David Crystal has audaciously performed a feat I would never have attempted in my wildest dreams. He has traced the evolution of the English language from its earliest beginnings with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Great Britain, through its developing dialects, the influences of Latin and Norman French (not to be confused with Parisian French), and the evolution of Old English. He continues through developments in Middle English and finishes at the dawn of the 21st century with the many different English versions worldwide.
The work is breathtaking in its scope. Is it thorough and well-researched? Absolutely! Is it easy to read? Well, for me, at least, no. No, it’s not.
I’m not a linguist and don’t want to become one. So, I skimmed over the bits I didn’t understand. But even so, reading the chapters on Middle English, I found myself mostly lost. What I did get was that during that period of around 300 years, the residents of Britain weren’t language snobs. Sometimes people from different regions had trouble understanding one another, and sometimes they made fun of one another. Still, no one felt one version of English was superior.
That attitude changed from the 16th through the 18th centuries when the inhabitants of London and the surrounding area began to claim ownership of the language, and prescriptivists like Samuel Johnson set out to standardize it. Crystal views this as a tragic situation that was doomed from the start. And rightly so, in his opinion.
Crystal is a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. He feels languages should evolve naturally with certain basic grammar rules so that we can easily understand one another. But pronunciation guides and picky grammatical rules draw his ire. In particular, he hates the objections to split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. Because of this, I found him a pleasure to hang out with. (See what I did there?) I’d recommend this to those curious about our language and those who wish to better understand how languages change and grow.