(The Blog)

And now for a few words about words (and many other things)...

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Entries in history (1)


The History of Words—in 100 Words

We all love to make lists—from what we need “to do” to what we think of the world around us, it’s a nice device for encapsulating our collective knowledge and/or tastes on any of a wide range of subjects: “100 Most Popular Baby Names of the 1970s;” “Top 10 Blocking Tight Ends in the History of the Green Bay Packers;” “Best Pizza Places in Connecticut and/or Rhode Island, 2007.” The list—er, lists—go on. Nothing seems unlistable.

But, what about trying to capture the entire development of the English language—now peaking at some two billion speakers worldwide and a lexicon of more than a million words (including dialects and technical terms)? And what about doing so with a list of, say, fewer words than it’s taken to compose this post so far…

David Crystal, a North Wales-based linguist and scholar of the English language has taken it upon himself to pick out the hundred words that tell the story of the mother tongue since the Anglo-Saxons first arrived on the British Isles and started writing it down some 1,562 years ago. And while Americans love to make books full of lists, it seems somehow so much more British to take one list and expand it out into a book. Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words is really 100 chapters—one per word—covering more than 250 pages. But for a system of communication in its 16th and most prolific century as a written language, that’s pretty concise. (It won’t be available in the U.S. until 2012, but your favorite British bookseller or Amazon UK will be happy to “despatch” you a copy for a few quid.)

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