THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
By David Crystal,
Cambridge University Press 489 pp., $49.95
THE ALPHABETIC LABYRINTH: THE LETTERS IN HISTORY
By Johanna Drucker
Thames and Hudson
320 pp., $45
Like many comprehensive reference books, ''The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language'' is a complex compendium of information, erudition, and scholarship. But author David Crystal, a linguistic specialist who lives in Wales, has put together a source book on the tongue heard round the world that will appeal to more than word wonks.
Covering the history, structure, and use of English, with numerous side trips and subtopics, this large format volume offers a feast of facts. Intricately designed two-page spreads include main text, graphics, full-color photographs, boxes of related details, and often humorous sidebars. Each page offers a complete discussion of a concept. Familiar categories are covered - vocabulary, grammar, spoken and written language, regional variations, etc., but with a fresh focus.
Readers can dip and dabble or take the plunge into a subject such as ''Gender Issues'' or ''Literary Neologizing.'' The attractive layout of even a fairly technical section like ''Clause Elements'' lures the browser to at least read a list of ''Vocatives'' and discover among other examples, ''Evaluative labels: darling, pig, dear.''
Multiple appendixes - a glossary of linguistic terms and another of symbols, a reference list plus a bibliography, and separate indexes of terms, people, and topics - make this an unusually accessible encyclopedia. Librarians, teachers, editors, and students of language will find this tome a delightful, up-to-date resource - but probably not the last word on English.
If your car sports a bumper sticker reading ''Honk if you love the alphabet,'' a good book to buy may be ''The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination.''
In this sweeping but detailed history, typography scholar and expert Johanna Drucker explores the origins and oddities of Western alphabets.
Mystical, magical, religious, and other symbolic meanings have been attached to letters through the ages. The story of the alphabet is also the story of evolving thought. Even in the 20th century, some scholars have interpreted the significance of letters according to their own cultural biases (''The Aryan Origin of the Alphabet,'' published in 1927).
Although profusely illustrated with gray-and-white or blue-and-white reproductions of examples from historical texts, the book is designed so that sometimes a picture in the margin is postage-stamp size. Supply your own magnifying glass!
Calligraphers, graphic designers, and typographers will find much of interest in this original history. But most will find it a book not easily read from A to Z.