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A discursive journey into the highways and byways of English

6 November 2012

By Hook Or By Crook: A Journey In Search Of EnglishBy Hook Or By Crook: A Journey In Search Of English by David Crystal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A discursive linguistic and geographical ramble through Wales, and bits of England bordering on Wales, with occasional excursions to other parts of the world.

I really enjoyed it as a bit of bed-time reading on nights when I wasn’t too tired, which is why it took me a long time to get through it. But then I have worked as a proofreader and editor, and so there is a sense in which words are my business. Others might not have the same interest in such things.

I found some bits more interesting than others. One that was most fascinating to me was the story of John Bradburne, who was probably the most prolific poet in the English language. Shakespeare wrote about 84000 lines, Wordsworth about 54000, and Bradburne at least 170 000.

I had never heard of John Bradburne before, and pictured him as some kind of recluse, sitting in rural England, doing nothing else but writing poetry. Surely one would have no time for anything else?

But I was wrong.

He lived a varied and interesting life. He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1947, spent some time with various religious orders, travelled to various countries, and eventually decided he wanted to be a hermit, and pray. He had three wishes: to to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in a Franciscan habit. He achieved all three, and on the twentieth anniversary of his death in 1999 some 15000 pilgrims visited the scene of his death at Mutemwa in Zimbabwe.

If you want more details, perhaps you should read the book, though you could probably Google for them.

That forms part of Crystal’s chapter on Southern African varieties of English, headed “the robot’s not working”. A nice pun, because “robot” is derived from the Slavic word for work, or worker.

I was a bit disappointed that Crystal did not even speculate on its origin, and to make up for his deficiency, I’ll put forward my own theory. For those who don’t know, “robot” is the South African term for what, in most other English-speaking countries, are called traffic lights. How did it get to be called that? My theory is that since, in the early days, the flow of traffic at intersections (British English = “junctions”) was controlled by policemen, when the policemen were replaced by a pole surmounted by coloured lights, some wag may have referred to it as a “robot policeman”, and the name stuck. After all, in Britain traffic-calming humps are sometimes called “sleeping policemen”. And when the robot’s not working, sometimes flesh-and-blood traffic cops step in to take over.

Crystal started off investigating Welsh accents when Welsh people were speaking English, but he covers a lot more than that. Some may find his discursiveness distracting, but I enjoyed it. He discusses Indian English, and American English, and European English, all of which affect spoken and written English.

If you find words, meanings, accents, names and their history, interesting, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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