Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices

Article excerpt

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. By David Crystal. (London, England: The British Library, 2010. Pp. 159. $35.00.)

Impressive in the comprehensive range of its illustrations and the clarity of its commentary, Evolving English presents a fascinating array of materials from the British Library that illustrate the use of English in myriad historical forms and social functions--from runic charms inscribed on ancient medallions, to sensationalist depictions of crime in popular nineteenth-century broadsides, to contemporary poetry composed in text message style. Each illustration is presented in a large, high-quality, and readable format--a welcome change from typically cramped textbook reproductions. David Crystal's wide-ranging commentary is sure to fascinate the general reader as well as the student of the history of English. The volume has a somewhat disjointed structure. The core of the volume follows the structure of the original exhibit, organizing illustrations by domain of usage: English in everyday use, English at work, and English at play. Framing this core, Crystal traces the emergence of a standard variety of English, charting attitudes towards variation in a wide range of texts.

One persistent theme of Evolving English is anxiety about language variation. Citing complaints by prescriptivists throughout the study (e.g., that speakers lack the ability to distinguish the verb "to lie" from "to lay"), Crystal offers a useful historical vantage point, demonstrating that "many of the variations in usage which now cause upset" are found earlier (54). Even so, Crystal tends both to valorize the standardization of a variety as an achievement and naturalize the promotion of a single variety as a national standard. …