A CONCISE, authoritative book on the English language -- what it is now and how it got where it is -- has long been wanted, and Robert Burchfield as chief editor to the Oxford English dictionaries should be well qualified to supply it. The book he has written certainly qualifies on the score of brevity, and its plan appears simplicity itself. After some preliminary considerations, three historical chapters take us by easy stages from runes to printing, from Caxton to George Washington, and from 1776 to the present day. There follow five shorter essays on literature and ritualistic works, on dictionaries and grammars, on vocabulary, on pronunciation and spelling, and on syntax. There is a final chapter on dispersed forms of English, i.e., English as used in North America, Austrialia, and by foreigners as a second language.
This ought to make a tidy and coherent book, and perhaps in defter hands it might; unhappily Burchfield turns out to be a thoroughly inept, disorganized, and ill-informed author. One major problem seems to be that his training in dictionary work has given him very little practice in organizing general ideas; in any event, his detailed observations are better (though even here one finds errors to deplore) than his handling of historical trends and broad influences.
The reader will notice something askew as early as the first chapter when, after quoting Hobbes on the necessity of defining words accurately in order to know what we are talking about, Burchfield launches into an array of conspicuously undefined and arbitrary conclusions about the language. This is just the beginning. The topical chapters in the latter part of the book frequently clash inexplicably with the chronological chapters in the first part. On page 10 we learn as a secure conclusion that the Anglo-Saxons were divided into four main linguistic groups; but on page 138, "I regard it as axiomatic that the traditional classification of Anglo-Saxon dialects into four major groups . . . is an over-simplification." The chapter titled "Literature, Ritualistic Works, and Language" disposes of the first topic by saying it's a very complex and intricate matter (this is a frequent Burchfield device for cutting off a discussion which threatens to get interesting), and resolves itself into a diatribe against modernized versions of the Bible.
BETWEEN SUCH frankly perfunctory history and a limited range of special interests (lexicography, pronunciation, the modern decay of syntax), all sorts of really important themes in the development of English get slighted or ignored entirely. Such matters as the fate of Anglo-Saxon under Norman rule, the use of law-Latin and law- French, the influence on prose style of the Puritan movement, the positive example of the Royal Society and the mainly negative example of the French Academy, the importance of translation, the strong strain of Irish English, the existence of pidgin English, the effects of censorships formal and informal, the multiple impacts of modernism in the first quarter of the 20th century -- none of these matters is really discussed on Burchfield's pages, and most are not even mentioned. It is a scrappy job.
More amusing than irksome to an American reader will be Burchfield's Oxonocentric view of the English language used in and around London by BBC announcers, university professors and such. (Cockney, which is quintessential London speech, Burchfield does not deign to mention, no doubt for reasons best expressed by Professor Henry Higgins.)
As for varieties of English used in those dark corners of the world where RP does not prevail, his notions are not unlike those of early cartographers, who, where they did not know the country, drew in monsters. Americans will be entertained to learn that they are given to using words like honeyfuggle (to obtain by cheating and deception), nabe (for neighborhood), and sockdolager (something sensational or exceptional). But then they will already have learned that in the United States and parts of Canada all words with medial t are pronounced as if it were a d. (The examples given are medaphysical and splitting the adom.) Perhaps the only Americans Burchfield ever conversed with all had bad colds -- though that does not answer the question in what murky pools he picked up his notions of American slang. As for his ideas of Black English and other minority dialects (in my region of the country, or "nabe," the pressing problem is Spanglish), they are of a superficiality scarcely to be credited. Beg pardon, credided.