BookBrowse Reviews The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

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The Adventure of English

The Biography of a Language

by Melvyn Bragg

The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg X
The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 336 pages

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A landmark, and very readable, history of the English language

From the book jacket: A landmark history of the English language detailing how and where it began 1,500 years ago and how it evolved to become the tongue of some two billion people worldwide.

Comment: Everyone knows the British love rooting for the underdog; so as a Brit by birth I found myself wanting to shout 'Go English' when, in the opening chapters, I read about the fledgling English language doing metaphorical battle with the languages of the plentiful invaders to the British Isles.  Then later, turning the tables to go out into the world and spread far and wide, absorbing parts of each language it encountered. It's quite a gripping story - just as one thinks English is going to be finally squashed by an invading language, up it bounces as right as rain, not just having survived, but having grown by absorbing the invader (like a linguistic version of the movie Aliens).   

As Melvyn Bragg (a prolific British novelist and broadcast journalist) so eloquently shows, the English language is unsurpassed in its ability to repair and reinvent itself.  For example, I've always wondered why the bovine in the field is called a cow, but when it's served up on a plate it becomes beef.  Now I know that it's because cow, sheep, deer and pig are from Old English and would have been the words used by the peasants at the time the Normans invaded in 1066; whereas the French speaking Normans referred to boeuf, mouton, venaison and porc - and, while the French feasted on the animals at the table, their English serfs labored to look after the beasts in the fields.  Thus the Old English words for the living animals were retained, but the English language absorbed different words to describe the same animals when served up for dinner - beef, mutton, venison and pork. 

Another example is when, sometime earlier, Old English met Old Norse (with the Viking invasions) and words such as the Old English 'craft' met the Old Norse 'skill', and English absorbed both, imbuing each with its own subtle differences.

After a whistle-stop tour through the early years of English, Bragg then traces its journey across the globe, following it to America, India, Australia, and elsewhere, with several chapters on American English and how it has been transformed by a diverse range of influences.  He ends by looking ahead, to consider how English will be reshaped again by the vast numbers of people who speak English as a second language.  

Many readers may have read Robert McCrum's earlier book, The Story of English, and might be wondering if The Adventure of English adds anything new.  This is how Library Journal compares the two: The Adventure of English is 'well researched yet more accessible to a wide audience than scholarly treatments by linguists or historians (e.g., Robert McCrum's Story of English and Albert C. Baugh's History of the English Language), this volume takes a novel sociological approach, focusing less on the grammar's development than on how the language developed via people and events.'

All in all, an exceptionally enjoyable read; if you enjoy this sort of book, you should also take a look at The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

This review first ran in the September 20, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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