Proper English; Richard Edmonds Examines Two Works Which Extol the Virtues of a Language Steeped in History

The Birmingham Post (England), May 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

Proper English; Richard Edmonds Examines Two Works Which Extol the Virtues of a Language Steeped in History


Byline: Richard Edmonds

A Little Book of Language by David Crystal (Yale: 14.99) The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree (Yale: 30) With more than half a million words, English is the world's greatest language.

It is the staple of diplomatic debate, conferences and teaching and it is the chosen second language in many countries. I taught it myself in Saudi Arabia when it was always welcomed and used with delight by the students.

English, for us, remember is the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Dickens. With its wonderful nuances and shades of meaning, it gave writers such as Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf, the perfect medium with which to ex-x plore the human condition. And yet today, English is becoming - at least in this country - a debased language and its complex usage is in decline.

A personal bete noir is slipshod punctuation which is creeping in everywhere. For example, the possessive apostrophe, once instilled into my generation along with mathematical tables and French grammar, is now almost defunct.

The "boy's book" shows that the book belongs to the boy. If you put the apostrophe after the S then it indicates plurality.

Easy? You'd think so wouldn't you? Then why can't they grasp it, or is it a question of bad teaching? Aitch is the dictionary word indicating the letter H. You only breath on it when it comes before a vowel in words such as "happiness", "house", or "happy". Any other reference to aitch is spoken directly and is unaspirated.

So if you're spelling the wold "house", you breath on the aitch first and then the rest of the vowels and consonants follow easily. Why can't this be taught? Yet we hear of billions going into education.

David Crystal's book (at pounds 15 one of the best buys around at the moment) picks up on these and other points with an exhilarating freshness, and with languages disappearing at the rate of one every couple of weeks it could not have arrived in the publishing world at a bet-t ter time.

Here is an author whose range is wide moving in a fascinating way from an infant's (note the position of apostrophe) first sounds, to the frequently incomprehensible language used for texting. Crystal delves in a fascinating way into linguistic styles, discusses the origins of obscure accents, mentions Welsh and the pride with which it is used by native speakers and then moves on to the debatable future of language in a world dominated by increasingly unreliable technology. But then, science and technology have little concern with personal feelings as we all know.

Crystal's thought-provoking book links up perfectly with Andrew Pettegree's study of the beginnings of the printed book in the Renaissance, when the dawn of print was a major turning point in the early modern European world, moving the book from an expensive hand-written artefact for the few to an item affordable to those who could read. …

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Proper English; Richard Edmonds Examines Two Works Which Extol the Virtues of a Language Steeped in History
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