As promised, here's part one of the series about the book "The Story of English." But I would be remiss if I went on with it without mentioning why I choose to stick with writing about words now.
First of all, you expect it of me. But secondly, for those of you who think I should be responding to the very violent weekend we had in Chicago -- even by Chicago's embarrassing standards -- I want you to know that this is my response.
We won't be able to talk to one another about what's wrong -- in elementary-school parlance, we won't be able to "Use our words" -- if we don't consider words themselves and think about how they should be used. Words are our tools.
So on we go with "Speaking of English," the introduction to the story of our language.
The second paragraph of the book admits that a more accurate title might have been "The English Languages," since English is spoken in many places around the world -- and all of those places influence the language as a whole.
What authors Robert McCrum, William Cram and Robert MacNeil call "the fixity of print" obscures something that they want to emphasize in the book, that English "is always in flux, and that its form and expression are beyond the control of schoolteachers or governments."
That caught my eye because it made me remember going back to studying French early in the new century. I hadn't had a class for over 2o years, and while I remembered enough French to help French-speakers in my work, it was rusty and not detailed enough. But when I went to Chicago's version of Alliance Francaise and started classes, I found that most of what I needed was new vocabulary, such as the word for cellular phone. (Verbs and their tenses were the other part of what I needed, but a lot of that was reviewing.)
French, unlike English, has an actual department, called the academy, which decrees what words are acceptable. Where an English teacher might have praised my creativity in coming up with a word, making a whole new one, every French teacher I've ever had has been very willing to say, "No, that is not a word."
It feels odd even mentioning that in English.
Don't get worried that the posts to come about this book will be too scientific for you. The authors note "the sheer difficulty of writing about the English language" and add "Treating it as a Science is deadening for most people. Treating it, as we have done, as a mixture of social history, literature and linguistics still does not overcome the problem that language is also gesture, tone and context."
So here we go, on a journey together, trying to use our language to talk about itself.
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