This fall, television viewers in both America and Britain were presented with a nine-part series entitled The Story of English, co-produced by MacNeil-Lehrer Productions and the BBC. Though the series was purportedly a joint American-British endeavor, was hosted by the anchorman of an American news program, Robert MacNeil, and was funded principally by an American corporation (General Foods) and an American foundation (the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), The Story of English had a decidedly British flavor. This should not be surprising, for it was conceived and co-written by an Englishman, Robert McCrum, the editorial director of Faber and Faber and a graduate of Cambridge University (the series’ other writer of record was MacNeil, who is Canadian by birth), and was produced and directed by William Cran, an Oxford-educated journalist who has created documentaries for public television both here and in Britain. McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil are, furthermore, the authors of a companion book—also entitled The Story of English—which was published to coincide with the airing of the television show.[1]

The first episode of the series, entitled “An English-Speaking World,” was less than promising. Its chief purpose seemed to be to tell us as many times as possible that English is “a language without frontiers,” “the language of the global village of communication,” “everybody’s second language,” “the indispensable language of progress for the Third World.” MacNeil’s cameras took us to Italy (where the multinational Iveco Corporation transacts all its business in English), to France (where the French-speaking countries, in general congress assembled, attempted to stem the tide of “Franglish” by coming up with French equivalents for Walkman and compact disc), to India (where young men want their brides to be fluent in English), to China (where the most popular television series is an English-language instructional program), to Japan, West Africa, Singapore, and so forth. This material started out by being fascinating and ended up by being very monotonous. The program dwelled in particular on California, whose “huge energy,” MacNeil told us, “has overflowed into the language.” He showed us surfers gabbing in “surf talk” (“check it out, dude”), Silicon Valley people using words like on-line and high-tech, and San Fernando Valley girls explaining “valley talk” (grody, awesome). An extremely unamusing homosexual comedian delivered a long routine that yielded exactly two examples of “gay slang” (“coming out of the closet,” queens). Then, while we watched a group of women in sweatsuits practicing self-defense techniques, MacNeil rhapsodized about how “California has led the way in chopping sexism out of the language,” and about how the elimination of words like chairman and mankind spells “the end of linguistic male chauvinism.” Finally, MacNeil spoke ominously about “Pentagon language” (“pre-dawn vertical insertion”) and explained that it was the “ordinary fighting man” who had enriched military English, by coining words like snafu.

MacNeil explained, near the beginning of this first episode, that the series would speak of varieties of English, not dialects, for the latter “is often a loaded word.” He said:

Our story is not about the correct way to speak English but about all the different varieties and how they came to be. Why a MacNeil from Nova Scotia sounds different from a MacNeil here in Scotland or one in North Carolina or New Zealand . . . . In fact the idea of a correct or proper way to speak is surprisingly recent. There is such an idea, of course. It’s often referred to as the Queen’s English or BBC English or Oxford English or public-school English.

Whereupon The Story of English took us to Winchester, where a few high-toned teenage boys told us about the pressures public-school boys are under to speak the Queen’s English. What’s important here is that MacNeil, in pronouncing his refusal to endorse a “correct” brand of English, failed to distinguish between accent, on the one hand, and grammar and vocabulary on the other. To endorse one accent as correct would of course be out-and-out snobbery; to suggest that the grammatical rules of Standard English should be followed, and the received meanings of the words in its vocabulary respected, is something else again. The Story of English, for what its creators patently considered (in their ineffable Oxbridgean way) to be noble and egalitarian reasons, consistently blurred this fundamental distinction. Accordingly, MacNeil insisted at the conclusion of the first episode that, for all the scholars and writers and poets who have written memorably in English, “the making of English is not imposed from above. It bubbles up from below, from the speech of every man and every woman.” Despite such ringing populistic declarations, however, the series had an unmistakable de haut en has tone; though I didn’t know when I saw this first episode precisely who had created the series, it was obvious from the program’s strange preoccupation with public-school English (no matter what MacNeil actually happened to be saying about it), as well as from its desperately misguided stab at egalitarianism, that The Story of English was, in large part, the product of the Oxbridge mentality, with its perverse combination of snobbism and nostalgie de la boue.

