Studying linguistics and etymology is something of a hobby of mine; I’ve read Baugh’s A History of the English Language, which is a more formal academic work, as well as books which would count as, I suppose, “pop linguistics” or “pop etymology”: Bryson’s Made in America and The Mother Tongue; Hitching’s The Secret Life of Words; John Mann’s excellent informal history of the alphabet, Alpha Beta; and probably others which don’t immediately spring to mind.
In the canon of linguistics/etymology books written for a general audience, there is perhaps no figure more formidable than David Crystal; he’s written more than a hundred books, most of which are related to language in some capacity. A whole-hearted descriptivist, he’s a sort of anti-William Safire, accepting that that Prescriptivism is a lot like the Empire: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers. ”
Many histories of language perform a quickstep through the early days of English, when various Germanic dialects were fighting for control, having already largely stamped out Celtic as a linguistic force in anything but place names; similarly, the jargons, dialects, and lost languages factor in only where they contribute the odd word or phrase or the name of a hill. The canonical story, then, is of the vocabulary and grammar that won, with their less successful cousins relegated to sidebars, if mentioned at all.
Crystal’s The Stories of English is an attempt to remedy that situation by telling the stories of dialects and orthographies that were never quite successful enough to make it into the mainstream English we know today. He begins with the invasion of England by the Saxons and the Angles (two distinct groups, and in fact when we “Anglo-Saxon”, we’re really just referring to the Saxon, since the Angles left little behind except their name, which is the root of “England”). Even among the Saxons, who came out on out top of the Germanic invasion, there was invariably splits among the different geographic regions of the island. Between the East Saxons (Essex), West Saxons, (Wessex), and South Saxons (Sussex), it was the West Saxons whose linguistic legacy gave birth to our modern branch of English. We know perilously little about these outlying languages because there was little to no written tradition.
In fact, it wasn’t until the era of Middle English (circa late 11th century to late 15th century) that written documents became particularly commonplace. Old English has a relative paucity of documents, by comparison, but enough for Crystal to spend quite some time analyzing the outlying dialects; this involves looking at extant documents from known locations and comparing diction, spelling, and grammar. Crystal notes the inherent danger in this methodology, however, since most documents came from scribal centers which may or may not have reflected either popular or local usage—but may have reflected the scribe’s bias or his boss’s bias.
One begins to realize that in the early days of English, scribes were a squirrely bunch; there was virtually nothing they wouldn’t change in the course of their work, from changing words and spelling to adding entire passages (e.g. the particularly Christian bits of Beowulf) that didn’t exist in the source document; while a sudden influx of written documents are a treasure trove for historians and linguists, accurately tracking change in language features over time and distance becomes a guessing game.
One of the downsides to covering the marginal, forgotten, and miscellaneous features of English is the necessarily scattershot nature of these phenomenon; hence Crystal’s significant use of sidebars, in the manner of a textbook, on a wide variety of subjects too tangential to the main thread to merit inclusion.
So Crystal goes from the days of hairy Germanic tribes through though the 18th and 19th centuries, during the golden age of dictionaries and the prescriptivists for which Crystal has such a distaste. Such luminaries as Webster and Johnson may have represented some of the first popular linguistic curiosity, but they were at once stodgy, Latin-loving pedants and, at least in the case of Webster, dialect enthusiasts of the highest order, since this latter pushed so forcefully to differentiate American English from British English. This last section is a long segue into Crystal’s soapbox, which is to rail against linguistic prescriptivism (Crystal seems more passionate on this matter than most linguists) and push for the teaching of dialects and other “lost” bits of the language alongside Standard American English.
Though I find soapboxes generally less interesting than etymology, this last bit struck a nerve, largely because its thrust reminds me of an essay by the last David Foster Wallace; it was published in Harper’s as “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage” and later republished in expanded form as “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster. Wallace’s argument, which effectively parallels that of Crystal, is that the grammatical pedants in grade school who only use proper English are in fact lagging behind (most of) their peers, who embrace a sort of bilingualism by speaking standard English (in class) and some dialect like African American Vernacular English. Granted, the dialects that Crystal covers in his book are not living, widely-used dialects like AAVE, but the point—that language is more than its most popular dialect, and that knowing this is important—still holds true.