Study Guide

Unlocking the English Language

by Robert Burchfield

Unlocking the English Language Essay - Critical Essays

Unlocking the English Language

Burchfield, editor of the SUPPLEMENTS TO THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY from 1972 until 1986, offers an autobiographical retrospective of this project as well as a linguistic overview of the OED and the language it describes. Eight of the essays in this volume are studies of English grammar and lexicography published individually between 1973 and 1987. The other four essays are based upon the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures which Burchfield gave at he University of Kent in Canterbury, England, in 1988.

These essays offer an informal history of English dictionaries beginning with early works like Samuel Johnson’s DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1755) and focusing on the long process involved in producing THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY and its supplements between 1879 and 1986.

Using a dictionary may never be the same after reading this book. Burchfield shows how the history of the twentieth century speaks through such contributions to English vocabulary as “air-conditioning” (1910), “pie in the sky” (1911) and “pep talk” (1926), and through transformation of suffixes such as -ette, as in “suffragette,” and -(a)thon, as in “walkathon.” Burchfield describes the types of vocabulary which have been excluded from OED, and, while reflecting upon the problems posed by ethnic slurs and other “fighting words,” he argues that dictionaries must remain descriptive, not prescriptive, records of language usage.

These essays also deal with English grammar and its transformation. Burchfield favors a diachronic or historical treatment of grammar over a synchronic or descriptive one. The history of much-bewailed grammatical “errors” such as double negatives and split infinitives suggests to him that linguistic irregularities should be seen as signs of vitality rather than cultural decay.

Sources for Further Study

The Antioch Review. XLIX, Summer, 1991, p. 467.

Booklist. LXXXVII, April 15, 1991, p. 1614.

The Guardian Weekly. CXLV, August 4, 1991, p. 20.

Listener. CXXII, October 27, 1989, p. 24.

The New Leader. LXXIV, May 20, 1991, p. 19.

The New York Times. July 4, 1991, p. C14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, February 22, 1991, p. 208.

The Times Educational Supplement. October, 1989, p. 24.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, June 2, 1991, p. 8.

Washington Times. April 8, 1991, p. F2.