Despite such ringing populistic declarations, however, the series had an unmistakable de haut en has tone.

Fortunately, the series was not as consistently offensive as the first episode suggested it would be. At its best, The Story of English presented a respectable simplified course in the history of the language. Episode Two (“The Mother Tongue”), for instance, effectively summarized the story of the language’s beginnings. It covered the Indo-European background; the fifth-century invasion of Celtic Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, who brought with them their language, Old English, and borrowed relatively few words (crag, tor, Avon) from the Celts; the introduction of Christianity, with its Greek and Latin vocabulary (angel, disciple, martyr, shrine), in AD 597; the coming of the Vikings, with their Norse vocabulary, between the eighth and eleventh centuries (thanks to which speakers of English can either rear or raise a child, the former word arising from Old English, the latter from Old Norse); and the Norman invasion of 1066, which added a huge French vocabulary to the language (giving us a choice between the Anglo-Saxon kingly and the French royal, regal, and sovereign) and resulted in the development of Middle English. The episode took a deep bow in the direction of Chaucer, the language’s first great writer, and of William Caxton, its first printer, who played a major role in establishing the language’s spelling conventions; and it ended with an excerpt from the fifteenth-century play Mankind, whose language “is thoroughly and recognizably English.”

The succeeding program, “A Muse of Fire,” picked the story up from there, celebrating the English of the Renaissance, during which time between ten and twelve thousand new words were added to the language—words like detail (which was adapted from the French), cupola and stucco (Italian), desperado and embargo (Spanish), smuggle and reef (Dutch). From Latin, writers adapted words like retrograde, reciprocal, defunct, and inflate, which were widely regarded as pretentious and were known as “inkhorn terms.” Sir Thomas More took the Latin word communicare and turned it into communicate, and Sir Philip Sidney combined the Greek words for “heat” and “measure” and created thermometer. The individual most responsible, however, for the enrichment of Renaissance English is Shakespeare, whose Folio, MacNeil told us, exerts a “direct influence on every one of us who speaks English today.” Shakespeare, whose works contain a vocabulary of thirty-four thousand words (the greatest of any writer), “invented more words than anyone that ever lived,” including obscene and assassination; a single line of Macbeth contains two new words, multitudinous and incarnadine. Shakespeare also made the language more flexible, using nouns for verbs (e.g., “grace me no grace”), and coined numerous phrases that have entered the language—which the program illustrated by a list of famous lines from Hamlet on the order of “Frailty, thy name is woman!” and “Alas poor Yorick.” (The series’ companion book does better by Shakespeare’s phrase-making: it quotes a clever piece by Bernard Levin that is composed entirely of phrases originated by the Bard.) The program thereupon presented us with brief clips from the BBC’s Shakespeare Plays, the purpose of which apparently was to remind us that Shakespeare wrote such lines as “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

The episode moved on from Shakespeare to cover the King James Bible of 1611 (whose vocabulary consists of an austere eight thousand words) and the colonization of America—whose variety of English was founded, as MacNeil put it, upon the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. The majority of the settlers at Jamestown, we were informed, came from the West Country of England, whose stressed “r” sound, which is uncharacteristic of most English speech, became a notable characteristic of American English; the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, on the other hand, came mostly from East Anglia (where one can find the original towns of Boston, Lincoln, Braintree, Cambridge, etc.), thus accounting for the fact that the New England accent, with its flat “a” and unstressed “r” (among other things), bears a strong resemblance to the East Midlands dialect. These accentual similarities were demonstrated— as such things were throughout the series—in longish sequences that took us into neighborhood pubs and shops on both sides of the Atlantic to listen to the natives chat each other up. In spite of the occasional inane detour, then, the second and third episodes of The Story of English were mostly fine, and one was able to imagine them being used profitably in conjunction with a high-school English course.

