Summary and book reviews of The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

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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Book Summary

An enthralling story not only of power, religion, and trade but also of people and how they changed, and continue to change the extraordinary language that is English.

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.

In this groundbreaking book, Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language from its modest beginnings around 500 A.D. as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its position today as a truly established global language. Along the way its colorful story takes in a host of characters, locations, and events, from the early Anglo-Saxon tribes; Alfred the Great's stubborn resistance to the Danes; the impact of the Norman invasion in 1066; the "arrival" of such masterpieces as Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, not to mention a "coarse" playwright named William Shakespeare (who alone contributed 2,000 new words to the language!); the songs of the Creole slaves and the words of Davy Crockett; and Lewis and Clark's expedition west, which coined hundreds of new terms as they discovered hitherto unknown flora and fauna. Embracing elements of Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi, and Gullah, this 1,500-year story covers a huge range of countries and peoples. The Adventure of English is an enthralling story not only of power, religion, and trade but also of people and how they changed. And continue to change the extraordinary language that is English.

2
The Great Escape

One of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793 reads: "In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. There were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year, on the eighth of June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne."

The Vikings were unloosed and for almost three centuries raids and settlements by these Scandinavian warriors devastated huge tracts of the English islands and threatened to supplant the language which had begun to show such astonishing promise. The Norwegians raided the northern and western rim of Scotland and flooded into Cumbria in the northwest of England. It was the Danes, though, who came with greatest force, their armies looting and then occupying substantial territories in the Midlands and in the east of the country. ...

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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)...continued

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Media Reviews

Observer, London
A fascinating tableau of a Darwinian struggle to survive and evolve.

Daily Telegraph, London
A captivating history of how the English language we know today came into being.

Mail on Sunday, London
A fascinating story, enthusiastically told by Bragg in tones of real adventure.

Times, London
There is a real passion and lively erudition. Bragg at his best.

The Independent (UK)
On American English as it evolved Bragg is excellent. He has a novelist's eye for the illuminating vignette... It is always readable, often thought-provoking, and consistently entertaining . The color illustrations are a particularly striking feature of the book.

The Spectator
Bragg's superb new history of the English language is told as an adventure story, and rightly so. There is much splendid intellectual firepower in this book.

Booklist - Mary Ellen Quinn
Why do Americans say fall when the British say autumn? How was English altered by the Black Death? What is Singlish and how has it evolved? Novelist Bragg explores these and other questions in his look at the English language's long march from obscure Sanskrit origins to a global lingua franca.... he is the ideal tour guide here, both entertaining and informative.

Publishers Weekly
...this biography succeeds in its broad, sweeping narrative, carrying the reader from the origins of Anglo-Saxon through the Viking and Norman invasions to the consolidation of British English and outward to America, Australia, India, the West Indies and beyond.

Library Journal - Marianne Orme
Starred review. 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. The result is a work more readable to a broader audience than similar titles yet also satisfying to scholars. Highly recommended.

Reader Reviews

Adam Picot

"The Adventure of English" is an excellent documentation of the formation and subsequent journey of the English language up to the present day. It is told in a fluent and scholarly style but with a conversational tone running throughout. This is ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Melvyn Bragg was born in 1939 in Wigton, Cumbria - where many of his 19 fictional books are set. He won a scholarship to Oxford to read history, and in 1961 he gained a coveted traineeship with the BBC.

He presented Start the Week between 1988 and 1998. In his 1998 series On Giant's Shoulders he interviewed scientists about their eminent predecessors, and from 1999 to 2001 he presented The Routes of English, a series celebrating 1,000 years of the spoken language (on which The Adventure of English is based).

He currently presents In Our Time, a BBC Radio 4 series where he and his expert guests discuss the history of ideas, and explore subjects in culture and science.   The show is off-air until late ...

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