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The Story of English

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  1,389 ratings  ·  93 reviews
Now revised, The Story of English is the first book to tell the whole story of the English language. Originally paired with a major PBS miniseries, this book presents a stimulating and comprehensive record of spoken and written English—from its Anglo-Saxon origins some two thousand years ago to the present day, when English is the dominant language of commerce and culture ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published December 31st 2002 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1986)
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This was a thorough, informative and entertaining view of how the English language developed. It is still very current in its info. It is amazing to realize how very differently people speak this language, even in the USA.
For anyone who speaks English, or has tried to master its unruly spelling and grammar this book is a must. It explains WHY the English language is a linguistic hodgepodge as we know it today, and why we still use those crazy silent "gh"s as in laugh, taught, etc., and other assorted spellings and pronunciations that frustrate even native speakers. If you're interested in word origins & idioms, you'll learn about the many authors writing in English who "invented " thousands of new words over ...more
Erik Graff
Feb 09, 2015 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: English fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
I believe this was found amongst the books in the now-defunct Ennui Cafe on Sheridan and Lunt in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. Since about half of the volumes there were my contributions I felt free to walk with it.

The Story of English came out in 1986 linked with a PBS/BBC 9-part series of the same title. I never saw the show, but my appreciation for the book didn't seem to depend on that. As someone who had never before read a book-length history of the language, I found the text to be c
A fascinating and thorough book. I also had the pleasure of watching the BBC series when it came out. The two together made a singularly enlightning experience.
Christina Dawn

“There were few other joys. The Indians were hostile from the beginning. When they killed one of the colonists ‘wading in the water alone, almost naked, without any weapon saue onely a smal forked sticke, catching Crabs’, the situation became desperate. White was prevailed upon by the other colonists to return to England for help, mainly food and supplies.

What took place after White’s departure is a mystery. He was, as it happened, unable to return as quickly as he would have liked
This book traces the history and evolution of the English language. It begins with the British Isles, examining how 'English' came to be and comparing the situation in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The history and politics that shaped the language are clearly and concisely described. We're taken through Old and Middle English to the vibrancy of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and then beyond.

The legacy of exploration and colonisation in bringing English to other shores is also exami
David R.
A fascinating survey of English, with special focus on variants in such places as Australia, Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, and India. McCrum satisfactorily explains how English moved from a marginal tongue to a world-class language of commerce in barely five centuries. What is more, he provides evidence for the marvelous inventive and absorbtive qualities of English that give some hints of its future.
This was an interesting read, full of fun facts about my native tongue, and an easy-to-read style. It managed to touch on plenty of things regarding a topic that is, admittedly, a massive one; but sometimes left me wanting more.

The structure was open and intuitive, but prone to repetition, or perhaps a strange kind of literary déjà vu where repetition wasn't actually present.
One could call this awesome book... the grand and unarguable defense of quaint southern-isms.
This is another “vintage books” find since it was published in 1986 as an accompaniment to a PBS series (I was 13 at the time, and therefore oblivious). On the whole, it is an interesting and linguistically-thorough read, covering the “creation” of the Old English language to the evolution of its many colorful branches in all corners of the world. It is not without its timestamps though, and the entire first chapter can be ignored because as we all know, languages are “living” socially-construct ...more
I think my interest in language began with my stint as a Latin teacher for a few years. Only with that kind of push from behind would I have chosen to read The Story of English, which is based on the PBS series by the same name. The 384 page book is not a quick read, but in places is was thought-provoking and fun. What I basically discovered is that language is created and and altered from the grass-roots up. That lower level is usually a playground where the language of stick ball or baseball a ...more
What a marvelous romp through the labyrinth of English language history, change and variation. From the Angles and the Saxons to the Bayou and Chinese English, McCrum, MacNeil and Cran are our charming British guides to the universe of English. Their Anglophonic appear only occasionally, as when comparing American idioms and pronunciations with their own. Who would have thought that topics like "Spelling" and "The Great Vowel Shift" could be romping good fun? This book is in depth enough that I ...more
Aug 31, 2012 Jun added it
See review from my blog:

The Story of English is a classic case of “don’t judge a book by its cover”. English and history are two of my least favorite subjects and so naturally I should be repelled by a book containing the history of the English language. But, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and to my surprise I’m enjoying it.

I haven’t finished this book yet, but I’m writing this review cause I think it requires a progressive review. There is just too m
"Getting air, a new surfing manoeuvre, was coined in 1984. By the time this book is printed, term may already by obsolete."

Totally and fer sure, dude. But part of the joy of re-reading the 1986 first edition is to be taken back a generation, with the perspective that entails. It helps to emphasize the point that language is a moving target for scholarship.

