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The Adventure of English: 500AD to 2000 : The Biography of a Language (2003)

by Melvyn Bragg

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1,406319,462 (3.73)54
English is the collective work of millions of people throughout the ages. It is democratic, ever-changing and ingenious in its assimilation of other cultures. English runs through the heart of world finance, medicine and the Internet, and it is understood by around two thousand million people across the world. Yet it was very nearly wiped out in its early years. In this book Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language; from its beginnings as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its position today as a truly established global language. THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH is not only an enthralling story of power, religion and trade, but also the story of people, and how their day-to-day lives shaped and continue to change the extraordinary language that is English.… (more)
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» See also 54 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
This is possibly one of my favourite books. ( )
  Happenence | Oct 2, 2020 |
The Adventures of English by Melvyn Bragg
This is the book I was expecting when I read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother Tongue”. Yes, there are lists of words, detailing when they entered the English language. But Bragg gives you the context of and behind the words so that you can understand the why of the new word—as much as possible, anyway. In this book we are exposed to language as if it were a living animal species surviving and fighting the attacks of other languages and eating and assimilating other languages and evolving over time, much as any animal species is.

“…a word, at its simplest, is a window” he writes. And THAT is what I find most intriguing. Consider the difference between the English “ask” and “demand”. When the Normans took control of England and introduced French as the ruling language “to ask” and “demander” were translations of each other, in 1066 as they are now. However, the emotional differences between the two English words today reveals something about the social interactions of then. When the ruler “asks” you to do something he generally doesn’t say please. The result is that the English words “ask” and “demand” have very different emotional associations today.

In 1350 we have the Black Plague destroying up to one third of the entire population of England and virtually eliminating Latin as a cultural influence on the written English—and at the same time giving the remaining peasantry some push-back power over the nobility to better their condition in life...and language. And with the wars in France over the French patrimony of the Norman conquerors we have the French rulers in England addressing the people in English in order to persuade them to follow and fight for him in France.

This is what I read these books to learn. Why did we adopt a particular word from a particular language at a particular time? Why did particular words totally replace the original English word? And why others were added to and thus enriched the current verbiage…and increased our ability to communicate an increasing number of conceptual/emotional subtleties?

Why do we have so many words that are spelled the same but have different meanings? And why do we have so many words that are spelled so differently and yet carry nearly the same meaning? Think about it: why are most of our nautical words of Dutch origin? And, while the animal names are Germanic, why are the cooked versions of these animals described with French words? And why are the acts and physical realities of sex crudely labeled in Germanic while romantic/poetic words and phrases are reserved for an “elevated” treatment?

How did Chaucer herald the transition from Old to Middle English? And Shakespeare later sweep us up from Middle to Modern English? It’s not just a list of the new words that interests me, it’s the “why” of the new words at THAT time? Chaucer was trying to evoke the styles (accents?) that would be encountered in and around London of his time. Shakespeare did much the same. But what they both did, so much better and more prolifically than other writers, is use whatever sound-fabrications they could think of to convey an emotional concept that had never been expressed before in so simple a way.

The one thing that I wish Bragg had done…although I can accept that it might have otherwise expanded the book more than was practical...there seems to be no accepted explanation of the Great Vowel Shift.

“In the years between Chaucer’s birth and Shakespeare’s death, English went through a process now known as the Great Vowel Shift.”

While the printing press “fixed” word spelling before the GVS started, such that English words are now spelled consistently around the world, it is because of the GVS that many of the written words are often disconnected from the way they are pronounced. Read poetry from that era and you can see that many of the words no longer rhyme; e.g. “prove” and “love” rhymed for Shakespeare.

And then there were the early dictionaries that established (determined?!) “official” spelling.

“The relationship between sound and spelling in English is a nightmare. Our writing system is not phonetic to the point of being anti-phonetic.”

