Book Reviews Conference Papers
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale
The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein Medieval Child Marriage
Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival
The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil  
The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble  
Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas
The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Francis Robienne, Jr.

Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.

John McLaughlin, PhD

English Department, East Stroudsburg University, Emeritus


This review appeared in Language Quarterly, Vol 33, Nos. 3-4 (Summer-Fall, 1995), 249-51.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
, Ed. David.Crystal,
Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-40179-8. Hardcover. $49.95 489 pages, full-color illustration throughout. 24 Chapters, in six parts, with seven appendices including a glossary, list of symbols and abbreviations, references and further readings, three indices (linguistic items, authors/personalities and topics), plus acknowledgements.

This lavish follow-through to the same author's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge, 1987), focusses in its turn on English alone, in its worldwide, imperial manifestations. Where the earlier work was admittedly a linguistic reference, this lavish, full-color coffee-table-sized book seems aimed at a more general audience, one which might be taken to need the lightly humorous touch provided by the cartoons, TV ads, comic sidebars and other visual aids which appear on every double-page spread unit.

The choice of the double-page spread as both intellectual and graphic unit is in itself an indication of the general audience sought by the author and publishers. Not for this audience the forced march through the seven classes of strong verbs in Old English, unrelieved by humor or side- view into other realms of the language and culture; transliterated runes, photographs of reconstructed Anglo-Saxon huts, a color facsimile of the first lines of Beowulf, a full-color reproduction of a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Caedmon's story interlineated -- no stone is left unturned to provide an attractive, variegated mosaic of the language in its earliest appearances in England before the Norman Conquest. Each stage in the history and development of the language is treated in similar fashion; anyone who has ever wondered about the origin of "Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe" is treated not only to a discussion of "Ye Olde Letters," but is given photographic displays and discussion of manuscript features and the influence of "Chancery Standard" on the development of English spelling. Declaring that "There is no doubt that an Early Modern English period needs to be recognized in the history of English," Prof. Crystal proceeds to demonstrate this with examples of Caxton's pages, in transliterated facsimiles, a demonstration of dialect differences in the 15th century (the "egg" vs. "eyren" story), and a discussion of the problems Caxton faced in making the choices which he recognized would standardize one dialect over against another. A discussion of place-namesis accompanied by snapshots of the places themselves -- Silbury Hill andLangstrothdale Chase, Woodcote and Lake Buttermere, Inverness and Bradford-on-Avon -- with synonyms and related words for hills and slopes, valleys and groves, woods, dwellings, farmsteads and coastline features.

That this is a lively, richly informative work, repaying repeated study of at least the browsing, non-exam-oriented kind, seems to be without question. The choice of sequence of topics, however, might bear some discussion. Beginning with the entire sweep of history (Part I) and then going to discussion of the vocabulary of English (Part II), and only then to English Grammar (Part III) means putting off, until halfway through the book, the discussion of phonology that makes sense out of the earlier discussion of the development of the language, at least for some readers trained to look for underlying causes of linguistic change. These are not the expected readers, of course, in part explaining this particular choice of sequence: we begin with the history, says Prof. Crystal, because, above all, "it satisfies the deep-rooted sense of curiosity we have about our linguistic heritage. People like to be aware of their linguistic roots" (p.5). That this means considerable cross- referencing to explain what will be more fully discussed later, or to offer other paths back into the labyrinth, soon becomes clear. As a "travellers guide," it is noted that "chapters, and sections within chapters, have been planned as self-contained entities" (the facing-page spread noted as the basic graphic unit), with "relevant conceptual underpinning provided by the frequent use of cross-references" (Preface, vi). Thus, in discussion of the "Lexical Invasions" in Old English (Pp. 24-25), we are reminded to go back to p. 10 for Vulgar Latin in Old English, but also sent forward to p. 48 for later discussions of classical borrowing at another stage of English. Discussion of the effect of Norse (p. 25) sends us back to the Battle of Maldon (p.12), but discussion of the verb "to be" on p. 25 sends us forward to check the spread of the -s ending on other verbs (p. 44).

If this calls forth images for some readers of the happy browser, flipping back and forward as fancy takes him, for other readers this might recall the concept of "hypertext," the computer-program term which refers to the reader's cross-referencing to the point of creating his or her own narrative out of the shower of possible topics unfolding from his or her own personal choices of pathways from among those offered and cross- referenced. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Prof. Crystal would be more than happy to have his large book re-composed as a hypertext program for use in computer format, the click of a mouse replacing the swish of page-turning, permitting the end-user to surf the network of references at will. Until the time this program is written, of course, the curious browser must content himself with flipping back and forward, following the parenthetical clues provided. All that is missing is a sound track, but that is mere technology away. Gregorian chants to illustrate monkish scribes, anyone? A little rap music...? I look forward with interest to the hypertext version; in the meantime, this may indeed be as close as we shall get.

John McLaughlin, Summer, 1995