Ladles of Latin, fattened with French

The Adventure of English 500AD to 2000
May 14, 2004

This enthusiastic romp through one and a half millennia of the English language is "for the general reader", says the author, who is known for his radio series The Routes of English . Melvyn Bragg's notion of a general reader seems to be someone who requires thrills (the "adventure" of English), who likes a somewhat breathless style, who does not mind occasional inaccuracies and who does not want to be bogged down with detailed references.

The outline content is predictable for the most part, moving from English as a Frisian dialect in the 5th century AD, through to its global dominance in 2000 -though Bragg must be praised for including information on William Tyndale, a major Bible translator who has only recently begun to be assigned his rightful place as someone who had a strong influence on the language. Bragg also makes useful comments about the relationship of spoken to written English. As he notes, "Writing begins as the secondary arm, but soon, for many, becomes the primary source, the guardian, the authority, the soul of language." He also -usefully - points out that those who dismiss television serials and similar as "popular" should realise that the respected Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe , was one of the founders of British journalism. He also asserts, rightly, that anyone can coin words: "Language is no respecter of persons in that it will find birth wherever and whenever it can... a pimp can coin a word as lasting as that of a poet, a street hawker as a statesmanI" A further useful characteristic is that, like a good journalist, Bragg explains both the origin and meaning of key historical terms, such as the Danelaw and chancery.

The book is essentially about vocabulary, lists of it. Comments about syntax or sound change are rare and fleeting. As he delves into his treasure trove of words, Bragg seems determined to keep his narrative pacy:

"1066 opened up a stream for French vocabulary, which raced through until the 14th century and has continued to course into English, on and off, ever since." He also lards his narrative with figures of speech: "The English language by now was a thickly plaited rope, a rope of many strands, still wrapped around the Old English centre, still embellished with Norse, lushly fattened and lustred with French." "Frontier English came in like a hungry mountain lion, like a crazed grizzly, like a wildcat full of spit and vengeance." These phrases probably keep the intended reader feeling s/he is encountering the promised adventure.

Less praiseworthy are the errors and oversimplification that Bragg allows to creep in. He claims that the book, "though not an academic text", is as "thoroughly researched as I could make it". That is hard to believe. Bragg is a busy man who writes novels, appears on television and so on. But he must get paid for these time-consuming activities, certainly enough to employ a research assistant or copy editor to check his facts and to supply much-needed references to some of his jauntier comments. Notes, as used by David Crystal in his book English as a Global Language , do not appear to have depressed sales of a book of this type. Bragg claims, for example:

"Stephen (sic) Pinker and others think that Homo sapiens arrived with the gift of language innate". Steven Pinker and others mostly assume that the arrival of Homo sapiens predated language by tens of thousands of years.

Bragg lists some Latin words borrowed by the Celts, though some of these words are given in their Latin form, " epistula " (letter), " rosa " (rose), and others in the Celtic, " catte " (cat), " candel " (candle).

Disappointingly, he repeats the old myth that today's educated person has a working vocabulary less than half that of Shakespeare: we now know it is about twice as big. Bragg claims that "Americans pronounced the old flat 'a' as the English once did", though he fails to explain what he means by a "flat 'a'": it is not a term found in phonetics manuals. He asserts that "it seems to be agreed that the creole spoken in Jamaica is the deepest in the Caribbean": agreed by whom, and what does "deepest" mean? And so on.

If this jolly jaunt through the language had provided references so that facts could be checked and further information gleaned, and had included more than vocabulary, then maybe it could be recommended to future students. As it is, the outline reading suggestions are cursory in the extreme. Beginning students would be better advised to start with, say, the late Charles Barber's book The English Language: A Historical Introduction (1993), which is more reliable, deals with more aspects of language and has good references. And Bragg's book? Well, I might just advise it to anyone working on figurative language.

Jean Aitchison is emeritus professor of language and communication, Oxford University.

The Adventure of English 500AD to 2000: The Biography of a Language

Author - Melvyn Bragg
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Pages - 354
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 340 82991 5

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