Why do we have so many ways of spelling the same sound? And why so many ways to pronounce individual letters? And not just vowels but consonants are also distorted for our convenience. We used to have different letters to differentiate between “t” and “th”. [See for a listing of the English letters that didn’t survive into the modern age.]

Braggs also points out the vagaries of Victorian prudishness in “tormenting the language into shapes and sounds which reflect strait-laced manners, class prejudice and competing moralities”. Add to that the “arrogance” of the dictionary writers who took it upon themselves to dictate the way words should be spelled merely to indicate some information about the ultimate source of the word that only the people who already knew these facts cared about and saddled us with “deBt" and “douBt" and “ofTen" and “cloTHes”.

To sum up: Bragg didn’t give me everything I would have liked, but he gave a good deal of what I wanted and I heartily recommend this book for a first taste of the linguistic history of English. Truly, the history of English is the history of the English people. ( )
  majackson | Apr 9, 2019 |
An exploration of the development of the English language.

Bragg is well known for his work on BBC4; he writes the book as an extremely endangered species, the passionate and well-informed non-specialist. His rhetoric is over the top on not a few occasions, and his writing can get bombastic, but the passion for the project comes through.

The author works the thesis of English's adaptability as facilitating its survival at certain dire moments, and then leading to its flexibility and dominance. He notes the overall limited number of Celtic words imported into the language of the Anglo-Saxons, and then how that English was able to withstand the Norman invasion and its effects. Once English re-establishes itself as the language of state, the narrative goes on to expound upon how it developed and adapted in different environments, in England and abroad.

A worthwhile read to help understand why English is the way it is. ( )
  deusvitae | Sep 4, 2017 |
Very entertaining and loaded with terrific general knowledge trivia. I listened to the audiobook and the performance by Robert Powell alone was worth the price of admission.

Trivia eg. We all mostly know that Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens, but did you know he took it from the expression to measure 2 fathoms of water depth from a riverboat?

A discovery for me was the Jamaican patois poetry of Louise Bennett-Coverley aka Miss Lou esp. her "Bans O' Killing", in defense of patois as a legitimate dialect that stands with others such as Scots, Yorkshire, Cockney etc:
BANS O’ KILLING” , 1944
So yuh a de man, me hear bout!
Ah yuh dem sey dah-teck
Whole heap o’ English oat sey dat
Yuh gwine kill dialect!

Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie
For me noh quite undastan,
Yuh gwine kill all English dialect
Or jus Jamaica one?

Ef yuh dah-equal up wid English
Language, den wha meck
Yuh gwine go feel inferior, wen
It come to dialect?
..
Ef yuh kean sing “Linstead Market”
An “Wata come a me y’eye”,
Yuh wi haffi tap sing “Auld lang syne”
An “Comin thru de rye”.

Dah language weh yuh proad o’,
Weh yuh honour and respeck,
Po’ Mass Charlie! Yuh noh know sey
Dat it spring from dialect!

Dat dem start fe try tun language,
From de fourteen century,
Five hundred years gawn an dem got
More dialect dan we!

Yuh wi haffe kill de Lancashire
De Yorkshire, de Cockney

De broad Scotch an de Irish brogue
Before yuh start to kill me!

Yuh wi haffe get de Oxford book
O’ English verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty o’ Shakespeare!

Wen yuh done kill “wit” an “humour”
Wen yuh kill “Variety”
Yuh wi haffe fine a way fe kill
Originality!

An mine how yuh dah-read dem English
Book deh pon yuh shelf
For ef yuh drop a “h” yuh mighta
Haffe kill yuhself.

