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Book Title: The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language|
The author of the book: Melvyn Bragg
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Loaded: 1985 times
Reader ratings: 5.2
Edition: Arcade Publishing
Date of issue: October 1st 2006
ISBN 13: 9781559707848
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 9.45 MB
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Melvyn Bragg is a doyen of British broadcasting, perhaps best known for his previous work with ITV as the editor and presenter of the the weekly Arts programme "The South Bank Show" for over thirty years. He also presents radio programmes for the BBC, including a long-running radio discussion series called "In Our Time", exploring the history of ideas. From his very humble origins in North Yorkshire, he has consistently combined a career in broadcasting with one in writing. He is the Chancellor of Leeds University, a literary prize-winner, a regular contributor to "The Times" and other quality newspapers, and is a Labour life peer. When in the House of Lords he takes a keen interest in the Arts and education.
Alongside his fiction and novel-writing, Melvyn Bragg has also written several works of non-fiction, such as "The Book of Books", about the King James Bible, and this one, The Adventure of English. In 2015, The Adventure of English became a New York Times bestseller.
The Adventure of English was a British television series about the history of the English language, first broadcast on ITV in 2003. It was both written and presented by Melvyn Bragg. It ran for 8 hour-long episodes, and was accompanied by both radio programmes and this companion book, in which the author expands his original concept into 24 chapters. Melvyn Bragg explains his impetus for the book,
"The way in which a few tribal and local German dialects spoken by a hundred and fifty thousand people grew into the English language spoken by about one and a half billion people has all the characterisics of a tremendous adventure. That is the story of this book."
Melvyn Bragg is not a linguistic scholar, but his credentials for writing such a book are worthy,
"My own starting point was a childhood in which I spoke a heavily accented dialect based on an Old Norse vocabulary unintelligible to all my teachers at the grammar school, for which I had to adopt Standard English or what was commonly known as BBC English. Also in the dialect I spoke there was a seam of Romany, and the whole of the language was still based squarely in the world of agriculture, a world outside the city wall."
Areas such as this, which interest a general reader but which academics may find difficult to popularise, lend themselves well to Melvyn Bragg's approach. He is scholarly, without assuming much knowledge of the subject or its terminology in his reader. His original eight programmes were entitled, "Birth of a Language", "English Goes Underground", "The Battle for the Language of the Bible", "This Earth, This Realm, This England", "English in America", "Speaking Proper", "The Language of Empire" and "Many Tongues Called English, One World Language". It covered an enormous span, and made interesting viewing, with documentary film to accompany Bragg's script, and specific important words moving across the screen in various depths, sizes and directions and in different fonts.
It has been said that the origins of this history as a TV series are rather too evident, and certainly reading it one can hear the author's voice. Perhaps at times, it does read as if it is the script for an interesting talk or lecture. However, it is the only one of its kind I have discovered, written from this unique angle of an adventure story, or the biography of English as if it were a living being. Perhaps the closest would be Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way". The Adventure of English follows the history of the English language from its modest beginnings around 500 AD as a minor Germanic dialect to its rise as a truly established global language. It covers not only the vast variety of different versions of English we use, but also how this all came about. English is by nature ever-changing, and ingeniously assimilates other cultures. As a collective work of millions of people throughout the ages, it is truly democratic.
“The Internet took off in English and although there are now fifteen hundred languages on the Internet, seventy percent of it is still in English.”
Today, English is the chosen language of world finance, medicine, and the Internet, and understood by nearly two billion people world-wide, yet it could so easily have been wiped out in its early years. Melvyn Bragg shows us how this remarkable story happened, starting with the early Anglo-Saxon tribes. He describes Old English; the language which was to become English, arriving in the fifth century with Germanic tribes as the Roman empire began to collapse. Melvyn Bragg describes English in organic terms, as a "subtle and ruthless" survivor, defeating competing languages over the next three centuries. Of the indigenous Celtic language, we only now have about two dozen words left.