The same was true—but to a somewhat lesser extent—of Episode Four (“The Guid Scots Tongue”). When the Normans invaded England, they sent many Anglo-Saxons fleeing into Scotland, thus giving rise to the Scots dialect. Episode Four told us that the Scots—whose variety of English, but for the seventeenth-century union of the two kingdoms, might well have developed into a separate language—nonetheless have played an important role in the dissemination of English. (Incidentally, in one of the many discrepancies between the series and the companion book, the series told us that Scots —not to be confused with Scots Gaelic, the all-but-extinct Celtic language of the Highlands—might under different circumstances have become as distinct from English as Danish is from Swedish; the book tells us that Scots did indeed become as distinct from English as Danish is from Swedish.) Many Scots-Irish, MacNeil explained, emigrated to Philadelphia, and from there travelled westward through the Cumberland Gap, where their descendants speak the Appalachian dialect. That dialect’s characteristic pronunciations (bar for bear, cheer for here, hit for it), in particular its open vowels, betray its Scottish origin. MacNeil maintained that not only the Appalachian accent, but the accents of the American Midwest and Southwest, all derive principally from Scots-Irish.

This episode—which was the first in the series to deal extensively with American English—had several notable failings. For one thing, like many of the episodes to follow, it sometimes fastened upon matters that seemed to have little or nothing to do with the topic at hand—truck drivers’ CB-radio nicknames, for instance. More important, there was no mention that Charleston, South Carolina, received nearly as many Scots-Irish immigrants as did Philadelphia, and that the largest concentration of Americans of Scots-Irish ancestry is in the southern states. One expected to see this oversight repaired in a later episode, but it never was.

Indeed, the very next installment of the series compounded the confusion on this matter. This episode, interestingly enough, began in Charleston, but didn’t so much as mention the Scots-Irish—or, for that matter, the French Huguenots, who also migrated in large numbers to Charleston and exerted a considerable influence upon the speech of white people in that part of the country. Entitled “Black on White,” the segment was concerned rather with the influence of American blacks on world English. It was, one should add, probably the most disturbing episode of the series, the one that most plainly demonstrated the perverseness of many of the attitudes and assumptions upon which the entire series was constructed. “White American language and culture owe much to the blacks,” MacNeil said by way of introduction. Whereupon he introduced us to an obnoxious pair of upper-class white Charlestonians—a pompous young man preparing for a game of polo, a snooty belle parading around in a crinoline dress suggestive of Scarlett O’Hara —whose English, MacNeil explained, was a direct descendant of the Plantation Creole once spoken by Southern slaves, which had in turn developed out of the makeshift English of the African slave coast. The implication was that the English of all white Southerners is strongly dependent upon Plantation Creole as is the English of Charleston; but the program failed to point out that the dialect of that city—the one-time center of the slave trade—is unique in the South, easily distinguishable from the English spoken in towns as close as fifty miles away.

This was not the episode’s only peculiar omission. White Southern plantation children, we were told, learned to speak English from their black mammies, their black playmates, and their black house and field workers—who, significantly outnumbering the whites on the plantation, exerted a greater influence upon their language than did their parents. Well enough. But what of the great majority of white Southerners who were not plantation dwellers, outnumbered by their slaves? The program failed to take such people into account. (Those wealthy Charlestonians, with their aberrant accent and anachronistic way of life, were the only white Southerners featured in the whole series.) Nor, once again, did MacNeil distinguish between accent and grammar or vocabulary; certainly the grammar and vocabulary of most white Southerners were less influenced by Plantation Creole than were their accents.

This was not the episode’s only peculiar omission.

MacNeil also introduced us to a community of blacks who live on the Sea Islands of South Carolina (and whose down-to-earth charm formed a distinct, and apparently intentional, contrast with the snootiness of the rich white Charlestonians). These blacks speak Gullah, a language peculiar to the Sea Islands, which is, in MacNeil’s words, “one of the missing links between American and African civilization” and the “basis of black American English.” From South Carolina, the program leapt across the ocean to the coast of West Africa where, two and three centuries ago, white and black slave traders communicated in West African pidgin English (a “pidgin” being a language with a simple grammar and limited vocabulary, and no native speakers, which is created so that people with different primary languages can talk to one another). This pidgin contained elements of a number of European and African languages (the pidgin word pickaninny derived from the diminutive of the Portuguese word pequino, “small”; savvy came from the French savez-vous). Because the captured slaves came from tribes that spoke a hundred and sixty different languages, pidgin English became their principal means of communication, not only with their captors but with one another; thus it developed, in time, into the English Creole of West Africa and the West Indies (a “creole” being a pidgin that has become the first language of a speech community) as well as into Plantation Creole—which, in turn, developed into Black English.

