The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

David Crystal (3rd edn, Cambridge University Press, 2019), 582pp, £29.99
ISBN 978 1108 437 73 8

Reviewed by Cathy Tingle

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During the plenary session of the 2019 CIEP conference, Professor David Crystal, our honorary president, talked about the production of the third edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Two things from his lecture stayed with me: the speed at which language was changing (it had evolved in the few months between the book’s publication and his speaking to us); and that his wife Hilary had helped make the amendments to the proofs after the initial typesetting, a process complicated by the fact that each of its double-page spreads was discrete. These points give some idea of the monumental undertaking that writing and producing the third edition of this encyclopedia must have been.

Reading it is no mean feat, either. This book arrived on my doorstep on 7 October 2020, a little more than a year after David Crystal’s conference session. On 23 September 2021 I finished reading it. That’s not to say that my reading was steady and consistent during that year. It wasn’t. But the amount of time it took me to get through it is a testament to the vastness of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. That you can buy it, plus its related online resources and audio material, for a mere £29.99 is incredible.

So, what does it contain? Everything to do with the English language: origins, history, vocabulary, grammar, spoken and written forms, varieties, and learning it. There are also extensive appendices that include, among other useful things, a comprehensive glossary, further reading list and three indexes. These indexes are important, as they allow you to visit the encyclopedia for information about specific areas. For me this year it was the differences between British and US style, something that I needed for my work. However, the double-page spread format means that there’s much pleasure in flipping through the book just to see what you can find, and this is recommended by David Crystal himself in the preface to the first edition in 1994: ‘I have tried to ensure that it will be possible for readers to dip into this book at any point, and find a coherent treatment of a topic in a single opening.’ The format is excellent for this. It’s heavy on boxes (I kept thinking of poor Hilary trying to fit amendments into them) and there are ample photographs, illustrations, diagrams, charts, maps and other curiosities to draw the eye. Each of these is a useful example, and there is a wealth of examples within the running text, too. I particularly appreciated this in the grammar section.

Everyone will like different things about this book, but here is what I enjoyed most:

  • The section on Middle English grammar (from p44), with its list of English words that originated in French, and its statement that ‘a number of the issues which are condemned as 21st-century sloppiness are well in evidence from the earliest times’.
  • Words for getting drunk (p94). Some 62 of them, from ‘pifflicated’ to ‘wankered’.
  • A box about the 1980s TV show Blankety Blank (p194): ‘Blankety Blank relied only on a universal linguistic skill – our intuitive sense of “which word comes next”. It was the most egalitarian of games.’
  • That ‘daughters’ and ‘sisters’ used to be referred to as ‘doughtren’ and ‘sustren’ in the Middle Ages (p212).
  • Part III on English Grammar. All of it.
  • Nine ways of saying yes (p260). There is a diagram of each type of ‘yes’ and a description of when it would be used – for example, mid fall is ‘routine … detached and unexcited’. I sat at my desk and tried them all. And – joy – there is an audio version in which David Crystal himself says ‘yes’ in nine ways.
  • The section on Scots, because I live in Scotland. There are also sections on Welsh English, Irish English, Canadian English, Caribbean English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English and South Asian English, plus various English regional dialects.
  • Chapter 23, on electronic variation – that’s the language used in mobile phone texts, the internet and related apps. I particularly enjoyed the section on internet ludlings – new forms of language often used in animal-themed memes. When David Crystal covers a new subject, you can be sure it will be comprehensive and entertaining.

Against all those things I loved, and acknowledging that this must have been an absolute headache of a project that I’d never want to take on myself, there were two areas where I thought improvements could be made.

First, in places I found it difficult to distinguish between the narrative and the displayed text. This is a design issue and I would imagine it could easily be sorted out. Second, and much harder to remedy, is the feeling that this is an updated version of a 30-year-old work – which, of course, it is. A third of the illustrations were replaced for this edition to ensure that items like brick-like mobile phones didn’t distract from the reading experience, but the vintage of the first edition – published in 1994 and started around 1990 – breaks through in other ways. Although I loved and nodded along to a hefty section on gender issues and the call for a ‘genuinely democratic dialectology’ (p318) in a passage about regional variation, as with a palimpsest such exciting and inclusive elements overlaid a traditional canon of authors, thinkers and examples that more fitted a 1994 textbook than a 2019 one. Even after updates to the illustrations the vast majority of images pictured men – and white men, at that. Around halfway through the book (p240), turning from one double page spread to another took me from Miles Kington to Alistair Cooke to John Humphrys. Here, as in other sections, I would have been delighted to see more diversity of representation and a generally more modern feel. Like an old film or, indeed, Blankety Blank, in such places the third edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language gives a sharp sense of what has changed over fast-moving recent decades, which makes this historical survey a piece of history in itself.

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