Sunday, 19 February 2012

Words are the daughters of earth, and [...] things are the sons of heaven

Another quote from my Dictionary of Quotations - from Samuel Johnson's preface to his mid-C18 dictionary. It's an interesting inversion of what I think many people would assume.

Johnson thinks of words as concrete and earth-bound - which is how I think of 'things'. He says that things are 'the sons of heaven' - but surely that is more the realm of words with their lack of substance but incredible power?

From the gallery at 

Anyway, it prompted me to think and write about some of the language-related books I've read since the start of the year. After last year's encounter with Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, the first pick for my book group this year was The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings for the first book group pick of the year. With a subtitle like that, and knowing that 'Proper English' has a whole world of connotations, I was expecting a fairly argumentative read. 

Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. There was plenty of interesting substance - but it felt dry and academic. I was gagging for a Bill Bryson-esque rewrite or even some Lynn Truss argumentativeness, and when we met in January it was obvious that most of the group had spent Christmas reading 'proper books' and so only started this late - and quite a few people gave up after the first few chapters. I did persevere on, and also read The Secret Life of Words: How English became English - which is much better, and The Etymologicon, which is eminently readable but feels like it was written to be bought and given as a Christmas present. 

None of these are a patch on the fantastic and amazing Melvyn Bragg and his The Adventure of English - which I only own as an audiobook, but is all the better for having an actor read out the old words! I've got a bad habit of skipping lists in books, and the actor's reading not only made me follow through, but also gave me a chance to hear the echoes into modern English. 

And if you've not yet listened to the In Our Time programmes on the written word - get yourself here, and fill your podcasting boots!


  1. Oooh, if you like language books, I recommend David Crystal, who is brilliant and provocative - 'The Fight for English' is a good'un, whether you agree with him or not, and his book on Shakespeare's English ('Think on my Words') is a great read. I also like his book, 'How to Listen to Your Child' - it's fascinating on the subject of language acquisition.

    On non-English languages, I've just finished reading 'Don't Sleep, there are Snakes', by Daniel Everett, which is a very interesting book about an Amazon language which seems to defy all the linguistic rules, and you might also like Mark Abley's 'Spoken Here' about endangered languages.

  2. Thanks for the hints Mrs S - my Dad's an ESOL teacher and always loved a bit of David Crystal, but your recommendation might prompt me to give him another chance. And I LOVE the idea of languages where the rules don't fit with our conceptions... thanks for the suggestions