You Should Read This: A Biography of the English Language by C.M. Millward

The cover of A Biography of the English Language by C.M. Millward, recommended by speculative fiction writer Cat Rambo

Our language is nuanced with a thousand historical references, even when we think it at its most innocent.

What:There’s a t-shirt that reads “English is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.” In A Biography of the English Language, Millward presents some of this complicated history of the English language, first talking about what a language is, along with basics of phonology and writing before moving into Indo-European, Old English (the sage of the arrival of the English, the Christianization of England, and various Viking invasions), Middle English, Early Modern English, and then the array of recent forces shaping our language: the printing press, the industrial revolution, colonization, the codification of grammar, and more. It finishes up with present day English, at least as present day as a book written in 1989 can be. I should note that, looking at Amazon, the book is expensive as heck. I suspect any thorough history of the English language will do as well, but this book is VERY thorough. I bet it’s also available through libraries.

Who:Read this if you are a writer who likes to know what’s built into the words you’re using, what they say about their circumstances as well as what resonances they add for the knowledgeable. Read it if you love the minutiae of language, all the little “who would have thought” and “Although unlikely” facts that get seeded into long and drifty conversations, like the fact that Indo-European had three numbers: singular, plural, and dual.

Why: Read this so you can use words both more efficiently and more artfully. SO you know how the literary tradition you are working for and against, bound inextricably within, has been affected by linguistic change and created its own pressures to change in turn.

When: Read this when going among bores, for it will arm you with facts with which any recitation of X-Files plots or sports trivia can be met. Read this when you want something a little academic, with that cleansing flavor of self-improvement that the scrub of dry details can bring. Read it when you’re cramming for a test that involves volcabulary.

Where and how: Read this sporadically, tucking facts away, or with a notebook in hand. Read it for a class that takes you through centuries of linguistic change, showing you how history is tucked into every Vocabulary lesson.


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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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