NATE Reviews 'A History of the English Language in 100 Places'

'The extraordinarily prolific David Crystal has deluged the market with authoritative books about language over the last couple of decades – but it’s a testament to the enduring appeal of language as a topic for the lay reader that this hasn’t stopped a plethora of other great books about language from doing well too: books about etymology, usage, grammar, dialect, and so on, have proliferated in recent years.

Now, here is a great book about language, history and place, by Bill Lucas and Christopher Mulvey, academics, and trustees of ‘The English Project’, at Winchester University.

The English Project is an organisation that ‘promotes awareness and understanding of the unfolding global story of the English language in all its varieties – past, present and future’. It has made ‘English Language Day’ a part of the national calendar (October 13th being the day in 1362 when Parliament was opened for the first time by a speech in English rather than in French), and has engaged the public in a number of language gathering projects such as ‘Kitchen Table Lingo’ and ‘Location Lingo’. Its long-term aim is the establishment of a kind of visitor centre for the English language in Winchester. Full details, along with plenty of ideas for use in tackling the history and development of English in the classroom, can be found at its website www.englishproject.org.

Appropriately for an organisation seeking to create a specific place where people can go to find out about the English Language, it has published a book called A History of the English Language in 100 Places (Robert Hale £25). It’s a beautiful and fascinating book too, richly illustrated and a pleasure to read. Its 8 central chapters comprise 100 sections, each a couple of pages long, each taking one place in the world (approximately half of them in Britain) where the English language (or our understanding of it) has undergone a notable development.

It starts with Undley Common in Suffolk, where the earliest known example of written English (c.475 AD) was found in a field, inscribed on a gold pendant from the lands of our Germanic forebears in northern Europe; and it finishes with Vienna, where a research project called VOICE (the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English) is studying the phenomenon of ELF (English as a lingua franca), whereby speakers of different first languages use English a means of mutually intelligible communication. In between, the book visits its own home, Winchester, and places as far afield as Waitangi in New Zealand, Chennai in India, Cape Town in South Africa, and the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon.

A History of the English Language in 100 Places works on several different levels. With its 100 language landmarks, it makes an ideal book for dipping into for private reading – and teachers could also use each section as a quick and fascinating language starter in English lessons, in the style of ‘poem for the day’. On the other hand, the book is also chronologically arranged by chapter – covering old English, middle English, early modern English, the beginnings of world English in the 17th century, the standards agenda of the 18th century, the industrial age in the 19th century, the 20th century, and the technological revolution: so the book may also be read as a history of the language.

David Crystal, in his introduction, calls the book a ‘geobiography’ of the English language, and, certainly,

in taking 100 episodes in language history as a starting point, and linking them to geographical landmarks, the book achieves a refreshing new take on a familiar history. Released from the conventional narrative structure of history books by its 100 separate episodes, the book is a hugely enjoyable read, partly because of its episodic nature, partly because Lucas and Mulvey succeed in being both highly authoritative and highly accessible, and partly because its yield-rate of fascinating facts and perspectives is so high.

The ever-flowing pen of David Crystal has, in fact, produced a similar book recently. Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain (OUP 2013, £20) adopts the combined geographical and chronological approach, too, visiting 57 places (all in Britain) in 57 short chapters – a fair few of them the same places as in Lucas and Mulvey’s book. The difference here is that Crystal’s book also contains elements of travelogue, the result of a journey across Britain by Crystal and his wife to visit all the places he writes about. It’s also an enjoyable and fascinating read.'

Gary Snapper

Editor, Teaching English, National Association for the Teaching of English