The Biography of a Language – History and Evolution of English
English is now a global language but how it became so is a fascinating story. There were times when it all but disappeared but miraculously survived and became stronger.
In The Adventure of English Melvyn Bragg brings to life a fascinating story of culture, power, politics and adaptability. Growing up as he did in Cumbria he is only too aware that even now there are local dialects that owe much to the original English that started with the arrival of a Germanic tongue into the British Isles in the fifth century. Even today the dialect of Friesland in the Netherlands is still very close to that early English.
Extinction Has Been Close on Many Occasions
Bragg shows how the success of English has never been a foregone conclusion. Indeed it could easily have disappeared after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when the Norman elite ran the country using French and Latin.
For 300 years English survived away from the centre of power until Henry V found it politically expedient to write his announcements of the victory of Agincourt in English. Even then it was another fifty years before English became the language of the rulers. In doing so English had absorbed many French words but the old language was manifest in dialects in more remote parts of the country.
Even then it was nearly overwhelmed again in the Middle Ages by Latin being the language of the Church, Court and scholarship. As late as the 18th Century it was not certain that the language of America would be English arather than French or even Spanish.
Sometimes Fixed, Often Flexible
As early English developed it was selective in absorbing few influences from the old Celtic language that it replaced in England; pushing the Celt speakers to the western edges of the British Isles. As English spread further with the voyages of discovery, conquest and empire building it adopted local influences when they were useful, often subconsciously.
The Adventure of English describes many attempts to fix the language and even to create bodies similar to the Academie Francaise and the earlier Accademia Della Crusca in Italy. With English they were never successful. As this biography shows English seems to have had a mind of its own that prevented it being corralled but also allowed it to be flexible where needed to ensure its survival.
The way this book tells the story English looks almost viral in the way it has progressed from the language of hundred and fifty thousand Barbarian warriors to the English of today A language now spoken by one and half billion people around the world – the progress might almost be described as a pandemic.
The viral nature is also reflected in the way English has mutated to fit its environment and spawned variations, dialects, patois and pidgin forms, needed to survive and propagate. As described by Melvyn Bragg it seems to have evolved, like viruses in a very Darwinian way.
Will Globalisation Reinforce or Fragment English?
Bragg explores the globalisation of English and how new regional variations are developing based on the structures of local languages. There are the big ones like American or Australian but he also considers Singapore Singlish and even the form used in text on mobile phones.
Only time will tell whether English fragments or stays (largely) a single language with relatively minor local variation as between the large native English variations of America or Australia. With instant world-wide communication one might expect uniformity but as The Adventure of English shows the development of English is unpredictable.
A Fascinating Adventure, Beautifully Told
With The Adventure of English Melvyn Bragg has produced a story that should on the bookshelf of every lover of language or cultural history. It is thoroughly recommended as it is written by a master of language.
The Adventure of English (ISBN: 978-0-340-82993-6)by Melvyn Bragg was published in 2004 by Sceptre in the UK at £9.99.