Day 197: The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

Cover for The Adventure of EnglishThe Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language is a history of the English language written for the general public. The author, writer and television personality Melvyn Bragg, has been responsible for some acclaimed television shows on the subject in England.

The book takes us from the introduction of English (or rather, the languages that would become English) into Britain with the invasions of the Angles and Jutes up to modern times and the versions of English spoken around the world. Bragg explains how English pushed other languages, liked Celtic, to the brink of extinction, and how numerous times the language has been threated by extinction itself, most particularly with the Norman invasion. The Normans spoke French among themselves and enforced its use at court and for all matters of legal business, a condition that lasted for centuries and posed a real threat for the survival of English. However, eventually the Norman kings began thinking of themselves more as Englishmen than Frenchmen and using English for business, starting with Henry V.

The book provides many interesting factoids, such as, that of all languages, Old English was most closely related to Frisian, still spoken by some people in the Low Countries. The explanation of how the British developed such extremely varied regional dialects (much more distinct from each other than American dialects) from the settlement and isolation of different peoples and tribes in different regions is interesting, especially the tale of how a man from rural Cumberland was able to communicate with Icelanders during World War II because of it.

However, the book contains some real irritants. One is the relentless personification of the language as a metaphor throughout the book. English is always gobbling up other languages or fighting them off. Another is the spin put on some of the information. For example, when the Catholic Church insisted on exclusive use of Latin and made translation of the Bible into other languages a heresy, it wasn’t seeking explicitly to destroy English but was rather protecting its priestly prerogatives. If priests weren’t needed to translate and interpret the Bible to their flocks, what would be their purpose? Of course, Bragg explains this, but he implies that the decision was a purposeful attempt to destroy English.

The lack of authority for some of Bragg’s statements is certainly a weakness throughout the book. There were times when I, with my little knowledge, thought he may have misrepresented or put a spin on some facts, but until I finished the book, I was assuming Bragg was a linguist, so I just thought that I was wrong. Now I’m not so sure.

Finally, although the TV series was probably very good, the book’s roots in television show too clearly in the shallowness of the approach. Some chapters, for example, are almost nothing but lists of words with a few paragraphs in between. Overall, although I learned a few interesting facts, I was disappointed.