Book ReviewMaking sense of English [Archives:2009/1226/Education]

January 19 2009

Review by Murari Prasad
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From his very first article in 1962 in the Liverpool Echo to the book under review David Crystal has taken a consistent stand against prescriptive stance about English usage. His central argument is that English, caged in the purist ethos, would not have grown into a global lingua franca and gained enormously from the diversity of postcolonial writing. Attempts to fence off the language have failed all along. What impels Crystal to gather ammunition for a fresh assault on the usage pundits in this book is Lynne Truss's 'zero tolerance' approach to the subject of punctuation in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003).

Crystal takes a 'zero tolerance' approach to any aspect of language usage as linguistic fundamentalism. He suggests that we step back from the severe attitude of language pedants and adopt a sensible linguistic perspective or else the thing will go pear-shaped. His measured and suitably witty riposte to the orthodox sticklers for correctness is neatly structured in 30 chapters in an elegant and useful frame. In the first eleven chapters he gives a crisp chronological overview of the debates and concerns related to English usage from the end of the Old English period to the eighteenth century. A succession of crusades against creative, innovative use of the language launched by grammarians and lexicographers in the form of reformers and protectors could not check the momentum of English. Further, the arrival of American English ruled out the possibility of forging a monolithic variety. A new dimension to the British dialectology was added by the immigrant population from India and other colonies. The transplantation of English demanded greater respect for the features of the non-native varieties of English.

In the next fifteen chapters Crystal lays bare the normative consolidation of English under the influence of language authorities. He argues that for 300 years the mindset of these authorities shaped the way English should be learned and taught. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that language realities began to be recognized. Cut off from the vitality of living speech in a multi-cultural situation, English grammar had become an “academic zombie”. It was around this time that the development of linguistics as a formal academic discipline supplied “fresh descriptions of what was involved in the tasks of speaking, listening, reading, and writing”. Crystal engages with the themes relevant to the English-using community of the twenty-first century, such as grammar, punctuation, spelling, and punctuation, and addresses major controversies surrounding these issues with new insights and nuggets of information.

In the final four chapters, Crystal notes total rejection of the prescriptive temperament and pillories the Trussian template, as it is notably lacking in the principle of appropriateness. He presses for a rapprochement between “the study of the standard language for promoting universal intelligibility” and the study of “non-standard language for promoting local identity”. In an educational focus on English things will be home and dry only when there is”comprehensive and realistic language awareness”.

[A version of this review was published in the iaclals (Indian Association for the Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies) Newsletter , January 2008]