At the end of the eighth century the Vikings arrived, and a century later the Danes ruled most of England. King Alfred — Alfred the Great's — stubborn resistance to them was linguistic as well as military. When he defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune, Melvyn Bragg says,
"Alfred had saved the language".
Alfred promoted a translation of works from Latin into English. Only about 150 words were incorporated from Old Norse into an Old English vocabulary of some 25,000 words. Almost all the 100 most common words in English today, are from Old English. "They", "their" and "them" all come from Old Norse. The first word to come from French comes in at number 76 — and is "number". Melvyn Bragg lists these 100 most commonly used English words, and we see that the first noun is number 30 in the list, and it is "word". Clearly we discuss speaking and writing — and write about speaking and writing — much of the time. We are also concerned with how much the language changes, and often view it as deteriorating in some way, yet this is the nature of language, to adapt.
We feel that we are knowledgeable about language change, and some people are quite judgemental as to what is "correct". Yet "correctness" fluctuates and changes all the time. Not many of us are privy to a detailed history of the English language. For a long time it has been a specialist area of study, separated in universities even from the study of literature. Apart from a few comments about Chaucer's bawdy vernacular or Shakespeare's large and creative vocabulary, for the general reader, it remains an unknown territory. Melvyn Bragg does his best to cover the history of English over the past 1,500 years.
The next major historical event in England was the Norman invasion of 1066, in which the country became divided between the French-speaking rulers and the English-speaking peasants. This event transformed the English language forever. For over 300 years French became the language of power, spoken by royalty, aristocrats and high-powered officials. Some of these people could not speak English at all. During this time, thousands of French words entered the English language. English did survive, but was to change enormously over the next two or three centuries.
The black death of 1348, killed almost a third of the population, and weakened the hold of Latin among the educated,
“In 1362, for the first time in almost three centuries, English was acknowledged as a language of official business. Since the Conquest, court cases had been heard in French. Now the law recognised that too few people understood that language, perhaps because many of the educated lawyers, like the clergy, had died in the plague. From now on, it was declared, cases could be pleaded, defended, debated and judged in English.”
By the time Richard II addressed Wat Tyler's army, during the peasants' revolt of 1381, he did so in English,
“English was the language of protest and protesting its right to be heard and taken account of before the highest in the land. And the highest of the land used it in 1381, to chop down the revolt of thousands of English speakers.”
At around the same time, English replaced French in grammar schools. The trend continued. In 1399, Henry IV deposed Richard, and spoke in English at his own coronation, the first monarch since 1066 to do so. When his son, Henry V, came to power, court documents would also begin to be written in English.
We follow English history via the kind of anecdotes found in novels. Melvyn Bragg has described the arrival of such early literary masterpieces as the Old English epic poem "Beowulf" and now we have Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales". With Chaucer, English was developing into Middle English, and the language of Chaucer was one of the regional types. Melvyn Bragg says that Geoggrey Chaucer was as remarkable for the variety of his language, as he was for his characters and stories.
At that time, "fine" would have rhymed with present-day "seen", "cow" with "moo", "make" with "park", and so on. This is commonly referred to as the "great vowel shift", which occurred between the late 14th and late 16th centuries. In this process the long vowels in English mostly became the sounds that they remain today. Partly as a result of the great vowel shift, English afterwards is accessible in a way which Middle English is not. We find that Renaissance poetry sounds familiar, whereas Chaucer sounds strange to our ears. There were over five hundred ways of spelling the word "through", and the word "people" could be spelled "peple", "pepule", "pepul", "pepull", "pepulle", "pepille", "pepil", "pepylle", "pepyll", "peeple", "peopel", "poepull", "poeple", "poepul", "puple", "pupile", "pupill", "pupyll", "pupul", "peuple", or "pople".
