Although it is fairly obvious that the "strong language" position that states we can only think because we have grammer and vocabulary is wrong, it is however true that the grammar and vocabulary of our native language does influence the way in which we think. And this simple fact means that the way in which our language works is not only interesting of itself but also revealing of our unregarded cultural psychology.
Some quick facts: the average Briton, German, or Norwegian uses about 3,700 words daily. The average American uses about 500 words. Yet Americans are no less intelligent or capable than their European counterparts, so what is going on? The answer lies in the history of British English versus American English. The former has evolved over 1,500 years and has enjoyed a relatively stable population in which each speaker comes from approximately the same linguistic background. The former, on the other hand, has evolved largely over the last 200 years and has never enjoyed a linguistically stable population. To borrow a simile from the world of computing, American English is the RISC version of the language: a Reduced Instruction Set Chip that allows for very rapid assimilation and communication - perfect for a nation that is perpetually being renewed by waves of immigration from all across the globe. In a country where someone from Ukraine needs to communicate with a native of Chile and a refugee from Darfur must talk with a shopkeeper born in Canton, a standard lexicon of 500 words and a much-simplified grammar (no adverbs, no perfect tenses, no subjunctives) is just what is required. The cost, however, is a lack of expressive range in American English which results in the speakers sounding simplistic and cliched. But once the population settles down, American English will begin to add unique richnesses of its own, most probably heavily influenced by the Hispanic dialect of Spanish that is common to much of the USA.
What has all this to do with The Secret Life of Words? Simply that Hitchings sets off on a voyage of exploration, and his terra incognita is the English Language. We think we know it, but how many of us are really aware of the meaning of the words we use? Words, when you really know them, are like fish: alive in the mouth, wriggling, subtly shifting shape while remaining essentially whole, but often ready to slip away if left unguarded.
Back in 1954 J. A Sheard published through Andre Deutsch a marvellous little book entitled "The Words We Use." In it he explores the history of the English language and shows clearly how it evolved from the Indo-European language group and kept being re-fertilized by branches of that same family over a 3,000 year period. He was also alive to the effects of trade and conquest, showing how English has picked up words as diverse as amok (Malay) and pyjama (Hindi) from around the globe - a result of British ships plying the trade routes for over 400 years.
Hitchings takes the same basic theme - a history of the English language, centering on vocabulary - and like Sheard explores where words came from and what they reveal about our language and culture. He is not as strong as Sheard on formal analysis (for example, he doesn't really demonstrate how Old English, as a result of the Norse invasions and settlements around the north-east of England led to the shift from English being a largely synthetic language to becoming a largely analytic language (e.g. one in which meaning is determined by word order rather than by suffixes as is the case with Russian, Latin, Greek, etc.). Nor does he really bring alive the great movement of tribes that spread out from the Kafkas, some going west to become the descendants of today's Slavs, Scandinavians, and Latins, while others went east to give rise to today's speakers of Hindi. A few judicious diagrams would really help bring the text alive, but sadly Hitchings doesn't provide them.
Likewise, whereas Sheard enables us to see how language works to reinforce social circumstances (for example, after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon peasants sat on Old English stools while the Norman aristocracy reclined on chairs, and the peasants tended the cows while their masters ate the beef) Hitchings just presents lists of new words. Likewise, whereas Sheard shows how some words re-enter the language multiple times throughout history (by example, the Latin word "capital" yields in English not only capital but also chattel and cattle), Hitchings seldom illustrates the odd yet revealing quirks of language in this way. There is, in short, a lack of compelling narrative in The Secret Life of Words and too much reliance on overwhelming quantities of examples.
Yet despite the shortcomings the theme is sufficient to entice anyone who possesses some curiosity about the wonderfully rich and perverse English language. As he gets into his stride, Hitchings takes us across centuries of experience, showing how the movement of people results in the alteration of language. The chapter titles, which are basically surrogates for organizational sub-themes, may strike some as contrived or even rather shaky ground upon which to build, but by and large the excursions work well enough to carry us along. There's just enough novelty of example to keep the general reader satisfied (after all, who can resist poaching a few fruity examples to use at dinner parties?) and lend us the sense that we are learning as we go. Many of the speculations in his later chapters seem somewhat unconvincing, and he completely fails to analyze the structural issues arising from the diversity of English speakers. He comments that more people speak English now as a second language than speak it as their primary tongue, and he also notes that India has more English speakers than the USA and the UK combined. But he notes only the loan-words and dialect; he doesn't dig deeper to the fundamental structural changes that are turning British English into a minority dialect. The breadth of his learning is everywhere apparent and it is always nice to benefit from someone else's diligent research. Additionally Hitchings' style is light and lucid, never convoluted or overly-formal. But in the end I found myself craving more substance and less surface sheen.
In short, this is a well-informed book that will certainly add greatly to almost everyone's comprehension of the English language and hopefully stimulate greater appreciation of its quirky charms. Yet in the end I will return to Sheard, despite his greater formality of language and more limited scope, because somehow Sheard brings English alive in a way that Hitchings doesn't quite manage. Sheard is more demanding yet in the end far more satisfying, perhaps not least because he ignores his own proclaimed limit (in the Introduction he claims he will focus only on vocabulary) and in fact pushes on into the evolving structure of the language whenever necessary.
Sadly Sheard has been out of print for over forty years and his book is available only through the agency of a well-connected antiquarian book seller, whereas Hitchings is available now. And that alone is enough to recommend his book to everyone who would like to understand why English is what it is, and how it informs the way we think and communicate in this world.