English as correct, is not just skewed but wrong. It is made Crystal clear that not only has there never been only one thread of descent from Anglo-Saxon to Norman to French to early modern and so on, but that it wouldn't be desirable if there had been. We've got the biggest, baddest (in the colloquial sense of "best") set of words in the world and, oh boy, is it ever great. (American English now dominates UK usage.) For those who hesitate to embrace diversity, Crystal makes a majestic case for its being warp and weft (Old English) of the fabric (from Latin and later from French) of our language (Middle English, from French, in turn from medieval Latin). Setting linguistic history in the context of social and political history, he shows how conquest, trade, art and customs all force language to be permeable. Words stick, sometimes because two meanings are needed for what was originally the same word (Norse "dike" and English "ditch", for instance); sometimes, because new things are described ("nun", "tower", "pear", all come from Latin 450-600); sometimes because they "win" , so that Scandinavian "take" wins over Old English "niman", which survives in the name of Falstaff's thieving crony Nym. Is this because the Vikings "took" so much?

Such processes as these are already well known to linguists. What Crystal adds in charting them is his own "take" on the inclusiveness of English.

From the earliest days in mainland Europe, the Angles ("Saxons" means only "axe-wielders") had borrowed words from medieval Latin and French; once in England, they often borrowed them once more, giving "doublets" or two words with the same original derivation. New words attached themselves via Norman and Angevin French ("warden" and "guardian"), Latin and Greek ("dictionary", "lexicon"); the Empire ("stoep" from South Africa, "veranda" from India). As fast as they are borrowed, words reproduce: to "sex", add "education", "appeal", "industry"; to "air", add "ambulance", "traffic", "waves". Names form verbs (Hoover), nouns (Biro), adjectives (Blairite).

Influences as diverse as the medieval court of Chancery ("dwelling", "only") and our passion for French design ("garage", "flair") have infiltrated both grammar and vocabulary in speech and writing.

Why then, the push to uniformity? Increasing standardisation is usually ascribed to spreading literacy and the pressure of printing. When there are more readers, writers cannot indulge themselves or they lose their audience. Crystal also suggests socio-geographic pressures for "psycholinguistic" conformity, the same pressures seen today in youth culture, where "bruv" replaces "mate". Less benignly, defenders of correctness, says Crystal, seem to hark back to golden eras of native (that is, Anglo-Saxon) rectitude, where coarse words are never used, grammatical rules are observed and words hold their meanings. As the American lexicographer Noah Webster observed, the English refused to set up an academy to arbitrate on language, with the result that every author declares himself an authority. In short, most writers on language try to police expression in defence of the language of the ruling class.

Thus, in the "age of politeness", Swift, Chesterfield and Johnson thundered into battle against improper usages, often with entertaining venom. Later, grammarians were even more ponderous: in The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens makes fun of Lindley Murray, whose definitions were biblical for generations of hapless schoolchildren. Murray's arbitrary dicta are typical, says Crystal: it is to Murray that we owe the "two negatives make a positive" rule, even though it is clear that "I had a not unhappy childhood" is not the same as "I had a happy childhood".

As one might expect, the writer who has the most fun with such conflicts of language and invariably coins more words, changes more usages and influences more writers is Shakespeare. Crystal's chapter on Shakespeare's originality is among his best. He dissects usage and vocabulary for coinages and recordings of current use. He deflates the myth that Shakespeare's lexicon is unparalleled in size: a well-read barrister today might know twice as many lexemes (root words, that is; "get", but not counting "got", "gotten", "gets" and so on) as the number used by the Bard (around 20,000), but to less effect, since the language has quadrupled in size since Shakespeare's day. Still, Shakespeare's words represent 13 per cent of the available stock. Analysing Shakespeare's lexicon shows first uses for about 2,000 lexemes, or around a tenth of his vocabulary, a hugely impressive figure. Against this, the King James Bible contributed 55 new words.

But Crystal does not subscribe to any Great Man theory, be it of language or history. The Sun, he points out, so far from using only 500 lexemes, as popular wisdom has it, uses an average of 6,000. He enjoys "it wuz lotsa laffs" as much as "exsanguinate". And he has lots of fun about shibboleths (Hebrew), such as the fury over split infinitives, common since the Middle Ages but proscribed in the 19th century to such an extent that in the 1860s a diplomat, Sir Stafford Northcote, telegraphed the United States to insist that "in the wording of the treaty it would under no circumstances endure the insertion of an adverb between the preposition 'to' and the verb".

Peppered with such anecdotes, the scope of this wonderfully entertaining narrative, demonstrated through a textual admixture of parallels, interludes, palimpsests, tables, lists and quotations is breathtaking. This illuminating, wise and humane book deserves to be, if not an instant bestseller, a treasured work of reference.

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