The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

by Melvyn Bragg


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“Superb. . . . Inspiring.”—Newsday. “A captivating history.”—The Daily Telegraph. “A thorough and incredibly enjoyable trip down a linguistic memory lane.”—Bloomsbury Review

Here is the riveting story of the English language, from its humble beginnings as a regional dialect to its current preeminence as the one global language, spoken by more than two billion people worldwide. In this groundbreaking book, Melvyn Bragg shows how English conquered the world. It is a magnificent adventure, full of jealousy, intrigue, and war—against a hoard of invaders, all armed with their own conquering languages, which bit by bit, the speakers of English absorbed and made their own.

Along the way, its colorful story takes in a host of remarkable people, places, and events: the Norman invasion of England in 1066; the arrival of The Canterbury Tales and a “coarse” playwright named William Shakespeare, who added 2,000 words to the language; the songs of slaves; the words of Davy Crockett; and the Lewis and Clark expedition, which led to hundreds of new words as the explorers discovered unknown flora and fauna.

The Adventure of English is an enthralling story not only of power, religion, and trade, but also of a people and how they changed the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611450071
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 533,464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Melvyn Bragg has written several works of non-fiction (as well as his bestselling novels) including Speak for England, an oral history of the twentieth century; Rich, a biography of Richard Burton; and On Giants’ Shoulders, a history of science based on his BBC radio series. He was born in 1939 and educated at Oxford where he read history. He is controller of Arts at LWT and presi- dent of the National Campaign for the Arts. In 1998 he was made a life peer. He lives in London and Cumbria.

Read an Excerpt

The Adventure of English

The Biography of a Language

By Melvyn Bragg

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Melvyn Bragg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-024-2


The Common Tongue

So where did it begin?

How did the billion-tongued language of Modern English first find its voice? When and where did it stir itself, begin to assume the form we know, begin to sound like an English we can recognise? How did it set out from such a remote and unlikely small place on the map of the world to forge the way to its spectacular success?

As far as England is concerned, the language that became English arrived in the fifth century with Germanic warrior tribes from across the sea. They were first invited over as mercenaries to shore up the ruins of the departed Roman Empire, stayed to share the spoils and then dug in. The natives, the Celts or Britons, were, the invaders asserted in their own triumphalist chronicles in an entry dated 449, "worthless" and the "richness of the land" was irresistible. This may have been written later, but the point is clear enough: the place was ripe for plucking. The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede reports of "the groans of the Britons" in a letter to the Roman Consul Aetius. The groans came from those Britons who had suffered at the hands of these Germanic tribes. "The Barbarians," they called them, who "drive us to the sea. The sea drives us back towards the barbarians — we are either slain or drowned."

That is one powerful image — English arriving on the scene like a fury from hell, brought to the soft shores of an abandoned imperial outpost by fearless pagan fighting men, riding along the whale's way on their wave-steeds. It is an image of the spread of English which has been matched by reality many times, often savagely, across one and a half millennia. This dramatic colonisation became over time one of its chief characteristics.

There is another story. There were many who came as peaceful immigrants, farmers seeking profitable toil and finding a relatively peaceful home as they transported their way of life from bleak flatlands to rich pastures. Through their occupation English was earthed. This ability to plant itself deep in foreign territory became another powerful characteristic of the language.

Moreover there were many tribes or small kingdoms — twelve at one stage — who came over at different times and in different strengths: principally the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes, but splinter groups within and around, speaking different dialects. Though mutually intelligible, they were often at each other's throats. That variation too became part of the story not only in the regional dialects at home but in the sunburst of variation abroad.

Nor for all the "groans of the Britons" did they give up that easily. The struggle with the British Celts went on for over a hundred years, and this largely rearguard action — which gave the British their greatest mythological hero, Arthur — achieved its aim. For the Celtic language so threatened by the hammering force of the German tribes was saved. In Wales, in Cornwall, in the north of Scotland, in Gaelic, it kept its integrity. That, too, is part of this adventure — there are both casualties and survivors as this hungry creature, English, demanded more and more subjects.

It would take two to three hundred years for English to become more than first among equals. From the beginning English was battle-hardened in strategies of survival and takeover. After the first tribes arrived it was not certain which dialect if any would become dominant. Out of the confusion of a land, the majority of whose speakers for most of that time spoke Celtic, garnished in some cases by leftover Latin, where tribal independence and regional control were ferociously guarded, English took time to emerge as the common tongue. There had been luck, but also cunning and the beginnings of what was to become English's most subtle and ruthless characteristic of all: its capacity to absorb others.

* * *

If you go to Friesland, an industrious province by the North Sea in the Netherlands, you can hear what experts believe sounds closest to what became our ancestral language. This immediately shows one of the limitations of print! On radio and television you can of course hear the words and the ears can often understand what the eyes see only as a fright of foreignness. When we hear Piet Paulusman, the local weather forecaster, saying, "En as we dan Maart noch even besjoche, Maart hawwe we toch in oantal dajan om de froast en friezen diet it toch sa'n njoggen dagen dat foaral oan'e grun," or more accessibly "trije" (three) or "fjour" (four), "froast" (frost) or "frieze" (freeze), "mist" or "blau" (blue), we may pick something up, some echo, but we still flinch away. When you can see the words on the screen at the same time as they are uttered, they soon seem familiar. Careful listening does drop us back through time: we were there once. Had the Normans not invaded England, we too could be saying not "Also there's a chance of mist, and then tomorrow quite a bit of sun, blue in the sky" but "En fierders, de kais op mist. En dan moarn, en dan mei flink wat sinne, blau yn'e loft en dat betsjut dat."

