The Adventure of English
The Biography of a Language
by Melvyn Bragg
While I am a serious enthusiast when it comes to learning about and understanding my native tongue, I am an amateur with regards to my studies. The work, carried out by Melvyn Bragg in writing this book, puts anything I do far in the shade. Despite this, he opens the book explaining that he is an amateur standing on the shoulders of linguistic scholars. This is made clear if one peruses the bibliography at the end of the book.
The book proper truly is an adventure story. After the introduction, as at the start of a Hollywood blockbuster, the narrative thrusts us into the heat of battle: barbarians, Romans and Celts fighting for survival and supremacy on this fair isle (Britain—if I’m unclear). However our hero is no legatus or chieftain. No, we are following the life of something far more interesting than any individual: the English language.
The treatment of English as a character is a clever hook that keeps the book interesting by allowing the reader to sympathise with the language as if it were a person. Bragg put me on the edge of my seat at many points through out the tale. How would English survive the Norman invasion? French, with a knife at its throat. What would become of the English champions who tried to bring the Bible to the masses? Despite its progenitor’s best attempts, how English helped slaves overcome their masters on more than one occasion. Bragg gives a good feel to the language, making it seem fluid and adaptable yet strong and persistent.
Each chapter tells the story of a different turning point in the history of English. This has the added bonus of meaning that the chapters don’t have to be read in order, since they are mostly self contained.
This is a book that loves the English language. Despite what the British have done, and Bragg chastises us where appropriate, English is always held as either a helping hand to the oppressed (as well as a tool of the oppressors) or as a means by which the good can triumph. It is better than French and Spanish, and more successful than any other language it encounters. Even in near defeat by the Normans, Bragg describes the English language’s revival as if the vocabulary it picked up were just a few scratches, so the language is essentially the same as it had always been.
The story shows us the experiences of people from all walks of life, from royalty to scholars, from merchants to explorers, from conquerors to slaves, and beyond. We are treated to excerpts from plays, poetry and myths, as well as the drier dictionaries and legislation. Every type of English has a part to play in its history.
I thoroughly recommend this book for lovers of history and language. It is not a deep scholarly work, insofar as it covers so much so it cannot be detailed about everything and it will have to miss some things out. Regardless, it is a very informative and entertaining book for anyone, especially those looking to start understanding the history of English.