Friday, April 29, 2011

Crystalography


Over Easter, I was very excited to get hold of a copy of David Crystal’s Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, the book to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the British Library. As the blurb says, the book is ‘the first history of the language to be fully illustrated with readable images of original texts, combined with transcriptions and translations’.
For anyone interested in the English language, this book is a cracker! It probably isn’t possible for anyone to tell the whole story of the English language but, gathered together within the pages of this book are many excerpts from canonical texts and texts that extend far beyond the canonical: Beowulf and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Chaucer, William Tyndale, Shakespeare, Noah Webster, Mark Twain, Shaw and, more latterly, Harold Pinter, to name but a few.
One of my personal favourites is an extract from John Hart’s An Orthographie (1569). Hart’s dream of bringing ‘in process of time … our nation to one certain, perfect and general speaking’ was one that would never be realised, though, as Crystal points out, Hart’s views ‘helped to form the climate that would eventually shape the character of English spelling’.
While it is beautifully illustrated, one of the most exciting things about it is the way it exemplifies how the language is held in tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces: the forces that tend towards standardisation and a cultural and political canon, and those that tend towards diversity, variation and resistance to a centralizing authority. Crystal has always been one who celebrates multiplicity.
If you’ve never read Crystal before, The Stories of English is one of the many books he’s written and which make him something of a national treasure.

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