Thursday, June 03, 2010

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare

The English language, perhaps the most flexible languages there is, continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Some believe this evolution to be a horror, the destruction of a once proud language; others believe it to be a wonderful thing, the very reason that spoken English is now the dominant language in the world. Jeremy Butterfield’s Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare is an entertaining look at the origins of modern English, the history of the dictionary, the sources of new words taken into the language, English grammar, and why so many English speakers are “wobbly” about spelling even some of the words they use every day (among other assorted topics).

Damp Squid is unlikely to convince every reader that the language’s readiness to create, borrow and steal new words is a good thing, but it will entertain them with its evidence. Along the way, for instance, readers will learn that, depending on who is doing the counting and whether or not technical terms are included in the count, there are somewhere between one and two million words in the English language. Dictionaries leave out more words than they include - even the largest of dictionaries generally list only between 300,000 and 475,000 words. While the average university student is said to have a vocabulary of some 40,000 words, he likely uses less than half of those words “actively.” In fact, 50 per cent of what we write consists of a mere 100 words and, astonishingly, the ten most used English words comprise some 25 percent of written words: the, is, to, and, of, a, in, that, have, I.

According to Butterfield, modern English is the offspring of five major linguistic influences, each of which, but for the last one, had a dominant period of influence on the language: Old English, French, Norse, Latin (and Greek), plus the other 350 languages of the world from which modern English picks and chooses words it finds useful. That, alone, explains many of our spelling issues.

Let’s face it, though; it is reasonable to assume that a book on lexicography is going to be dry, at best, and, at worst, just plain boring. Jeremy Butterfield manages to avoid both those pitfalls by including sections that compare the idiomatic phrases of several languages, discuss the most hated words and phrases in the language, deride the Grammar Nazis of the past and present, and illustrate how the meaning of some common words is changing even now before our very eyes.

Damp Squid is a surprisingly entertaining take on a topic close to the hearts of most avid readers and writers, definitely worth a look.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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