The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a fan of the English language. I’m not an expert, certainly. This review itself will show that I don’t have a deft hand with a pen (or keyboard, as it were) and sometimes it takes a few tries to get the denser works of the masters through my skull. Yet, despite my own mastery of the language, I have a love for well-chosen phrases and the amusing word-play.

Throughout my life, I’ve moved from being a strict prescriptivist to being a more forgiving descriptivist more times than I can count. I suppose that sort of thing was the inevitable result of coming up in a strict conservative private primary and secondary school (among other things, we studied sentence diagramming every year from at least 3rd grade through 12th grade) while being raised by unashamedly Southern [American] parents.

From that context, this is an incredibly engrossing book. As it details the evolution of modern Standard English, it also tells the story of the war between those who simply sought to describe English-as-it-is and those who sought to legislate the language they though everyone should be speaking. Since I’ve been fighting this war in my head for most of my life [NOTE: I’m now a firm descriptivist and hope to stay that way, if only because I enjoy ending sentences with prepositions.], the whole thing is fairly fascinating.

Most of the book is devoted to the lives, ideas, and writings of those who worked to compile the great dictionaries of our tongue; but some of the text discusses the development of the language itself. This is where it seems to fall down a bit. For example, the author spends a good deal of time discussing English infinitives and the splitting (or not) of such constructions.

At one point, he discusses how Old English had its infinitives wrapped up in a single word (like Latin or French) and eventually migrated to the to- form that we know today. He writes, “Historical linguists know where the two-word infinitive came from, but the overwhelming majority of speakers have never thought about the question, and probably wouldn’t care if the answer were offered.” And, based on that assumption, he doesn’t offer the answer. So I had to do the research myself, which is surprisingly difficult for someone who doesn’t actually know the terminology or science of linguistics. (As near as I can sort out, Old English did have a gerund form that used a “to” prefix. Eventually, this migrated to be the infinitive form and we found a new suffix to create gerunds. Or something like that.)

Which is to say, my chief complaint about this book of pop-linguistics is that it spends a little too much time on the “pop” and not enough on the “linguistics”. It’s a small complaint, perhaps. But! If you’re interested enough in language to pick up this book in the first place, you’re probably interested enough to want to know a little more detail about the historical developments it purports to talk about.

Let me sum up: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would (and I was expecting to like it from the moment I found out it existed). I wish it were a little meatier, but that’s a small complaint and this book is well worth reading and sharing.

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