One aspect of Black English is “jive talk,” which was spread to the white community by black musicians early in the twentieth century. Jive talk added an abundance of slang and colloquial words to the language—uptight, jazz, groovy, lingo—and gave new meanings to many old words, among them cool, joint, square, chick, beat, and jam. The program explored this phenomenon responsibly enough, but then wasted several minutes on “Mr. Spoons,” a black Philadelphian shoeshine man who writes “poems” like this:

Step up on the stand
And get the best shine in the land.
If you don’t like your shine, you get your money back
But if you don’t pay, you get your head cracked.
That’s the business of the boot-black.

While Mr. Spoons recited “one of his finest poems,” a less-than-impressive meditation on civil rights (“There just ain’t no justice here for the Black man./How then can that be but wrong./You see they closed most of the schools to us down here,/And we pay taxes but afraid to vote.”), we watched some Sixties-vintage film of white cops and dogs terrorizing black protesters. For a while, the supposed topic of the series got lost in the shuffle; the creators of The Story of English clearly felt obliged to remind us that (a) black people had a rough time in America for several centuries and (b) MacNeil, McCrum, and Cran felt just sick about it. So they took us on a little detour from the story of English and instead we got to see, for the hundredth time, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and got to hear MacNeil noting triumphantly that in the twenty years since that speech, “Blacks have gradually taken their rightful place in American life.”

We then met one of the country’s more successful blacks, Mayor Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, who, MacNeil informed us, once took a speech course in order to lose his North Carolina accent. In yet another of its habitual refusals to distinguish between differences in accent and differences in grammar and vocabulary, the program seemed to equate Mayor Goode’s deliberate change of accent with the attempts of American educators to help black students learn Standard English. The program purported to take no sides in the controversy over Black English, but in actuality it came down strongly on the side of Black English, suggesting that one “variety” of language is as good as another, arid even implying that the street kids who speak Black English are more vitally involved with language than are the English teachers who would have them adopt Standard English. After a black woman judge spoke eloquently against Black English, explaining that young black people need to master Standard English in order to compete equally in American society, MacNeil and company appeared to do their best to make her look like a reactionary, a traitor to her people and her culture. “Major changes in the language,” MacNeil insisted, “don’t happen because of educators and writers but on the street. The streets of the ghetto have been one of the great recent phrase- and word-factories of English.”

And so MacNeil, in the last fifteen minutes or so of this episode, took us slumming on the ghetto streets, where “the traditions of Black English are alive and well.” We met a gang of young blacks and listened to them converse with each other in their severely limited vocabulary (funky fresh, wack, bad, etc.) about a fight that one of them had almost gotten into with a dude from another gang; then we met a young street rapper named Perrey P who, MacNeil told us, has “made street talk into an art form all his own.” Sample:

Synthetics, genetics, command your soul,
Trucks, tanks, laser beams
Gus, blasts, submarines,
Neutron, B-bomb, A-bomb, gas
All that stuff will kill you fas’.

That their lack of fluency in Standard English all but guarantees that these street kids will grow into street adults seems not to have disturbed MacNeil, McCrum, and Cran; they displayed not the slightest hesitancy in celebrating the artfulness, the “vigor” and “zest,” of these young people’s language. One could not help but ask oneself: would MacNeil and company want their own children to talk this way, to be “artists” like Perrey P? Would William Cran hire a Perrey P to write one of his documentaries? Would MacNeil take him on as a reporter for The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour? Would McCrum give him a Faber and Faber book contract? Of course not. There is no question but that the facile, modish praise of Perrey P and his brethren represented The Story of English at its most hypocritical, irresponsible, and condescending.

