This being my first book review of the year (and Lord knows I should be getting on with plenty of other work instead of indulging here, but…) I couldn’t let time pass without recording my thoughts on this book.
For the first time in a long time I found myself not wanting a book to finish, and yet I whipped through this one at such a pace even though I was convinced I was taking my time with it.
It explores five topics – or more appropriately overviews – in great detail and with grace. Davidson makes no assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge. He doesn’t even make any assumptions about the reader’s interest in the evolution of language and etymology, even though it’s surely a prerequisite of purchasing this type of book. I mean, I know enough people who wouldn’t buy a book on words because they’re just ‘not that into it’. Whatever that means!
The book moves seamlessly through the ages of communication and celebrates every language and communication cornerstone and visionary. Its beauty is that it does not stick to a linear, chronological story-telling of the journey of language but rather ensures that one poignant moment remains connected to another regardless of its time in history. And this is what makes this work so delightful in its telling: it’s surely a reminder that no single event or revolution in language is in fact singular, but rather becomes part of a legacy or the means by which more progress and development can be made.
There is only one short mention of William Tyndale – a man who I became fascinated by through the work of Melvyn Bragg – and Shakespeare is referenced as he should be and no more: this is not a book about the contributions of one man or one era, this is about the shaping of the spoken word from the written symbols and pictograms of old and it’s power and exuberance. I swooned when I turned the page and saw in full one of my favourite poems of all time ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden, and delighted to learn more about Esperanto and the languages of Ireland before the Hunger.
In short I would argue, as I sit here so Englishly in my pyjamas on a Satuerday morning sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, that this book is not merely for those who have an interest in the English language and it’s perilous and at times tyrannical past, but rather this is a book for anyone who enjoys fairytales, languages of the world and their people, poetry and lyrics and their importance in our lives, and above all else communication. Davidson never strays far from his belief that communication is the single most significant part of being human. The single most important part of evolution and what makes us different from one culture to another. I am envious of Davidson’s research: the trips he has made, discussions held with people I will probably never have the pleasure of meeting, and documents he has had contact with in the making of this book but I am grateful that he has created a piece of art which is accessible to all and which has left me with a burning desire to continue my discovery of language and communication.