During Chaucer's lifetime, the Oxford scholar John Wycliffe was organising the translation of the Bible into English, producing hundreds of manuscript copies, and promoting its dissemination by Lollard preachers. (The name "Lollard"derives from "lollaerd" or "mumbler". But they termed themselves "Christian Brethren".)
It was only in the 15th century, with the arrival of printing, that there could be anything approaching a standard English. The Bible was poised to be the most powerful influence on the language, and its most important translator was William Tyndale. Chapter 9 is entirely devoted to "William Tyndale's Bible". One of the heroes of Melvyn Bragg's "adventure", Tyndale did not doggedly follow Latin, unlike Wycliffe, but returned to the Bible's original Greek and Hebrew. Nowadays the Church of England more commonly uses the King James Bible of 1611, but Melvyn Bragg argues that Tyndale's English translation often seems more direct. For example, in the King James Bible, the serpent says to Eve, "Ye shall not surely die". Tyndale's translation says simply, "Tush ye shall not die". Hundreds of Biblical phrases are commonplace sayings in modern English, such as "the apple of his eye" or "filthy lucre". Even "Let there be light" comes from Tyndale's translation.
“The English Bible has often been called a preacher’s Bible. Written to be spoken, written to spread the word in the language of the land, a cause for which Wycliffe and Tyndale and hundreds of other English Christians had lived and died.”
Melvyn Bragg tells of Henry VIII's battles with the Church over bootleg Bibles. He reacted against the Catholic church's monopoly over the common people's access to it,
“Church attendance was compulsory — the service was a remote affair. The whole emphasis was on the mystery of it, the priests like a secret society, the Latin words so awesome in their ancient verity that, although some phrases would have stuck over the years, the whole intention was to impress and to subdue and not to enlighten. There was of course no English Hymnal, and no Book of Common Prayer. You were at the mercy of the priests. Only they were allowed to read the word of God and they did even that silently. A bell was rung to let the congregation know when the priest had reached the important bits. The priest stood not as a guide to the Bible but as its guardian and as a guardian against common believers. They would not be allowed to enter into the Book.”
In 1533 the pope excommunicated Henry VIII because of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. By 1536, Henry had broken with Rome completely, and he used this chance to seize the church's assets in England, and declare the Church of England as the established church, with himself as its head. His was the first authorised version of the Bible, entitled the "Great Bible", written in 1539, to be read aloud in the church services. The work was overseen by Thomas, Lord Cromwell, Henry directing the clergy to create,
"one book of the bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it".
The "Great Bible" was based on Tyndale's Bible, with the remaining books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha added.
With the arrival of Shakespeare, Melvyn Bragg comments,
“Shakespeare shoved into bed together words that scarcely knew each other before, had never even been introduced.”
Shakespeare contributed about 2000 new words to the English language, influencing and changing it for ever.
“Over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare had a vocabulary of at least twenty-one thousand different words: some have estimated that with the combination of words, this could have reached thirty thousand. Comparisons are entertaining: the King James Bible of 1611 used about ten thousand different words. The average educated man today, more than four hundred years on from Shakespeare with the advantage of the hundreds of thousands of new words that have come in since his time, has a working vocabulary of less than half that of Shakespeare.”
By the 1700s, English was the common language of all, no matter what their station in English society. People had started to register that language does not stay the same, and object to the ways in which English was changing. Melvyn Bragg records that in 1712, the writer Jonathan Swift worried that English was decaying into modishness and incoherence. He seemed to feel that English was becoming increasingly corrupted, and showed anxiety about new words such as "mob" and "banter". Remembering this fact from history should perhaps help people today, who constantly worry about "correct" usage or spelling. Even earlier, Shakespeare had not decided on a consistent way to spell his own name, as evidenced by the handful of signatures in his handwriting which are extant. Our ways of spelling are more standardised, but language itself will always remain fluid and responsive to shifts in usage.