The next few segments of the series were considerably less worrisome. Episode Six (“Pioneers! O Pioneers!”) covered the development of English in the American West, including the contributions of Mississippi riverboat gamblers (“up the ante,” “deal me out”), the Forty-niners (“hit pay dirt”), the Indian pidgin (“no can do,” “long time no see”), cowboy jargon (lallapalooza, absquatulate, “bite the dust,” “hot under the collar”), frontier Spanish (stampede, sombrero, loco), and the railroads (sidetrack, whistlestop, “make the grade,” “one-track mind”). The episode afforded MacNeil the opportunity to refer to the encounter between whites and Indians as a “tragic culture clash” and to deliver the following sentence, which was typical of the series at its most fatuously rhapsodic: “Railroads found a special place in America’s heart, putting the country’s energetic spirit on wheels, sweeping its people and their language to the remote corners of the Union, stirring the melting pot of American English.” (This was almost as impressive as a sentence from the first episode, which made MacNeil, for a moment at least, sound strangely like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk: “In this series we will take an extraordinary journey from an obscure Germanic tribe to the ends of the universe . . . .”) There was also an apparent contradiction with Episode Four, which had maintained that the Scots-Irish were mostly responsible for the middle-American accent; now, MacNeil told us that the accent of the Midwest resulted from a merging of the accents of the eastern states.

But no matter. At this point—with a bow toward Whitman, who “celebrated the pioneer spirit of America,” and toward Mark Twain (whose achievement was summarized by that all-purpose transatlantic authority, the redoubtable Alistair Cooke)—the episode turned to the contributions of non-English-speaking immigrants of the post-Civil War period. While we viewed the requisite film of huddled masses at Ellis Island, MacNeil read some purple prose about “this melancholy gateway to the New World”; then the program cut to New York’s skyscrapers (with, somewhat disconcertingly, Copland’s Appalachian Spring serving as the background music). We watched a parade in New York’s Little Italy while MacNeil explained that the Italian language gave us words like spaghetti and manicotti; we watched a Steuben Day parade while MacNeil saluted Germany for giving us kindergarten, cookbook, and delicatessen. (At times, The Story of English made one downright hungry.) Finally MacNeil talked about how Jewish radio and television comedians spread Yiddish words (chutzpah, schmaltz, kosher) and phrases (“You should live so long,” “Enough already”) to the American public—apropos of which Leo Rosten, one of the many celebrated figures interviewed in the course of the series, offered a genuinely interesting observation about why Yiddish may well be (in MacNeil’s words) “the most influential of immigrant languages.” “Yiddish,” he said, “lends itself to a remarkable range of psychological discriminations. It’s steeped in sentiment and it’s loosed with sarcasm. It knows that only paradox can do justice to the injustice of life. It adores irony because it knows that the only way Jews could retain their sanity was to view a dreadful world with ironic and astringent eyes.”

But such moments of perceptiveness were few and far between in The Story of English.

But such moments of perceptiveness were few and far between in The Story of English. Episode Seven (“The Muwer Tongue”) took a rather superficial, if diverting, look at the language of Cockneys and its influence upon Australian English (which also, the program informed us, preserves English localisms—Warwickshire’s larriken for rowdy, rural Norfolk’s wowser for killjoy—that are long since extinct in the Home Counties). Episode Eight (“The Loaded Weapon”) was about Ireland and the Irish; it discussed the English language’s borrowing of words like smithereens, galore, and tantrum from Irish Gaelic, the world’s debt to Irish writers like Yeats and Joyce and Synge, and the Irish influence upon the New York accent in general and the coinage yous (as in “yous guys”) in particular. Most of all, however, the episode seemed preoccupied with extremely familiar political matters—namely, with the centuries-old struggle between Ireland and England, in which the English language has of course played an important role. Accordingly, the program’s final moments found MacNeil delivering an unsurprising conclusion to the effect that the Irish, their pipe dreams to the contrary, won’t ever be able to shake off the English language and go back to Gaelic, but may yet “find in the accents of their English an escape from the prison of their history.”

