Cunning Linguistics

A picaresque history of English puts the LOL in philology

When I studied the history of English in university, there were three of us keeners who sat up at the front while the rest of the class cowered near the back. Every so often I would look back to see who was still there. Over the course of the year, their number diminished by at least half.

With The Rude Story of English, Tom Howell has clearly aimed to write a book that will keep the students in the back from fleeing—while keeping the keeners in the front entertained. It is an effort well worth making. Most people’s knowledge of the history of the English language is not simply woefully inadequate; it is actually worse than no knowledge at all. It extends barely further than snippets and impressions of Shakespeare—which they may erroneously think is Old English—and to randomly strewn –eth and –e endings and ye here and there. Many a movie and TV show has functioned on the grossly mistaken premise that a time traveller would have no problem communicating with anglophones of centuries past, and much legal and scriptural interpretation has been based on the utterly false idea that English has always meant just what it means now.

It is not that Howell is the first to try to fix this state of affairs; far from it. As he says, “the story of English needs all the help it can get—any idiot can see this and several have volunteered already.” But I feel quite confident that no one has given it this kind of help before.

It is important to be clear on one thing right off the bat: Howell’s book is not the story of rude English. It is the rude story of English. It does not deal just with the vulgar and insulting parts of the language (although it certainly does include those bits, often lavishly); it covers the entire history and development of the language from the beginning to now. “Rude” just characterizes how it does so: boldly, roughly, irreverently, fertilized with ample obvious and intentional bullshit.

Howell’s way of keeping the history interesting and giving it some character and narrative thrust, you see, is to approach history a bit the way Goscinny and Uderzo did: what he calls an asterisk reality. “I grew up knowing about the Astérix reality,” he explains, “the world of the books populated by cartoon Gauls and Romans engaged in unevenly plausible scenarios drawn from facts and other speculations. The asterisk reality is exactly the same thing. In a philologist’s handwriting, an asterisk mark signals where material has been concocted to plug a hole in real-world evidence.” So he concocts a bunch of things—in the main, a picaresque through-line involving an immortal protagonist—to plug the holes not so much in the evidence as in the interest value. He does not do this in the po-faced way many scholars do, using, as he calls it, “the academic ‘likely,’ a special use of the word, meaning, ‘This is what I’d like to be true.’” No, he is clearly out to put the LOL in philology. Well, his asterisk is his ass to risk.

Not that he really risks his ass all that much. He invents things, but he does not pretend not to be inventing them. More importantly, though, he really, really, really knows his stuff. He knows it so well that only graduate-level linguistics nerds are likely even to appreciate many of his jokes. For example, he maps noise production in Anglo-Celtic relations to a spectrograph of the sound of the word “fuck.” A spectrograph. I have known fully trained linguists who tremble in the face of those. He knows Latin well enough to point out that De Rebus Gestis Alfredi, directly translatable as About the Deeds of Alfred, can also be read as meaning About Things You Passionately Desire of Alfred. And he presents flippantly lively translations of poetry from various eras of English.

About that poetry. It is an excellent illustration of the development over time of English, a very important means of educating the reader in how very much the language has changed. It is generally presented in two columns, the original on the left and the translation on the right. A keener who has studied historical English will read both sides and chuckle at the wit. But I rather suspect Howell’s more popular audience will glaze over at the sight of lines of “ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor / modwlonc meowle” and skip over to his translation, “a really hot country daughter / a really hot woman,” without fully appreciating the liberties he is taking or having an entirely clear sense of just where the line between fact and bullshit is.

Mind you, the reader will still finish the book with a far better understanding of the historical development of English than most people have. Even a person already well educated in the subject will benefit from the reminders, the entertainment and probably at least a few facts that had previously escaped their attention. Howell traces English, after all, across not just time but space as well, from England into Scotland and over to the New World (including plantations and pirates in the West Indies) and back, with all the historical ignominies that helped shape our language—wars, government caprices, religious fetishism, thugs, the slave trade, cultural imperialism … And he does so with often mordant observations about the role of power and the shadier impulses in history.

Mordant, yes, but witty. He remarks in passing that the medieval “tickets to heaven” “were known as ‘indulgences,’ I guess because they were expensive but not useful.” And he justifies positing a single female author for English’s many anonymous poems this way: “I know several male poets. The idea that they would contribute anything of significance without pasting their real names (including, often as not, their middle names) all over the material strikes me as implausible. If Anon’s true identity was lost to the ignorance and carelessness of time, I bet she was an Anonyma, a woman who chose the pseudonym to dodge the biases of critics.”

It is that wit that will keep people reading—that and the irrepressible rude silliness, with boatloads of sweariness and even an instructive table for creating ritual Scottish insults. Well, it kept me reading, and laughing, anyway. But what will it do for those people who vanished from the back of the history-of-English class?

The truth is, I haven’t a clue. First we have to get one of them to read this book. Then we have to see whether the silliness and rudeness will carry them through the erudite in-jokes without leaving them confused or, worse, bored. Howell may simply be preaching to the converted. But at the very least he will entertain and further enlighten the cozier cohort of rude-minded linguistics geeks—and yes, most real linguistics geeks (as opposed to self-appointed grammar police) do love a bit of rudeness.