There was a need for a good dictionary, and dictionaries of this period were unsatisfactory, so in June 1746 a group of London booksellers commissioned Dr. Samuel Johnson to write a dictionary. Dr. Johnson thought it would take three years to write, but in fact it took him nearly nine years to complete the work. It was published in 1755 and remains among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language, only surpassed by the "Oxford English Dictionary" 173 years later.
Another big shift in the English language came with the spread of English to North America. These three chapters are a fascinating part of the book. English expanded into new areas with the songs of the Creole slaves, and with the language and story telling of the 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician, Davy Crockett. With Lewis and Clark's expedition West, hundreds of new terms were coined as the explorers discovered flora and fauna which had previously been unknown. These new dialects and tongues all diversified and achieved rules and idioms of their own, whilst remaining English.
“America became very confident in its own English language. A witty resolution was proposed in the House of Representatives in 1820 suggesting they educate the English in their own language: Whereas the House of Representatives in common with the people of America is justly proud of its admirable native tongue and regards this most expressive and energetic language as one of the best of its birthrights . . . Resolved, therefore, that the nobility and gentry of England be courteously invited to send their elder sons and such others as may be destined to appear as politic speakers in Church and State to America for their education . . . [and after due instruction he suggested that they be given] certificates of their proficiency in the English tongue.”
After the split in the development of an American English in the 19th century, Melvyn Bragg moves on to the role of English in India, and in Australia, in another part of his linguistic "adventure". So far we have seen that English incorporates elements of Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi, and Gullah, covering a huge range of countries and peoples. We have seen that it is also a story of adaptation; of shifts in power, religion, and trade. It also chronicles, responds to and reflects people and how they have changed — and continue to change.
The final chapter "Where now?" considers the place of English in the future. Melvyn Bragg discusses street slang, texting, and other modern development in English. He wonders where English is going, and muses on whether textspeak and text-messaging will take over, and whether English will go the same way as Latin, becoming a "dead language". Is this to be the future of English? Even in Goodreads we see scant attention sometimes paid to punctuation, and abbreviations are commonplace cuz y'all know thats kinda crazy and i dont c y i shud bover wivit.
Perhaps this is an exaggeration. My personal feeling is that there is a huge middle ground. The purpose of punctuation is, after all, clarity, and if we have clarity by other means, then so be it. I personally have no compunction about starting a sentence with "and", "so" or "but", nor about using the Oxford comma. And it is astonishing, after all, to consider that we can communicate world-wide by the touch of a button and through the written word, even if sometimes our nuances of expression are misunderstood, in our various varieties of English, the widest spoken language in the world.
Some academics have criticised this book on the grounds that it is written by an amateur. The idea of language being mostly vocabulary is misinformed, they say. Melvyn Bragg's book is full of lists of words, where they came from and when they arrived. He largely ignores changes in syntax, the influence of rhetoric, patterns of formality, or punctuation. Yet I feel that in this he is appealing more to a general reader, and if the text was less chatty about historical events, and included more linguistic detail, it would not be at all the same sort of book. In a similar way, I would have liked to see more about the different types of English spoken in African countries, the Caribbean and in the Indian subcontinent. But I do appreciate that this does not fall so much under the remit of this book. The Adventure of English concentrates mainly on the history of English as spoken and written in what we now call Britain.
“English, like water, will find its own level. The language itself through usage and natural selection will see that what is survivable will survive.”
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Read information about the authorMelvyn Bragg, Baron Bragg, FRSL, FRTS (born 6 October 1939) is an English author, broadcaster and media personality who, aside from his many literary endeavours, is perhaps most recognised for his work on The South Bank Show.
Bragg is a prolific novelist and writer of non-fiction, and has written a number of television and film screenplays. Some of his early television work was in collaboration with Ken Russell, for whom he wrote the biographical dramas The Debussy Film (1965) and Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967), as well as Russell's film about Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers (1970). He is president of the National Academy of Writing. His 2008 novel, Remember Me is a largely autobiographical story.
He is also a Vice President of the Friends of the British Library, a charity set up to provide funding support to the British Library.
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