The book is based on a TV series that is, I think, available on YouTube; while the book form allows much more scope and density, what's missi
Nov 10, 2008 Ilana rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history buffs, language buffs
Recommended to Ilana by: my dad
If you are a nut about etymology and history (like me)this is the book for you! I love this book. I particularly like the early history which begins with the Angles and Saxons invasion of Britain. It is an engaging, at times text-book like narrative that takes you from the 11th century, to the first immigrants to North America, all the way to the present (well, the 80's- at least in my archaic version). The most fascinating part was to learn of isolated parts of the United States like the island ...more
This was (somewhat surprisingly) an enjoyable read. For being non-fiction it was interesting that I still got that urge to keep reading at the end of chapters that I get with a good novel. The lay out was well done. My one criticism is that this was the 3rd revised addition... how about revised and updated??? This was first written in 1984 and it definitely showed it's age (last revision 2002). It was almost laughable when they spoke about current events or words that had recently come into vogu ...more
I read this something like 20 years ago, and I can still vividly remember many of the fantastic stories it told. The English language is perhaps unique as a global language, and this book charts its success, not by closing itself off from foreign words, like French, but by embracing them. English isn't a language of the British - it barely contains a handful of words from the original Celtic inhabitants.

Instead English a mix of words from all over the planet - everything from its Franco-Germani
I nearly failed the history of English in college, because it's a tougher subject to master than one might think, especially if you are not good at learning foreign languages because older English is very foreign to the modern eye. But this oversuzed trade paperback which is pavked with illustrations like a Time Life book of yore, makes this language history fun..
Utterly smitten. The PBS series was super entertaining, and this companion book is no different. You really don't have to have seen the series to love the book; its it's own entity. If you're a geeky dorky nerd about the English language, this will make you a happy individual. Starts with the Saxons & Celts, moves on to Shakespeare, the evolution of the English language in Britain, then America. Whole chapters are devoted to forms of English developed by the Scots, the Irish, Black Americans ...more
A fascinating account of the history of the English language, from its humble roots in what is now Germany and the Netherlands to the global language it is today. How has British exploration preserved a slice of 17th century English? How did the English language become so diverse and vast?

A great companion piece to the TV series of the same name, the book is much more in depth than the television program, but it obviously lacks the audio aspect that is key in understanding how the sound of Engli
This is a fantastic tale of the English language. It's a little outdated as it was written in the 1980s and a lot has happened in the last 30 years, especially the internet. I wonder what Robert McCrum thinks about "googling"? He seems to be the type to embrace the language and the changes so I think he would approve. Anyway English is my mother tongue but it's not my parents' mother tongue as they are both from immigrant families to North America in the 1900s. I speak Canadian English with a go ...more
This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the English language, or language evolution, or the movement of people around the globe. In focused chapters the authors follow this very much alive language as it evolves to meet new needs in new countries with new communities of speakers. I liked it because of the history, I have an awful time remembering the sequence of waves of invasions for example into and out of England, Scotland and Wales, and I relish another crack at it through the lens ...more
A helpful overview of the history of the English language, which helps to explain the oddities of English - lack of noun genders, simplified word endings, mishmash of language origins, non-phonetic spellings. Alot had to do with the waves of England's invaders - the Anglos & Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans. The Normans never took to writing in English and the common folks never took to speaking French, so the language was strictly verbal for the hundreds of years of the Norman rule. Cha ...more
James Snyder
It took me a while to get through this, because all the historical references kept sending me off into other works. I think I read twelve books to finish this one. But if you're looking for a fairly straightforward, interesting overview of where the English language came from and developed into what it is now (and is still becoming), this is a good place to start. It gives you an appreciation of the uniqueness and arbitrary nature of our language, and it gives you a great sense of the elasticity ...more
The scholarly, historical portions of this book are great. Informative, interesting, engaging and mostly politically neutral. The last third of the book dragged. I have almost no interest in the variations of English that exist in non-English speaking countries. That's not the fault of the authors. The last chapter is all analysis and prediction and this is where it all falls apart for me. The authors take some gratuitous shots at Conservatism and Americans and the English people and anyone who ...more
Where has this book been all my life? I can't believe it spent the past almost 30 years sitting on the bookshelf in the home that I grew up in, and I've never read it. Or even noticed it before.

It's a fascinating review of where our language comes from and how it has developed across the world. It makes me want to read more. My only complaint is that it is a little out of date (though that is hardly the book's fault) since our language has no doubt changed since 1986.
Matt Cavert
Very good book on the evolution of the English language, something that pops right out of the page as you read the book. The recent updates have helped the book keep up with the ever evolving ways in which words are used and understood, and yet parts of the book find themselves already out of date, a situation that the authors themselves recognize which makes the evolution of the language seem even more alive and relevant.
All in all a fascinating read, somewhat devoid of serious linguistic discu
Leslie Andrew
Read this when it first came out. I don't remember anything about it but a feeling that I liked it. Ideas I am reading and listening to now seem like I am learning them for the first time. I doubt it. My age and the intervening time have loosened the thoughts from mind and all is new again. With that said, looks like I could read this book again, and for the first time.
Mallee Stanley
This well researched book sounds boring but I loved learning where our words came from
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Robert McCrum is an associate editor of the Observer. He was born and educated in Cambridge. For nearly 20 years he was editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber & Faber. He is the co-author of The Story of English (1986), and has written six novels. He was the literary editor of the Observer from 1996 to 2008, and has been a regular contributor to the Guardian since 1990
More about Robert McCrum...
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