The example of tmesis (to insert a word inside another word) and the use of "bloody" in the poem "The Integrated Adjective" by John O'Grady was another standout :D
The Integrated Adjective
I was down on Riverina, knockin’ round the towns a bit,
An’ occasionally restin’, with a schooner in me mitt;
An’ on one o’ these occasions, when the bar was pretty full
an’ the local blokes were arguin’ assorted kinds o’ bull,
I heard a conversation, most peculiar in its way,
Because only in Australia would you hear a joker say,
“Where yer bloody been, yer drongo? ‘Aven’t seen yer fer a week;
“An’ yer mate was lookin’ for yer when ‘e come in from the Creek;
“‘E was lookin’ up at Ryan’s, an’ around at bloody Joe’s,
“An’ even at the Royal where ‘e bloody never goes.”
An’ the other bloke said “Seen ‘im. Owed ‘im ‘alf a bloody quid,
“Forgot ter give ut back to ‘im; but now I bloody did.
“Coulda used the thing me-bloody-self; been orf the bloody booze,
“Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos.”

The book includes the apocryphal story that when the convict settlers to Australia asked the aboriginals what was the name of the odd animal with the pouch and heard "kangaroo," it actually meant "I don't understand what you're saying." ( )
  alanteder | Jan 26, 2017 |
The rise of the English language from an obscure Germanic dialogue to the most influential language in the world has been a long and difficult journey. It spent years underground as the unofficial language of Britain during the French occupation and slowly built itself up to be the language of the largest Empire the world has seen.

Bragg covers the history of the English language well and argues that English will continue to adapt to fit the zeitgeist. Mandarin might be the most widely spoken language in the world but English is still the most influential, and won’t give up that title without a fight. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Jan 19, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Bragg sees the English Language as a living organism, with hopes, fears, courage and determination all of its own. Its history is an epic tale of breaking free from the confines of mainland Europe, leaping into the wide expanse of the British Isles, heroic resistance to the onslaught of the Vikings, then cruel defeat by the Normans, dark years of oppression as it gazes upon looming extinction. Then, just when all seems lost, comes triumph over its enemies, a glorious blooming, a bursting forth to take on the world and win the prize of Top Language, as it has always felt its destiny to be.
 

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Wikipedia in English (1)

English is the collective work of millions of people throughout the ages. It is democratic, ever-changing and ingenious in its assimilation of other cultures. English runs through the heart of world finance, medicine and the Internet, and it is understood by around two thousand million people across the world. Yet it was very nearly wiped out in its early years. In this book Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language; from its beginnings as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its position today as a truly established global language. THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH is not only an enthralling story of power, religion and trade, but also the story of people, and how their day-to-day lives shaped and continue to change the extraordinary language that is English.

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Book description
English is the collective work of millions of people throughout the ages. It is democratic, ever-changing and ingenious in its assimilation of other cultures. English runs through the heart of world finance, medicine and the Internet, and it is understood by around two thousand million people across the world. Yet it was very nearly wiped out in its early years.

In this book Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language; from its beginnings as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its position today as a truly established global language. THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH is not only an enthralling story of power, religion and trade, but also the story of people, and how their day-to-day lives shaped and continue to change the extraordinary language that is English.

CONTENTS

Introduction

Chapter One: The Common Tongue

Chapter Two: The Great Escape

Chapter Three: Conquest

Chapter Four: Holding On

Chapter Five: The Speech of Kings

Chapter Six: Chaucer

Chapter Seven: God's English

Chapter Eight: English and the Language of the State

Chapter Nine: William Tyndale's Bible

Chapter Ten: A Renaissance of Words

Chapter Eleven: Preparing the Ground

Chapter Twelve: Shakespeare's English

Chapter Thirteen: My American

Chapter Fourteen: Wild West Words

Chapter Fifteen: Sold Down the River

Chapter Sixteen: Mastering the Language

Chapter Seventeen: The Proper Way to Talk

Chapter Eighteen: Steam, Streets, and Slang

Chapter Nineteen: Indian Takeover

Chapter Twenty: The West Indies

Chapter Twenty-one: Advance Australia

Chapter Twenty-two: Warts and All

Chapter Twenty-three: All Over the World

Chapter Twenty-four: And Now . . . ?

Acknowledgements
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