The series’ closing installment, “The Empire Strikes Back,” posed the question, “Will English, like Latin before it, gradually break up into separate languages?” MacNeil took us to Sierra Leone, Barbados, and Jamaica, where the natives speak English Creoles. In Jamaica, activists expressed their desire to eliminate Standard English (which they look upon resentfully as “the language of authority”) as the official state language, and to replace it with Jamaican Creole (“the language of the mass of the people”), so that street signs reading “No parking between signs,” for instance, will be changed to read, “No paak betwiin dem sain ya.” These activists—who referred to Jamaican Creole as the “nation language”—spoke of it in blatant political terms, encouraging its use not only on the island of Jamaica but among blacks, Jamaican and non-Jamaican alike, in Great Britain. Jamaican Creole, argued the Jamaican “dub” poet Desmond Johnson, is a unifying force among young blacks in London who “need to feel separate from a society that rejects them . . . . Caribbean patois gives them a language that’s all theirs, and, when they imitate Jamaican Creole, a special sense of identity.” MacNeil’s contribution to all this, predictably enough, was to show us some Caribbean immigrant youngsters playing soccer in a London neighborhood and—apropos of their lively chatter, which was full of exotic soccer-related terms—to offer the observation that Jamaican Creole is “more expressive” than Standard English. (And what, one wondered, if these kids want to grow up to talk expressively about something other than soccer?) We watched snippets of a black riot in London while listening to a reggae protest song, then—as the song continued—saw a mural of a prone black man with a white man’s foot pressing down upon his head. Ah, the joys of language!

MacNeil then took us to India, where, we learned, more and more words from the various Indian languages are creeping into Indian English. “Local energies” he said, “are driving people away from Standard English.” And apparently, as far as he was concerned, this was all just hunky-dory. “Our language thrives on change,” MacNeil proclaimed, and quoted Anthony Burgess to the effect that English is “gloriously impure.” Which indeed it is; but neither he nor the other creators of this series seem to have understood the real meaning of Burgess’s observation. Indeed, the entire series appeared to be founded upon the principle that every sort of linguistic impurity is unquestionably glorious, that any change that takes place in a language is by definition a sign of “vitality.” The series made no distinction between the changes in English introduced by Shakespeare, who broadened and deepened the language’s expressive range, and those introduced by street kids, say, or surfers, whose jargon renders them incapable of discussing anything more subtle or complicated or abstract than a street fight or a good wave. That there can be both good changes in language (changes that make it more precise, majestic, and profound) and bad changes (those that make it more fuzzy and simpleminded) seems never to have occurred to MacNeil and company.

The Story of English companion book is so attractively designed, illustrated, and produced that one wishes it were more wisely and beautifully written. To be sure, it is, in many respects, superior to the television series. Though it covers essentially the same material, with each of its nine chapters corresponding to an episode of the series, it manages most of the time to be less tedious and pointless than the program. Whereas Episode Seven, for instance, paid inordinate attention to an Australian comedian named Barry Humphries, who likes to dress up as a woman, the coverage of Humphries in the corresponding chapter of the book is mercifully limited to a single photograph of him in drag. (Ah, the British sense of humor!) likewise, one of the weaker aspects of the series was the excessive amount of time it devoted to interviews with quaint, aged speakers of archaic dialects (an unusual number of whom, as it happened, were fishermen); the reader of the book is spared all that. Yet, like the series, the book has its flaws. It is the sort of volume in which the authors offer, as testimony to the importance of English, the fact that it is “the official language of . . . the Miss Universe competition,” and, twenty-three pages later, having somehow arrived back at the same topic, remind us that English is the language of the Miss World contest as well. Errors abound. In Chapter Three alone, the geographical areas indicated on two maps of the eastern United States don’t jibe with their description in the captions; the territory covered by New Spain is misidentified; the English word chocolate is said to be derived from a South American or Caribbean Indian language, when in actuality it comes from the Aztec language, Nahuatl; and Puerto Rico is referred to as a “neighbor” of the United States.

