Thursday, July 21, 2011

Two Books on the English Language

Many of you who took a 1st-year English course -- called something like Composition & Rhetoric or Writing for University -- will perhaps remember working your way through an anthology of essays -- to which you would formulate a response, learning in the process how to research convincing support for your thesis. At some point several years ago, I tired of using an anthology to teach this course. Either it was quite expensive for the number of essays actually covered or the timeliness of once-relevant arguments had faded (particularly true in those collections that aim at being more contemporary/relevant) or the number of flaccid essays in a collection outweighed the number I'd be keen to work with.

For several terms, instead of choosing an anthology, I simply had the students pick up the latest copy of The Walrus (a monthly magazine comprising essays covering a wide variety of topics: social, political, environmental, cultural; the closest Canadian equivalent to Harper's or The Atlantic), and they'd build their research topics from the wide range of articles, after we'd discussed several together. I enjoyed this approach, but again, there was an unevenness, as well as the big problem of requiring me to do much of my course prep as I went along.

Then three or four years ago, a fellow blogger, also an academic, enthusiastically mentioned Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, and I decided to try building the course around a single text, making students read the whole thing. The book (on entertainment technology/pop culture) generated some lively discussions and some engaging essays. Last year, I decided they really should be able to manage two texts during the term, and I added David Crystal's Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (included on my 2010 reading list, but never blogged here -- countering, with evidence, the usual complaints about how phone texting is ruining the English language).

But after teaching Johnson's text four or five times now, I can see the students' arguments coming. Not fair to them, really, so I decided it was time to switch it up. I'd read a review of Robert McCrumb's Globish: How English Became the World's Language and thought it might make a good basis for our explorations in research and composition, especially with the number of ESL students on campus. But I worked my way through the text last month and had to decide, reluctantly, that while the content is interesting enough, the writing style is unlikely to engage students. As well, the editing is frustratingly poor, not only at the copy-editing level (many errors that would give too much ammunition to students!), but also at the structural level.  For any of you who want to trace the development of English from tribal times through to the present global spread, this is a solidly-researched, fascinating text, and it makes some convincing arguments about the future of English as Globish based on our language's rather global past. I'm glad I read it, but I had to reluctantly put it aside and turn to something else, with summer's clock ticking down toward my fall start-up.

So the book I've chosen to have my students read is Bill Bryson's Mother English. This considerably older (published 1990) text is, admittedly, somewhat out of date (for example, it barely considers the effects of e-mail, texting, and the internet in general). Nor does Bryson document his sources satisfactorily (yes, there's a extensive bibliography, but without any foot/end-noting so particular claims can't be traced back). However, the writing is lively and there are enough quirky facts to keep students engaged (I'm counting on the chapter on swearing to hold their attention as we get towards the saggy end of term). As well, I can point to our inability to examine his claims, the fact that he doesn't clearly bread-crumb his sources, as an example of why students must take care to document their own research papers. So while I have some reservations about both these texts, I can work with Bryson's. Whether or not the students can get as excited as I can about the long evolution of something we use so unthinkingly every minute of our days is questionable, obviously, but I'm determined to give this approach a good try. Bringing in David Crystal's Txtng again, I hope to get their attention by putting the whole "English is going to hell in a handbasket thanks to technological and social changes" argument into a much longer context.

Have you any recommendations for great books about English? Or any opinions after having read McCrumb's or Bryson's books on the topic?


  1. I'm always fascinated by books about language, how it changes, etc, so I must try to track these down. Against the constant complaints of my generation (and those older) about the dumbing down of the language, I sometimes counter that I can see some beauty in watching it change. My favourite - from the schoolyard, of course - is children taking 'versus' in the context of a contest, and turning it into a verb 'verses'. As in, 'Ms H, watch us, I'm going to verse Harry at this game'. I don't know why, but I find this fascinating - they can't find the word they want, so they create a new one, but not without its own logic ...

  2. I'm so happy to have you as a reader here -- wish we could get together and yammer over books! We're so often on the same wavelength.
    I love this example of the children changing language -- one I haven't heard here but an illustration of how language gets twisted gently in new directions. A friend who teaches high school English to ESL students told me of an Asian student who wrote, of his skiing experience, that he "beyonded" all the other skiers. Rather than admonish him for using a preposition as a verb, she recognized the poetry in his usage.

  3. Yes, I do hope one day we'll get to catch up in person. Spouse wants to visit Canada, so you never know!

    I love the 'beyonded' example! As a friend of mine once said, English is a bastard trading language anyway - why should it suddenly stop still now? Of course, there is a plethora of jargon that I despise, but there is much to be admired in the organic growth of language ...

  4. I wrote you a lovely long comment and Blogger ate it!

    To sum up. I'm working on a piece at the moment that briefly touches on the question of whether the use of essay anthologies as models in NA universities contributed to the demise of the essay as a popular genre in the early 20th C. I think it probably did.

    I'm also a big fan of Bill Bryson and enjoyed Mother Tongue (not English, unless they market it under a different title in your part of the world). It does what he does best, popularizes a vast subject without too much dumbing down, leaving a bit of space for reader contestation. Perfect for new students I would have thought. I'm reading his latest book on private life at the moment and learning something new on every page.


  5. Tiffany: Really, that's the gist of both books, the history of the language as evolution. Like you, I want to safeguard clarity so will continue to take care with spelling and grammar, insisting that my students do the same, but overall I'm trying not to be unduly exercised about many of the changes that used to bother me (will probably always wince at its/it's errors, but concede that apostrophes had a rather arbitrary start and are perhaps in their last fifty or so years, for example)
    and we'd love to see you visit here someday!
    Lesley: Grrr, Blogger. It's done the same to me lately, so irritating.
    I'm fascinated by your thesis and would love to read the article when you're done.
    And thanks for the encouragement re choice of this text for 1st-years. I can be very naive in my enthusiasms for them, but if they have to read something, it might as well be something I am enthusiastic about, right? At least one party should be having fun!

  6. This might be slightly off topic but I really enjoyed "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary" by Simon Winchester.

    I don't remember taking a Composition & Rhetoric course. At the State University of Albany New York, we had to take two survey courses featuring the the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I still have both volumes.

  7. Susan: Often the Rhetoric/Comp course is required dependent on previously-established writing ability, so if you were already a strong enough essayist, you would have gone straight to the Lit courses.
    I've had that Winchester book on my list -- thanks for the nudge to push it a bit higher.