The Linguist

The Linguist 58,4 - Aug/Sept 2019

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 23 of 35

The English verb 'be' is a descendant of three verbs from an Indo-European language spoken 4,500 years ago (modern Sanskrit being its closest extant relative). Its verb for 'be/exist' gave rise to our 'am' and 'is'; its verb for 'become/grow' engendered 'be', 'being' and 'been'; and its verb for 'stay' produced 'was' and 'were'. Consequently, 'be' is more inflected than any other English verb. Like 'do' and 'have', it is a primary verb, functioning as both a main and an auxiliary verb. Each chapter of The Story of Be: A verb's-eye view of the English language focuses on the use of the verb in a particular function: 'business is business' = identifying 'be'; 'that is to say' = signifying 'be'; and 'how are you?' = circumstantial 'be'. Some chapters contain a section on historical linguistics and cover ruminations on Anglo-Saxon/Old English, regional English dialects and the huge variety in the spelling of forms of 'be'. An appendix on Old and Middle OUP 2017, 208 pp; ISBN 9780198791096 Hardback £12.99 The Story of Be David Crystal 24 The Linguist Vol/58 No/4 2019 REVIEWS Books about translation, even when aimed at the general reader, tend to be rather ordinary in size and appearance, with little visual appeal beyond the front cover. It is refreshing, therefore, to find a beautifully illustrated, coffee-table volume on this subject, which as well as being fascinating to read, is also terrific to browse. Babel: Adventures in translation contains eight essays which share the common theme of translation as a cultural catalyst – an essential factor in the transmission of folklore, religious beliefs and scientific knowledge across the centuries. It is published by Oxford's Bodleian Library and the remarkable plates that grace each chapter are mainly taken from its unrivalled collection. The legendary Tower of Babel is of key importance, and the first chapter deals specifically with the Babel myth, both as the metaphorical paradigm for multilingualism and in relation to the many ways in which the ancient texts of the Babel story have been translated over the centuries. This leads to a Babel Dennis Duncan, Katrin Kohl and Matthew Reynolds Bodleian Library 2019, 176pp; ISBN 9781851245093 Hardback £20 consideration of the translation of the Bible itself, illustrated by a superb reproduction of a multilingual 16th-century Spanish version of the Old Testament written in five languages, as well as other sacred texts. The centrality of translation to the spread of scientific knowledge is also discussed, exemplified by Euclid's Elements, which medieval European scholars were able to study, despite the loss of the original Greek texts, because Arabic translations survived and were translated into Latin many centuries later. The authors also examine multiple translations and interpretations of Homer's Iliad, as well as explaining how such universal works as the fables of La Fontaine and the Grimm brothers can be traced back to ancient sources as far afield as Persia and China. Elsewhere in this engaging work we learn about the historical efforts to render translation redundant through the creation of universally comprehensible artificial languages, from John Wilkins's Essay Towards a Real Character (1668) to Zamenhof's Esperanto, quaintly illustrated by images of a 1907 Esperanto tourist guide to 'Belega Skotlando'. In the final chapter, translatability is approached from the perspective of both ancient scripts that have yet to be deciphered and the modern problem of devising purely symbolic systems to be used in signs warning future generations about the location of nuclear waste dumps and other dangerous sites. Ross Smith MCIL English pronunciation adds to the verisimilitude of the experience. Quotations from Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce are aplenty. References are catholic and include Plato, Pope (Alexander) and Popeye (the sailor man). The verb in arithmetic functions as an equals sign – perhaps its clearest, most direct use? Such clarity is not for Bill Clinton. His testimony to a Grand Jury to illuminate his statement that there was "nothing going on" between him and Monica Lewinsky began "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is…" before plunging into analytical jurisprudence. Newspaper headlines routinely omit the verb: 'Attenborough Climate Show a "Call to Arms"' (BBC News, 19/4/19). Oddly though, the author does not mention the omission of obligational 'be' before a 'to' infinitive. 'Theresa May to Return to Brussels for Further Talks' (BBC News, 20/2/19) is understood because we recognise the slot where the word 'is' belongs. This tendency is a legacy from the era of telegrams when payment was taken by the letter or word, and concision was the watchword. David Crystal has crafted an entertaining and informative book to add to his hundred or so others. This is no Encyclopedia of Language (1987); rather it is a small, coffee-table book, ideal for dipping into and musing over. Cartoons from Punch illustrate the crossovers and differences in English dialects spoken by the upper and working classes. And now if I ask how you are, you can respond: "I be better than I were, but I beant as well as I were afore I was as bad as I be now." Graham Elliott MCIL

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Linguist - The Linguist 58,4 - Aug/Sept 2019