The book’s prose (most of which is, reportedly, the work of Mr. McCrum) is often quite awkward. Chapter Three tells us, for instance, that Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay “forms one of the most vivid parts of the fossilized English language on the eastern seaboard of the United States.” From Chapter Seven: “Unlike the Germans, the less-educated Italians made a more complete adoption of American English.” And from Chapter Eight: Australian society “contrasts its classlessness with Britain’s.”

That the book is principally the work of an Englishman is especially clear, to an American anyway, in the passages dealing with the United States. McCrum and his colleagues write that “Thomas Jefferson, with his usual prescience, had seen that when the slave states of the South and the free states of the North competed to join the Union, there would be trouble.” (Certainly the word territories would have served better than states.) The authors refer to Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne—in contrast with Mark Twain—as “the men of the eastern districts.” And, speaking of the European immigrants of more than a half century ago, McCrum and company write that “in the schoolroom, and especially the playground, there were fierce pressures favoring the use of the American standard. The schools were the places where the immigrant children were rapidly Americanized by their playmates, and life was made intolerable, one imagines, for the child who had to use a foreign word rather than the English.” On the contrary, most European immigrant children, living as they did in Jewish or Ukrainian or Italian ghettos, went to school with other European immigrant children; if they were rapidly Americanized nonetheless, it was because they and their parents wanted them to become Americans, to learn English and to make meaningful and productive lives for themselves in the New World. (In those days they didn’t have Robert MacNeil to tell them, in his impeccable mid-Atlantic accent, how wonderful broken English could be; they didn’t have Robert McCrum around, writing about “Americanization” as if it were some transatlantic counterpart of the Third Reich’s Lebensborn program.)

The Story of English book manages to be at least as condescending as the television series. 

The Story of English book manages to be at least as condescending as the television series. At the end of the “Black on White” chapter, for instance, the authors quote Walt Whitman to the effect that the English language has “its basis broad and low, close to the ground,” and remark that “This is a sharp reminder that the best of English comes from a wide range of sources—Black and White.” Pretty slick writing, that: the authors manage to praise black Americans and patronize them at the same time. (What’s more, the sentence appears above two photographs of Martin Luther King and James Baldwin. Do the writers mean to suggest that King and Baldwin are in some way “low, close to the ground”?) In much the same vein, Chapter Eight tells us that “Italian Australians behave like Italians (promenading the street and ogling the girls),” while the book’s epilogue, “Next Year’s Words,” describes Africans as “gifted linguists.” (Are they also good tap dancers?)

Like the series, too, the book tends to wander into politics—and, when it does, tends not to find its way out for a good long time. Indeed, many of the political attitudes that are implicit in the television program are expressed more blatantly in the book. For example, McCrum and his colleagues mention with obvious dismay that “African governments, anxious in every other respect to throw off the shackles of imperialism, still show a genuine enthusiasm for speaking ‘proper.’” The authors maintain that whereas the visits of Presidents Nixon and Reagan to Ireland were contrived for political purposes—with Nixon’s visit, in particular, displaying “the element of chicanery so often associated with him”—President Kennedy’s visit, by contrast, was “a genuine (though politically astute) pilgrimage, which drew huge crowds on a scale that his successors never matched.” And the book complains that “gurus of grammar” like John Simon, William Safire, and Edwin Newman grouse too much about the possible dangers of English-Spanish bilingualism in America. The creators of The Story of English, naturally, don’t worry about the consequences of American bilingualism. They’ve got it all figured out. “Black Power, Hispanic Rights, Feminism, Gay Liberation, anti-Americanism: these are some of the issues of our time, and the English language will always be used by conservatives as a stick with which to beat the opposition.” According to The Story of English, it’s as simple as that: the only problem connected with bilingualism, Black English, and so forth is that there are reactionary fuddy-duddies out there who persist in talking about these things as if they were problems. If your next-door neighbor tendered such a misguided opinion of Safire, Simon, and Newman—a group of writers whose principal offense, apparently, is to take a responsible attitude toward their language and their society—it would be ridiculous, nothing more. But for the creators of a high-profile property like this one to propagandize for such a point of view is nothing less than outrageous. In the end, this sneer at linguistic standards tells us all that we need to know, really, about the sensibility behind The Story of English.

  1. The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking, 384 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.

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