18 April 2011

Book Review: Begat by David Crystal

Having never read any of other Crystal’s works, I came to this with a fairly fresh pair of eyes. As other reviewers have noted, the book is broken down into tiny, bitesize chapters, making it a great coffee table book that can be dipped into. There is no running narrative, so it doesn’t matter where you choose to start from (so long as you’ve read the introduction first).

Now I must confess to reading this from a certain angle; I’m a Christian, and have always been interested in the accuracy of translations of the Bible, as well as the history of how the collection of books (because it is not very accurate to refer to the compendium as a single book) was compiled. Now Crystal is not a theologian, so there is no real analysis comparing the KJV to such sources and the Masoretic Scripts or the Septuagint or any particular comment on what is a 'good' translation. Instead, what we have are numerous examples of how phrases found in the KJV have found their way into the English vernacular, as well as possible reasons for why they have stuck.

Crystal's hypothesis is that the dominant factor is rhythm, and this is noted by looking at some earlier English translations of the Bible (which were banned by the catholic church) such as Wycliffe where the wording differed slightly and seeing which version caught on. The style of the book is quite repetitive, which could make for a dull reading if going through it cover to cover. Rather, I preferred to dip into it and just do a couple of chapters a day, intermittent with other reading.

That said, I did enjoy it a lot and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the English language. Crystal's sources are very broad and include numerous references to online blogs. It may be questioned whether some of the modern cultural references will stand the test of time as well as the idioms discussed are, and I got the distinct impression that this was meant to be read at this time (the 400th anniversary of the publication of KJV).

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