Say What? 

Grammar, spelling, and pronunciation just won't stand still.

Reading about language is like watching oneself on a surveillance camera. What better way to become completely self-conscious than to sit there r-e-a-d-i-n-g w-o-r-d-s a-n-d s-e-n-t-e-n-c-e-s a-b-o-u-t w-o-r-d-s a-n-d s-e-n-t-e-n-c-e-s? Every thought, every comment, for a while, at least, takes on a weird, slo-mo, booming resonance, every comma soaring a mile high in solid neon, each syllable echoing backward and forward down the mirrored corridors of time.

Using language, at least one's own native language, at least casually, feels as natural as using one's own eyes or feet. Reading about it renders it unnatural, revealing it as a messy but wholly manufactured construct whose rules and sounds are the legacy of countless bygone speakers and writers -- such as the first doofus who ever mistook the Middle English term a napron for an apron, and thus changed history. At least a tiny shard of history as concerns the spelling of "apron."

But little shards mean a lot to linguists such as David Crystal, who examines them by the thousands in The Stories of English, a panoramic roundup of history, humanity, and what happens when the number of individuals who prefer to say "button" with a glottal stop in place of its "t"s reaches a tipping point. And when vowels shift wholesale, languagewide, an avalanche of short "o"s and "i"s lengthening. And when a solely spoken language becomes a written one -- but lacking standardized spellings, so that professional scribes all writing at the same time render the word "such" as "soche," "swiche," "swich," "sich," "seche," and "sych." And when local lexicons are transformed by invasions and occupations, as when the Vikings, after widespread plunder and slaughter, gave English the original versions of "score," "knife," "die," and so many more. From imperialism, pidgins are born.

Crystal, who has written more than ninety books and was knighted in 1995 for what Queen Elizabeth II called "his service to the English language," carries off this ambitious and uncompromisingly big book by writing in a clear, precise style, dotted with funny if scholarly sidebars: Hobbit English; a study of the word "y'all" (whose roots are arguably either Scottish or African); the first recorded usage of the word "fart" (circa 1250); an Anglo-Saxon riddle about "a wondrous thing [that] hangs by a man's thigh ... stiff and hard ... in front is a hole." (The answer: a key.)

Crystal takes issue with the sticklers -- officially known as prescriptivists -- who have for centuries been lamenting linguistic "decline" and the concurrent rise of nonstandard Englishes: "All that has happened in the past century," he writes with great optimism, "makes me believe that we are travelling along a road which leads to a brave new linguistic world."

His colleague Guy Deutscher shares that view, casting himself as your guide for "an evolutionary tour of mankind's greatest invention." Rather than confine itself to one tongue, his engaging if sometimes dauntingly technical The Unfolding of Language maps the growth of language in general -- from prehistoric times when "all that was required at the 'Me Tarzan' stage were words for physical objects and actions" to today, when combined forces of change "have fashioned the structure of language in all its prolix splendor."

"Why are languages constantly on the move, and why can't they simply pull themselves together and keep still?" he quips. "The only static languages are dead ones." Change excites him, so he waxes passionately lyrical about -- well, about lyrics. And about the urges, so universal as to be rather beautiful, that drive and shape them. Key among these is a worldwide longing, born half of laziness and half of hyperefficiency, for labor-saving devices: As Deutscher puts it, humankind prefers to "pronounce as little as possible." Beginnings, middles, and endings drop off, as when "the portly Latin phrase persica malus, 'Persian apple,' with its five juicy vowels and seven luscious consonants" shrank many centuries ago during its traverse through Europe to persca, then pesca, then pesche, then pêche, "ending up on English palates as a rather shriveled 'peach.'" From the etymology of "grotty" to ancient hieroglyphics to Arabic templates to the unique verb-before-noun sentence structure shared by Maori and Welsh, this evolutionary journey feels throbbingly vital, which makes its academic passages -- languages are systems, after all, and very complicated with their declensions and synchronic variations and such -- that much more frustrating. Speaking is a cinch until the formulas and diagrams march in.

This isn't a problem in Do You Speak American? Based on a cross-country trip on which coauthors Robert MacNeil and William Cran interviewed locals about their accents and talked with experts about the histories and ever-changing nuances thereof, it's an easy, breezy read: linguistics lite. From the Deep South, where pen is starting to sound more and more like pin these days and where "ghosts ... no longer say boo but bue" to Texas, where Latino kids overheard speaking English in a park are at first "impossible to understand, their voices rising and falling in a way that was unmistakably Hispanic. The word fool sounded like fooh" to Oakland, whose "schools have put the Ebonics fiasco behind them," the authors celebrate a powerful way of speaking that, whatever the accent, is seductively casual. Americans don't want to sound stuck-up, the authors deduce. Americans want to sound friendly and nice: "Think, for example, of how you guys has now become a generic form of address: it is gender-, age-, and class-neutral, and decidedly informal."

Of all the American Englishes, Cran and MacNeil note in a not-quite-warning tone, Californian English is bent on world domination, because so many millions want for one reason or another to resemble Californians. Mall talk. Surf talk. Ghetto-fab vernacular. The quirk of turning? Essentially declarative phrases and sentences? Into questions? And expanding horizons for the word "like," as demonstrated by the authors' interview with a twenty-year-old snowboarder in Redlands who says it thirteen times, with several different meanings, in a single 69-word sentence.

Vowels (they shift! they vanish!) and fricatives and postpositions can teach a population as much about itself as any Domesday Book: more, maybe, as the histories of languages are true, unspinnable collective chronicles. As Guy Deutscher points out, "It is in fact all of us who bring about the changes, even if we never wish to. ... Just think of traffic jams. Nobody has ever set out on their daily commute with the express purpose of creating one, and yet each driver contributes to the congestion by adding one more car to an overcrowded road."

Like, totally.


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