2011; 336 pages. Full Title : The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Non-Fiction; Linguistics. Overall Rating : 9½*/10.
When you think about it, it really is remarkable that English has become the dominant language around the world.
It started out as an immigrant tongue when a couple of Germanic tribes, most notably the Jutes and the Angles, hopped across the English Channel to a sparsely populated, nondescript island that the Romans had abandoned due to lack of importance. It nestled in among the existent Celtic tribal dialects and made itself at home.
It somehow avoided being subsumed by those native tongues, survived the relentless raids by the Vikings, laid low during the French-speaking Norman Conquest, and whispered softly while the church insisted on conducting its business only in Latin.
All along, it borrowed liberally from each of those languages, ever increasing its vocabulary, until it was ready to travel to exotic, faraway places. Like the West Indies, India, Australia, and the most uncivilized setting of them all – America.
What’s To Like...
The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language is a fascinating opus by Melvyn Bragg, a well-known producer of television documentaries in the United Kingdom. As the book’s title implies, he anthropomorphizes (I had to look up the verb form of that word) the English language, giving it a personality and appetite for new words, the latter coming in two forms – imported and homegrown. But don’t worry; at its core, this is a meticulously researched history of our (well, England’s, actually) mother tongue.
The book is divided into 24 chapters, and can be divided into four sections. The first chapter deals with “where English came from”. The next 17 chapters center on how and why foreign words flowed into it (English really is a polyglot). After that, the focus shifts to English flowing out into the rest of the world. And we finish up with speculation on “where do we go from here?”
Melvyn Bragg writes in “English”, as opposed to what I call “American”, and somehow that seems eminently appropriate for the subject material. Yes, this is the story of how our language – both written and spoken – came to be. But it is also the story of England itself, and for me, predictably, the older the time period being examined, the more interesting the chapter. Also included are a fair amount of pictures, and I found these to be interesting as well.
If you a fan of historical and/or linguistic trivia, you’ll love this book. Among the items I noted are 8th-century riddles (quite well done), a brief mention of Pennsylvania Dutch, the Cockney dialect and its consequent rhyming slang, and just how perilous the English language’s existence was during the Norman era.
In addition you’ll meet a number of fascinating historical figures and learn how they contributed to the English language. Among them: Chaucer, John Wycliffe, Philip Sidney (who?), Robert Burns, Charles Dickens, and our own Mark Twain. An entire chapter is devoted to Shakespeare, and rightfully so. You’ll learn some of the more than 2000 new words he personally added to the vocabulary, including his longest one, “honorificabilitudinitatibus”, which means “the state of being able to achieve honors”, and even has its own Wikipedia entry, linked here.
Kewlest New Word ...
Scotticism (n.) : a characteristically Scottish phrase. (There’s a Wikipedia entry for this too. See it here).
Others : Apotheosis (n.); Fructify (v.)
The average educated man today, more than four hundred years on from Shakespeare with the advantage of hundreds of thousands of new words that have come in since his time, has a working vocabulary of less than half that of Shakespeare.
The language at that time was in flux: Shakespeare must have made it dizzy. He “out-Heroded Herod”; “uncle me no uncle,” he said, he would “dog them at the heels” – just one of the astonishing, simple transferences of a common observation, a dog at someone’s heels, into a phrase which could be menacing, funny, admirable, pestering: and it is clinchingly memorable. (loc. 2248)
Dnt u sumX rekn eng lang v lngwindd? 2 mny wds & ltrs? ?nt we b usng lss time & papr? ? we b 4wd tnking + txt? 13 yr grl frim w scot 2ndry schl sd ok. Sh rote GCSE eng as (abt hr smmr hols in NY) in txt spk. (NO!) Sh sd sh 4t txt spk was “easr thn standard eng.” Sh 4t hr tcher wd b :) Hr tcher 4t it was nt so gr8! Sh was :( & talkd 2 newspprs (but askd 2 b anon). “I cdnt bleve wot I was cing! :o” -!-!-! OW2TE. Sh hd NI@A wot grl was on abut. Sh 4t her pupl was ritng in “hieroglyphics.” (loc. 4850)
The Adventure of English sells for $9.99 at Amazon, although I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted. Melvyn Bragg has several other books available for the Kindle, both fiction and nonfiction. They run from $11.49 to $15.12 . Most of the books he’s penned over the years are only available in paperback and hardcover.
“The masculine pronouns are he, his and him; but imagine the feminine she, shis and shim!” (loc. 1578)
I don’t really have any quibbles about The Adventure of English. The worst I can say is that there are a bunch of word lists, particularly when Melvyn Bragg is demonstrating just how many words English has absorbed from other languages. They can get tedious, and I admit I skimmed over some of these. But they are indispensable for Bragg making his point about just how much of a sponge our language is.
There are a number of times where an “old English” passage was placed side-by-side with its modern English equivalent. I found these mesmerizing, and I wondered just how the audiobook version handles this. Are the two passages spoken for comparison’s sake? If so, is this more effective than seeing them written, or less? I’ll never know because I tried an audiobook once and was thoroughly discombobulated by it, giving up after a couple pages.
Finally, it should be noted that the e-book ends at 90%. This is expected with any reference work, and the final 10% is taken up by the author’s acknowledgements, an extensive bibliography, and an index that contains neither page numbers nor links.
9½ Stars. Bottom line: if you’re into history, you’ll like this book. If you’re into the English language, you’ll like this book. And if you’re into the history of the English language (like I am), you’ll freaking love this book.