A leading thinker recommends five books about their field of interest. This month, the topic is the English language, chosen by the journalist and novelist Robert McCrumby Prospect / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)
What I want to do in my choice of books is to describe the three stages of the evolution of the English language. The first is a British stage, the second is American and the third is a global one, in which English is being used internationally as a default language.
Samuel Johnson wrote one of the most influential dictionaries in the English language. And, amazingly, he did it all by himself apart from the assistance of a few hired hands.
He wrote some witty entries, defining “lexicographer” as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” For “oats” he put “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
This dictionary marked the first time that a language has been defined, not in academic terms or university terms, but by one individual using language in a very practical way. It’s a touchstone of the English language.
The American Language (1921)
By HL Mencken
HL Mencken was a terrific journalist during the first half of the 20th century. He wrote for the Baltimore Morning Herald and deemed it his job as columnist to make trouble. But in his spare time he was a passionate advocate of what he called the American language. He wrote the book to clarify the discrepancies between British and American English and to define the characteristics of American English.
He was as much a nationalist about his language as Johnson was. Mencken’s book describes how American English evolved after the revolution into the way it was in 1920. He saw it as an international force. Although one of his friends was the English broadcaster Alistair Cooke, he was fairly anti-British and saw the American language as a way of defining the nation’s identity. He was very pro what at the time was seen as slang; he thought it was a cause for celebration.
The World is Flat (2005)
By Thomas Friedman