I always enjoy David Crystal’s writing about language, and he’s got a new book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that sounds well worth reading (it’s just come out in the U.K. and will appear in the U.S. next spring). Crystal’s piece in the Telegraph explains what he’s up to (and gives a complete list of the words):
If you can tell the history of the world in 100 objects, as the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor did last year, then it ought to be possible to tell the history of a language in a similar number. But, as with objects, it isn’t enough for each word to be interesting in its own right. It has to represent a whole class of words. It has to tell a story. And each of these individual stories should add up to the history of the English language as a whole. …
But words are more than just linguistic objects. They are windows into the world of those who use them. Part of the challenge, then, is to find words that best give us a real insight into social history. For the Anglo-Saxons, my choice included loaf and mead, street and lea. For the medieval period, swain and pork, dame and royal. For the time of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, alphabet and dialect, shibboleth and potato. For the next centuries, gazette and fopdoodle, lunch and tea. And so to modern times, with jazz and Watergate, PC and apps, LOL and unfriend. They make interesting bedfellows.
(I’ve added italics where I’m sure Crystal intended them.)
I cavil a tiny bit at his inclusion of mipela among the words contributed by “international dialects, each with its own local vocabulary”; Wiktionary tells me that it’s the first person plural exclusive pronoun in Bislama and Tok Pisin, which by any reasonable standard are separate languages and not dialects of English (the very fact that they have a first person plural exclusive pronoun should be a strong hint in that direction). And I am intrigued by his mention of “the earliest example of a written word in the language. Thanks to an exciting archaeological find, we know this to be roe.” Does anybody have any information about this?