The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
© 2011 Melvyn Bragg
In The Adventure of English, Melvin Bragg delivers a mythic history of the language that treats our lingua franca as a living personality — battered and now triumphant. Beginning with the arrival of the Angles and company in Britain and continuing well past Indian independence, this ‘adventure’ is one of a peasant tongue turned phonic empire.
English’s survival was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a damn close-run thing. After establishing a home for themselves in Britain, the English kingdoms were nearly extinguished by the Norse invasion centuries later. They were not so lucky in 1066, when England was invaded and taken by William and his Normans. Although the vast majority of English’s 100 most common words are survivors from the old Ænglisc, Bragg estimates that eighty-five percent of the old English vocabulary was lost in the Norman invasion, being supplanted by their version of French. The foisting of a French ruling class upon an Anglo-Saxon peasantry created classes of words; French monopolized administration, religion, law, and so on, leaving the rude basics of life like farming to the old tongue. English survived, however, and even captured the Normans: their children picked up English from nurses and other servants. As England and Normandy grew further apart amid politics and war, and England and France became one another’s favorite enemy, English reemerged as the language of court and law. It would struggle mightily to take over religion, aided chiefly by Henry VIII’s libido, and by the late 16th century had started to become self-conscious, with an increasing number of people insisting that there was a Proper English, and you ain’t speakin’ it. Then it took over the world.
The last half of this English history largely concerns itself with the diverse vocabularies developed by Anglophones as they spread across the globe via the English empire. In North America, settlers happily acquired words from various Amerindian languages and other colonial powers. In the Caribbean, slaves from scattered African tribes used bits and pieces of English to create pidgin tongues — and in India, English was used to establish a common language between lingual populations who found embracing a common enemy easier than embracing an intimate rival. English’s growth wasn’t merely in geography and population, however; as the English became the predominant commercial and technical power of the world, the language became important in its own right: to learn it was to gain access to the reams of new knowledge being acquired in the heady days of the scientific and industrial revolutions.
Bragg’s colorful history of English brims over with memorable lines, like “Shakespeare threw words into bed together who had never before shared even a common acquaintance”, and his regular anthropomorphizing the language — treating it as a person, with desires and ambition — may annoy historians and linguists alike. But for lay readers who have an interest in their mother tongue — and wonder why, for instance, it has so many French words, and uses Latin for science, and is brimming with a wondrous amount of spelling and pronunciation quirks — The Adventure of English is one to set out on.
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, Bill Bryson