Picks and Pans Review: The Story of English

UPDATED 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil

These days it seems impossible to have any series (except the World Series, maybe) on television without publishing a companion book. This has been true ever since Lord Clark's great success with Civilisation back in 1970. Occasionally the books seem superfluous, as in the Jonathan Miller series The Body in Question. There are better books on that subject; it was Miller onscreen who made the series rewarding. This volume, however, is a complement, not a spinoff. The splendid nine-part series on the English language that it accompanies, currently showing on public television, affords brilliant insights. A few lines of Beowulf, sung to the accompaniment: of a stringed instrument, bring to life that first great work of narrative art from our distant past. Then it is marvelous to hear scholars teach an actress Middle English pronunciation so that she can record a selection from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. A dramatization of a 1470 morality play, with a scarlet devil leaping from a smoking hell, is unforgettable. But while these moments on television are instructive, this beautiful book provides much more detail and permits anyone interested in our language to mull over our rich linguistic past at leisure. From the beginnings of English nearly 2,000 years ago among the Frisians in the area of what's now Holland, to the impact of California's Valley Girls, the subject is endlessly fascinating. (Viking, $24.95)

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