The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

by Melvyn Bragg

English is understood by around two thousand million people across the world. Yet it was very nearly wiped out in its early years. Melvyn Bragg explores the story of the English language - from its beginnings as a minor Germanic dialect to its position today as a truly established global language.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Nonfiction
  • Rating: 3.95
  • Pages: 322
  • Publish Date: October 1st 2006 by Arcade Publishing
  • Isbn10: 1559707844
  • Isbn13: 9781559707848

Read the Book "The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language" Online

When reading this review, please bear in mind that I have a doctorate in Linguistics with a specialty in history of English and sociolinguistics (also schizophrenic speech--which may be relevant here if Bragg is as delusional as he sounds). Bragg says that Anglo Saxon intended to become the most dominant language in the world. Bragg also says that it permitted new words to be made up. Individual speakers and social groupings within a community decide how to use language and what they deem "correct" All languages are constructed so that new words can be invented..

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. 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. The Adventure of English was a British television series about the history of the English language, first broadcast on ITV in 2003. 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. 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. 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. When he defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune, Melvyn Bragg says, "Alfred had saved the language". We feel that we are knowledgeable about language change, and some people are quite judgemental as to what is "correct". Melvyn Bragg does his best to cover the history of English over the past 1,500 years. During this time, thousands of French words entered the English language. 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". Melvyn Bragg says that Geoggrey Chaucer was as remarkable for the variety of his language, as he was for his characters and stories. The Bible was poised to be the most powerful influence on the language, and its most important translator was William Tyndale. 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. 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. 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". Shakespeare contributed about 2000 new words to the English language, influencing and changing it for ever. 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. People had started to register that language does not stay the same, and object to the ways in which English was changing. 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. 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. 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". 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. Melvyn Bragg's book is full of lists of words, where they came from and when they arrived.

This is fun, relatively light non-fiction, not something that's going to bring in many readers who know much about the developments and splits of language, so I think it should have been included. It IS a generally good book, with lots of interesting information and perspectives (though some are questionable), but I think it needed a little more information about language that's not just cultural/societal.

This is not the first book I have read about the history of English but it is probably the best in its depth and breadth. The book made me want to return to Bede whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People I read many years ago.

Give me more books like this one, please.

It is, for the most part, a chronological look at the evolution of the language we have come to know as English from a user's perspective.

This book really needs to be whispersynced (are you listening audible?) so that you can hear the words from the audiobook while you see them on the page.

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).