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Predictable Answers to the Question "What is English?"

In What is English? And Why Should We Care?, Tim William Machan looks at the nooks, crannies, accents, dialects, words, and other details that have made English English over the centuries. He examines the spread of English over time and space, war and peace, education and law, etc. Machan thoroughly argues that English is ever-intertwined with social factors, particularly national identity, explaining "the ways in which English, and a definition of English, plays a gate-keeping role in some of the most powerful domains in any Anglophone society." After reading this book, you'll agree that "English serves as the password to a kind of cross-cultural, transhistorical club that one might or might not want to join" and "any map (or grammar) that distinguishes English from not-English is neither self-evident nor value-free."

Unfortunately, I — and probably you — already knew those things. As a result, I didn't enjoy this book very much. It's written in an academic style that isn't particularly enjoyable, and its overall argument is fairly self-evident.

Having said that, the scope of this book is wide, and the depth of research is impressive. Machan covers small linguistic issues such as word choices and accents, as well as large issues such as the meaning of English among the allies in World War II. Machan gives equal weight to the nitty-gritty details of English and the larger meaning of those details. When he discusses a topic like grammar, he shows that "English means more than a collection of grammatical forms. It also means the social implications of those forms..." Machan follows this pattern throughout the book, and while he is persuasive, the pattern is repetitive because the points are not especially novel or interesting. Over and over, Machan tells us that English and definitions of English have social implications, but what reasonable person wouldn't realize this? I desperately wanted Machan to sing a different song once in a while.

The writing style doesn't help matters either. This is a dense book with thick prose that is basically academese. What is English? is an entirely different ballpark from language books written by the likes of David Crystal, Ben Yagoda, and Roy Peter Clark. Those books have spoiled me, because they manage to take potentially snooze-worthy topics and make them engaging. Of course, those books aren't written for a strictly academic audience, so maybe I am being unfair to Machan, but I don't think so. There are academic books — like Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars — that make similar points in a reader-friendly style, with more surprises and enjoyment along the way.

This book is much more effective on the micro-level. The supporting details are far more interesting than the overall argument. For example, Machan uses the word dasn't — an obscure contraction of dare not — as an example of the phenomenon of word death. Machan uses this folksy, regional word to show how odd it is that words have a life and death, and how both of those states are tricky to pin down. In other words, being a word coroner is a lot more difficult than being a coroner coroner. This fits into Machan's larger argument about the indefinability of English. (For the interested, here's an example of dasn't in action courtesy of the Dictionary of American Regional English, circa 1836: "He dassent so much as look over his shoulder; he was stuck in the mud like a Mississippi sawyer.") Anyhoo, dasn't is a terrific word I'm happy to learn. There are many other nuggets of info sprinkled throughout this book that are very intriguing. Despite my boredom with the overall focus, word-lovers and language-likers should find plenty to enjoy here.

It's hard to argue with anything Machan writes, and I guess that's my problem with it. Machan exhaustively argues that "Once English became the vehicle for non-linguistic issues — a cipher, as I have called it — there seems to have been no limit to the issues it could carry, whether of race, economics, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or intelligence." In other words, English is amorphous but loaded. It's charged. It's social. It's often used as to exclude and dominate. Of course it is! You'd have to be living under a linguistic rock to not have an inkling of the questionable and creepy uses of English.

By dismissing this book, I don't mean to minimize the struggles of people who have been marginalized for not speaking English or not speaking English "right." I just didn't need any additional convincing of these points.

But I could be an off-base weirdo. I also despise NPR and alternative weeklies: even though I generally agree with them, I find them boring as paint. Maybe my painful years as a grad student predispose me to loathe any writing that triggers a flashback. I don't know. I guess I was the wrong choir for this preacher.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 15th 2013, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
i value ur recommendations too much to even try and read this book. as i said, i enjoyed reading david crystal's books on ur reco so much that u are practically my guru on linguistics books. so mark, please chose a book for review, which is eminently readable.
Monday November 18th 2013, 12:18 AM
Comment by: Gail B. (Budgewoi Australia)
Dear Mark
I'd be interested if you know of anything specific to idioms or other figurative language? I'm thinking of trying to teach these, and whether they are specific to each culture - or if there are patterns across cultures? maybe you could let me know, Many thanks, Gail Brown, gailbrown@designedlearning.com.au

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