David Crystal is one of Britain's most expert language popularisers. The first edition (1995) of this book was a large tome (489 pages), comprehensive in its coverage, lucid in its writing, with superb illustrations. It covered the history of English, English vocabulary and grammar, spoken and written English, using English and learning about English. Justifiably, it garnered a cluster of admiring reviews. This second edition (henceforth CEEL 2 ) contains 499 pages of text, the extra ten being mostly due to a new section on "Electronic variation", which is largely a summary of sections of Crystal's book Language and the Internet (2001), which (oddly) does not appear among the references.
The internet section in CEEL 2 is much compressed, compared with his longer book on the topic, and has some pretty pictures. Crystal's views are upbeat: "What we have here," he claims, "is not simply a new variety of English, but a whole new medium, comparable to speech and writing in its distinctiveness and generality."
In a panel, he compares the language of the internet with speech and writing, and claims that it does not fit into either category. This may be true, but he seems to be "overegging" the pudding: an intermediate form between speech and writing is also found in some newspapers, particularly the tabloids. Internet-speak simply reflects a movement towards informality that is evident in language and in life in general. It has produced some novel vocabulary usages, such as "wired" and "flame", as he notes. But new technology always gives rise to new lexical items. Crystal gives some examples of text messaging abbreviations, such as BRB: "be right back", NP: "no problem", which have joined conventional abbreviations such as RSVP.
Elsewhere, the changes and tidying up in this new edition are minor. Occasional new references have been added in the further reading suggestions, especially mentions of Crystal's own books, and the half page giving the addresses of journals and societies has had websites added.
Overall, this is a book that is well worth buying/consulting by anyone who does not have access to the previous edition. But for those who already own it, the new bits do not really justify its purchase. The extra pages on electronic communication could easily be covered (and more) by reading Crystal's 2001 book on the topic.
Authors are put under pressure by publishers to produce "new editions". It would be more honest in this case to talk about an "updated" first edition: CEEL 2 is the (excellent) first edition with a few corrections, occasional altered illustrations and ten extra pages on electronic communication.
Jean Aitchison is emeritus professor of language and communication, University of Oxford.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language: Second edition
Author - David Crystal
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 499
Price - £55.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 0 521 82348 X and 53033 4