Word in action

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
May 5, 1995

The appearance of a work such as this is somewhat uncommon: I do not know of anything with which I can usefully compare it in English language teaching. I just wish I could have had something like it to which I could refer my pupils during the past 40 years.

I must confess that I approached the book with a certain scepticism. After all, the many problems inherent in producing even a tolerable dictionary are only now becoming fully apparent. In the first place, what could the term encyclopaedia be taken to mean in this context? A vast compendium of all that is known of the subject at this time? No doubt there is a case for putting together such a work but the danger is lest it turn out to be shapeless and unmanageable and useless as an educational instrument.

Oddly enough, for an encyclopaedia of English to have any usefulness, there is a case for providing something that is less than encyclopaedic; a certain selectivity is required. Editor David Crystal comments: "Obviously it has all been a personal selection. The hardest part, in fact, was the choosing. . . choosing what to put in and what to leave out was always painful. The moral is plain. There are several other possible encyclopaedic worlds."

What, then, could have induced Crystal to choose this one? Clearly, this must be the world that, given his total linguistic experience, most clearly expresses the order, the form that his mind has either perceived in, or has imposed upon, the English language as he knows it. But supposing Crystal's view of the facts is quite different from mine, must I conclude that his view or mine is thereby rendered unacceptable? I think not. Take the analogy of a television screen. Whether the picture is presented using 625 lines or more than 1,000 lines (as in high-definition television), the same forms, the same shapes appear to the eye of the beholder. What differs is the sharpness of the definition.

Crystal has chosen to start with history, move on to structure and conclude with use. But, as he says, "it might have been otherwise" and he has written the six parts so that readers can begin with any part and move in any direction. The same principle was applied to the structure of each part. Although Crystal admits that while there is a certain logic of exposition in some topics, there is none in others; he has tried to ensure the text is interesting and stimulating by providing "examples of the wonder which can be found when we begin to look carefully at the language".

Given these aims, it is to be expected that structural considerations should play a key role. Crystal devotes much space to reviewing the structure of the lexicon, the structure of words and the structure of sentences. He presents such difficult ideas as the semantic field succinctly and with clarity. However, there is sometimes a degree of oversimplification, such as in the discussion of antonym. Take, for example, the case of hot and cold. If the simple direct approach to the matter propounded by Crystal is used it can be seen as a case of gradable antonym. And when the words warm and cool are brought into consideration, we have the makings of a hierarchy: hot-warm-cool-cold, in which the sense of cool, for example, is "that degree on the heat scale which comes between warm and cold". But the situation is in fact considerably more complex if we have regard to English idiom. Consider the inferences to be drawn from the following sentences: 1. "Do come and get your tea; it's getting warm."

2. "It had been a cold night, but as the sun came up, John began to get cool."

Clearly these sentences are anomalous. The first ought to read ". . . it's getting (cool) cold", and the second ". . . began to get warm (hot)". So there is rather more directionality inside the antonymic structure than one might have expected.

Something explicit on the way in which sentence structure may be used to define or explicate meaning would have been useful. For instance (the time is about 4pm): "Hello, come in. Pull up an X, and let's sit down and have some Y."

The average person living in England would naturally interpret X to mean "chair" and Y to mean "tea". We are able to do this because (a) we are aware of the existence in the language of a certain syntactic pattern, (b) we are quite clear about the meaning of all the other words in the sentence, and (c) we are aware of the general circumstances surrounding the utterance. In fact, we are here dealing with the way in which most words in the lexicon extend their semantic range by variation of context.

The question of change of meaning in general is considered, rather unhelpfully, from the point of view of rhetorical categories: extension, specialisation, amelioration and deterioration, rather than from strictly linguistic principle. More emphasis is laid on the fact that semantic change exists than on the various processes by which it comes to exist. There is, at least, some potential for misunderstanding here. I do not quarrel with Crystal's definition of "metaphor" in the glossary: "A figurative expression in which one notion is described in terms usually associated with another (launch an idea) cf. figurative." But we need to know why metaphor has been thought necessary, and what the processes might be that have brought metaphor about.

Again, it is slightly mystifying why so little attention is given to the phoneme. The only serious attempt to get to grips with the subject is in the glossary: "The smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language." It is alluded to elsewhere, in the section on the writing system, but there is no section, however small, on the phoneme itself.

Overall, however, the merits of this book far outweigh its faults. It is a fine piece of work, far ranging as to fact, lucid in exposition, succinct in its formulation of often quite difficult ideas, genial in tone and helpful to experienced linguists, as well as to beginners. Mercifully, it is free from pomposity and pretentiousness, avoids jargon and algebraicisms, and says what it has to say in forthright, intelligible terms. Crystal and his collaborators write for the world, not for a coterie, and deserve thanks for providing something that is likely to be a standard work of reference in college libraries for years to come.

A.D. Horgan, an emeritus fellow of St. Catherine's College, Oxford, is the author of Johnson on Language.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

Author - David Crystal
ISBN - 0 521 401798
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 489pp

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