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From Hwæt to Whattup: A Bibliography of the History of English (July 2014): Popular Works

by Edwin Battistella

Popular Works

In the last several decades, scholars as well as journalists have written books that are useful outside the academy as well as inside.  Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way is an entertaining read—with chapters on names, swearing, and wordplay—but short on the linguistic details.  And Bryson’s Made in America similarly tours American English cultural topics ranging from the language of revolution and national identity to the language of cooking, shopping, sex, and manners.  Robert Claiborne’s Our Marvelous Native Tongue: The Life and Times of the English Language tells the reader what makes English great but fumbles at the end with too-dire warnings about the degradation of the language.

Several documentaries mentioned in the last section of this essay have companion books.  Robert MacNeil and William Cran’s Do You Speak American? rehearses much of the PBS video of the same name, sometimes verbatim.  Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil’s The Story of English follows that PBS series, its nine chapters supplemented with 154 illustrations and thirty-four color maps (in the hardcover version).  Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language provides twenty-four short, well-illustrated chapters on English in England, the United States, Scotland, Australia, India, and the West Indies.

In Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, Robert McCrum celebrates the flexibility and inventiveness of English, arguing that stripped-down English—Globish—is becoming the world’s lingua franca.  Richard Bailey’s Speaking American: A History of English in the United States offers a scholar’s complement to Do You Speak American?  Beginning in the Chesapeake Bay area and ending in Los Angeles, Bailey paints fifty-year portraits of English in cultural centers at different times: Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Seth Lerer’s Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language considers English as being continually reinvented, taking up sometimes idiosyncratic topics such as Cædmon’s hymn, Chaucer’s borrowings, African American Vernacular, the language of war, and the etymologies of dude and hello.  Robert Burchfield’s The English Language offers an overview of the language for general readers.  A recent OED editor, Burchfield notes that the book is too brief (and this author thinks too selective) to be a text, but the lexicographic chapters “The Recording of English” and “Vocabulary” particularly stand out.  John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English breezily tackles the Celtic impact on the syntax of Old and Middle English, the Scandinavian influence on the loss of inflections, and the mysterious 30 percent of Germanic words unrelated to Indo-European cognates.

David Crystal has written several popular works, including The Stories of English, which traces the development of standard English alongside that of nonstandard dialects with the idea of emphasizing that diversity has always been a feature of the language.  The title of Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words does not imply that the book is brief, but instead refers to the hundred etymological essays he uses to tell the story of English, from roe (a runic inscription carved into a piece of bone) to unfriend, wicked, arse, wee, bloody, edit, and many more.

Works Cited