A Wicked Way with Words: Histories of Our Language Used to Focus on "Standard English". Now, Writes Henry Hitchings, They Are as Likely to Draw on Rap and Advertising as on Keats and Milton

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What is a history of English? According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, it should be a rummage through the picturesque past, in which we uncover the stories of our ancestors and the fossil remains of their lives' poetry. A more recent perspective, offered by David Crystal in his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995), is that it "promotes a sense of identity and continuity, and enables us to find coherence in many of the fluctuations and conflicts of present-day English language use". Popular accounts often strike a jingoistic note--the global spread of the language is presented as majestic proof of British and American excellence. Scholarly studies, on the other hand, tend to be technical and hard to digest.

The terrain is fraught with hazards. First, rather than being monolithic, English comprises a forest of varieties. These include Irish English, which has existed since 1169, when a polyglot band of adventurers from Pembrokeshire landed near Wexford, as well as Maori English, the West African English spoken in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and recent fusions such as Singlish (spoken in Singapore). Where a history of English might once have focused on its "standard" form, an authoritative telling must now take account of dialects and variants. Furthermore, where it was once acceptable to talk about "the triumph of English", it is now customary to identify the extraordinary spread of the language as a mark of the ruthless imperialism of Britain and America. At the same time, a subtle version of its history may well give space to the history of languages spoken in England, which is something quite different. So the very idea of a history of English is problematic, and its politics are thorny.

Two new histories cover the usual ground convincingly, yet both offer fresh approaches. Cambridge University Press's A History of the English Language, edited by Richard Hogg and David Denison from the University of Manchester, is firmly grounded in the scholarship and methodology of the magisterial six-volume Cambridge History of the English Language (1992-2001), in which both editors were closely involved. It begins with a 40-page editorial overview, divides the remaining terrain into eight areas--among them phonology and morphology, syntax and standardisation--and proceeds chronologically within each. The Oxford History of English is edited by Lynda Mugglestone, whose particular area of expertise is the 19th century and, above all, the OED. Besides its more pointedly assertive title, it has an overarchingly chronological structure. After a brief introduction, it begins with a chapter entitled "Preliminaries: before English", and concludes with David Crystal's vision of English as it moves "Into the 21st century".

The value of the Cambridge volume's thematic approach is that it more obviously illuminates change and continuity within a particular domain--for example, the question of where speakers lay the stress on individual words they utter. The organisation of the Oxford history allows a more sustained narrative thread, creating the sense of an unfolding "story" of English--and of English-speaking civilisation. The differences of method do not result in vastly different tellings, and it is by no means insignificant that three scholars have contributed to both volumes: thus in each we find an essay by David Crystal, concerned with modern, global English and its potent, perhaps disquieting, future. The relationship between the two volumes is not exactly adversarial.

The disparity in their prices suggests different audiences--the Cambridge history, being more expensive, will be bought by libraries rather than by word sleuths or fans of Radio 4's The Routes of English. Yet both these books are essentially aimed at an audience of undergraduates and scholars needing a handy one-volume companion. While most of the material they contain is eminently readable, there are many passages of technical discussion that will flummox non-specialists. …