In author Tom Howell’s opinion, before he got to it, there were two main problems with the officially stated story of the English language. First, because of a development time that stretches over hundreds of years and many countries, there is no central hero. Two, previous histories had been too busy being polite to get down to the nitty gritty essential to doing the story justice.
In The Rude Story of English (McClelland & Stewart) Howell fixes both errors. And judging from the sparkling result, he was just the right guy for the job because it is, in many ways, a flawless book. Taking what in other hands has often been tedious, uninteresting and even (by way of omission) inaccurate, Howell creates a book not only dead interesting, it’s also Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy funny. Howell knows how to tell a story. For one thing, he begins at the beginning:
The story of the English language is actually quite cool. It contains some sad parts, but these are well dispersed among moments of beauty, hilarity, pauses for thought, lessons for us all, and ambiguous moral themes. It is, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Howell takes care of the lack of a central hero for his story in the style of the very best storytellers: he makes one up. We meet Hengest in 449 AD, a fearsome Germanic warrior who trips onto English soil… and swears. We meet Hengest throughout history, a familiar character in the always changing landscape of language.
Even if you think you know something about the history of the English language, you’ll learn a lot from Howell’s book. More: you’ll learn it with enjoyment and even laughter. ◊
David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine.