The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 384 pp. $24.95 The other day a friend sent me a memo that illustrated the current, to him, drift of the English language. He had highlighted this sentence: ``The totality of salient events obviates the impact of today's outcome.'' The rest of the memo did nothing to clarify the polysyllables.
For my friend, the story of the English language is rapidly coming to a doleful close. For others, the story is far from over.
These more optimistic others have a fine representative in Robert McCrum, novelist and editorial director of Faber & Faber, whose lavishly illustrated book, ``The Story of English,'' is the print tie-in for the Public Broadcasting System series that starts tonight. McCrum's book surveys the varieties of English -- including Irish, Scots, black, and many other kinds -- and notes with keen interest the growing number of new ``Englishes'' -- Jamaican, Sinhalese, Krio (spoken by perhaps 2 million people in Sierra Leone), among many others.
Mr. McCrum argues in these pages against the position taken by Robert Burchfield, the editor in chief of the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. Burchfield thinks that English will become, at best, a second language throughout the world. English as we know it would not survive.
English as we have known it is the burden of the first part of this book. The colorful maps found throughout make plain the successive waves of language that broke on England's shores. Celtic, Norse, and French each dominated in turn until Henry V's invasion of France in 1415. English had not been used officially for 300 years, since King Harold's reign ended at Hastings Field in 1066.
The rest is history, history chronicled here in abundant detail. As history, ``The Story of English'' focuses not only on events and the parts played by great writers (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Joyce), but on words, the wonderfully diverse wordhorde that accumulated, as a result of diverse influences, over time.
According to the story this book tells, English today exists not in spite of but because of the tension between foreign loan words, dialects, slang, technical words, and jargon on the one hand, and ``standard'' English on the other. In fact, ``The Story of English'' is, at least in part, the story of the rise of standard English. McCrum defines standard English as the form that is ``intelligible to virtually any English speaker in the world.''
McCrum quotes Constance Clayton, the black superintendent of schools in Philadelphia, who feels that standard English must be taught because it is ``a gateway . . . to the broader community.'' -- even though the ``broader community'' may become a babble of dialects, each asserting the speaker's right to self-expression.
``The Story of English'' is far more than ``a companion to the PBS television series.'' It should reach many more people, and reach them in a more lasting way. For once, the huge financial and technological assets that go into a TV series have begotten a good book along the way.