History of Language for Kids?

Jamie Olson, proprietor of the excellent blog The Flaxen Wave, wrote me to say:

For Christmas this year, my eight-year-old daughter has asked for a “book on the history of language for kids.” A few quick searches haven’t really turned up much; have you got any suggestions? She reads at a 6th- or 7th-grade level, if that helps.

I responded that I wished I had something to recommend; it’s a great idea, and I’m hoping my readers might have suggestions.


  1. Not a history of language but just a history of the English language —
    History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud.

    It’s not actually designed for kids, but my 7-year-old very much enjoys listening to it with me.

  2. Trond Engen says

    Not for kids, but my son read Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language at fourteen or so, and he’s not native in English.

  3. Deutscher is an excellent suggestion if the eight-year-old in question can handle it.

  4. A few language books for kids have been reviewed over at Superlinguo – the Horrible Histories book “Wicked Words” might fit the bill.


    I’ve previously given David Crystal’s “A Little Book of Language” as a gift to a young person, and i’m told it went down well.


  5. David Marjanović says

    Thirding Deutscher.

  6. Andrew Tanner says

    Bernard Comrie’s Atlas of Languages is more synchronic than diachronic, but I would suggest is good for kids.

  7. David Marjanović says

    This text-heavy 22-page presentation shouldn’t be beyond a well-read 8-year-old either; though not made for children, it was made for a general audience. And while many of the concrete examples in it are much more controversial than presented there, it still illustrates a bunch of general principles of historical linguistics.

  8. I read Mario Pei The Story of Language with great interest at that age.

    I was bilingual English-German so that may have made it easier to understand.

    Of course it’s probably obsolete by now.

  9. George Grady says

    The little quiz on Rosey Billington’s link to David Crystal’s “A Little Book of Language” is pretty funny. You’re supposed to match the sentences with their likely speakers, and they give the sentence “Stand up straight, you horrible little man!” as likely to be spoken by an army sergeant. Not the army sergeant’s I’ve known!

  10. There’s quite a few good YouTube videos on the history of language which are directed at children , e.g. this series on Verner’s Law https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aal9VSPkf5s

    Though maybe the girl has already seen these which is why she now wants a book.

    I hope an 8-year old is also getting some toys for Christmas not just academic books.

  11. Yes, Mario Pei is very readable. I was pretty young when I read this, and there are others by him:

  12. I too enjoyed Mario Pei when I was eight years old. I wasn’t bilingual though.

    In my case it was “Talking Your Way Around the World”. I still have my copy.

    It is very Indo-European centered (153 out of 224 pages): English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Esperanto, Latin. There’s some general discussion of African and Asian language groups. The only other languages discussed in detail are Swahili, Chinese, Japanese and various pidgins. For each language there’s a discussion of the history, relationships among languages, basic structure and some sample phrases.

    The Chinese chapter uses the Yale system, which I suppose is considered obsolete now.

    Although I enjoyed it when I was eight, I dipped into it from time to time through the ensuing years, and I got a bit more from it every time, so it was a nice resource for many years.

  13. I third Mario Pei in terms of my own long-ago experience, but aside from wondering if you can find his books now, I’d be reluctant to hand a child a book from which she could learn obsolete things. I got too much of that from library books at that age.

  14. …. “Stand up straight, you horrible little man!” as likely to be spoken by an army sergeant. Not the army sergeant’s I’ve known!

    It’s typical WWII British Army, and it should be ‘ you ‘orrible little man’ …

  15. When I was around 12 or so I read and enjoyed a book called “The Story of Language” by C.L. Barber. It can still be found on Amazon. It’s old, I lost my copy long ago, and I have no expertise to evaluate what it says, but I remember it as a nice introduction to ideas about the emergence of modern languages.

  16. Another vote for Horrible Histories’ Wicked Words!

  17. Thanks, everyone, for all the great suggestions! I’ll report back after the holidays with my results.

  18. it should be ‘ you ‘orrible little man’ …

    Did absolutely all sergeants speak an aitchless dialect? I suppose they might have learned to if it wasn’t native to them, if it was necessary to be taken seriously in the role…

  19. vrai.cabecou says

    They were old even when I read them as a child, but I loved Isaac Asimov’s books on word histories.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Is you horrid little man in the Blackadder 1 theme song (with a loud & clear [h]) an allusion?

    Black – his gloves of finest mooole,
    black – his codpiece made of meeetal!
    His steed is blacker than a vooole,
    his pot is blacker than his keeettle!
    Blackaaadder, Blackaaadder…

  21. @David Marjanović: I don’t think I had ever thought about this before, but your spelling choices above don’t work. The “aaa” is fine, but “ooo” and “eee” cannot be used to represent drawn out vowel sounds that would normally be represented by single “o” or “e.” They can only be used for lengthened /iː/ and /uː/, respectively.

  22. @Brett: I disagree. When comically lengthening words in that manner, I think the established practice is to multiply the vowel letter regardless of general orthographic rules. No one takes a comic book-style “Nooooo!” to be pronounced with /uː/.

  23. @Lazar: You’re right about “Nooooo!” but I think that must be a special case, unless my native reader intuition is all wrong. In the above, “mooole,” “meeetal,” etc. just do not work for me as spellings.

  24. For what it’s worth, I had the same initial reaction as Brett, although I can’t think of any alternative that would be better.

  25. Hyphens to the rescue: mo-o-o-o-ole, me-e-e-e-e-tal.

  26. Yeah, that works much better.

  27. David Marjanović says

    I carefully used three rather than four… 🙁

    I think the established practice is to multiply the vowel letter regardless of general orthographic rules

    There’s another practice out there on teh intarwebz, possibly influenced by Spanish: multiply the last vowel letter even if it’s a silent e.

  28. Going back a verse in the song, does “dauuughters” work? it looks weird to me, but it doesn’t suggest an incorrect pronunciation, so I would probably accept it.

  29. I have found an in-the-wild instance of “Mehhtal! Yeah!” out there on the internet, in reference to an earlier iteration of this event: http://www.bloodstock.uk.com/. I agree that “Meeetal” by contrast has the FLEECE vowel rather than DRESS vowel.

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