When you look around the island of Terschelling in Friesland, you encounter words so close to English, again in the pronunciation as much as in the spelling, that any doubts fade: Frisian was a strong parent of English. "Laam" (lamb), "goes" (goose), "bûter" (butter), "brea" (bread), "tsiis" (cheese) are in the shops; outdoors we have "see" (sea), "stoarm" (storm), "boat" (boat), "rein" (rain) and "snie" (snow). Indoors there's "miel" (meal) and "sliepe" (sleep). Even entire sentences which you overhear in the street, sentences which contain not one word that you can translate, sound eerily familiar. You feel you ought to know it; it is family.

But where did Frisian come from?

In 1786, Sir William Jones, a British judge and amateur linguist on service in India, after a close study of Sanskrit, which had been in existence since at least 2000 BC in the Vedic hymns, wrote: "Both the Gothik and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, have the same origin with Sanskrit."

He was right. Proto Indo-European is the mother of us all and Sanskrit is certainly one of the older attested members of the family of languages out of which come all the languages of Europe (save Basque, Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian) and many in Asia. Sanskrit was an inflected language which relied on changes at the ends of words (inflections) to indicate grammatical functions in nouns (through case and number) and verbs (through person, tense and mood). Germanic formed a subgroup of the Western Indo-European family — as did Celtic and Hellenic. Germanic further divided itself into three smaller groups: East Germanic, now extinct; North Germanic — the Scandinavian languages, Old Norse in sum; and West Germanic — Dutch, German, Frisian and English, the last two of which were closely connected.

The similarities are remarkable. In Sanskrit the word for father is "pitar"; in Greek and Latin it is "pater"; in German, "Vater"; in English, "father." "Brother" is English, the Dutch is "broeder," in German "Bruder," in Sanskrit "bhratar." There can be few clearer examples of the spread and flow of language and the interconnection of peoples.

Somewhere, then, out on the plains of India more than four thousand years ago, began the movement of a language which was to become English. It was to drive west, to the edge of the mainland of Eurasia, west across to England, west again to America, and west across the Pacific where it met with Britain's eastern trade across Asia and into the Far East and so circled the globe.

According to Bede, writing at the beginning of the eighth century, Essex, Sussex and Wessex were planted by the Saxons; East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria by the Angles; the Jutes took Kent and the Isle of Wight. They could be ruthless. Sometimes, as at Pevensey Castle, for instance, an ancient Roman fort in which the Celts took refuge, it is recorded that every man, woman and child was slaughtered by these invaders. Much the same happened in what became England, between AD 500 and, say, AD 750, to the native Celtic language.

Despite being spoken by an overwhelming majority of the population, and despite preceding the Germanic invasion and creating an admired civilisation, the Celtic language left little mark on English. It has been calculated that no more than two dozen words were recruited to the conquering tongue. These are often words describing particular landscape features. In the mountainous Lake District of England where I live, for instance, there is still "tor" and "pen," meaning hill or hill-top, as in village and town names such as Torpenhow and Penrith; there's "crag" as in Friar's Crag in Keswick, where the National Trust began; there's also "luh" for "lake" or "lough." And there are a few poignant others — several rivers — Thames, Don, Esk, Wye and Avon ("afon" is Welsh for "river"). And two symbolic and significant English towns, Dover and London, bear Celtic names. How could it be that so few Celtic words infiltrated a language which was to grow by embracing infiltration?

One answer could be that the invaders despised those they overcame. They called the Celts "Wealas" (which led to Welsh), but fifteen hundred years ago it meant slave or foreigner and the Celts became both of these in what had been their own country. Another answer is that the Celts and their language found countries of their own, most notably Wales but also Cornwall, Brittany and the Gaelic-speaking lands, where they saved and nurtured the Celtic in a magisterial strategy of cultural continuity. More fancifully, I speculate that English, finding a new home, its powerful voice freed by water from old roots, groping towards the entity it would become, wanted all the space it could claim. For English to grow to its full power, others had to be felled or chopped back savagely. Until it grew confident enough to take on newcomers, it needed the air and the place to itself. The invaders were confident in their own word-hoard and in the beginning they stayed with it, building up its position in the new land.

Much the same happened with the Roman inheritance, though the invaders did borrow some Latin words spoken by the Celts. The Romans were in Britain from 43 BC to AD 410 and many Celtic Britons would have spoken or known some words from Latin. Yet the Roman influence on the first one hundred fifty years of invaders' English is very slight — about two hundred words at most. "Planta" (plant), "win" (wine), "catte" (cat), "cetel" (kettle), "candel" (candle), "ancor" (anchor), "cest" (chest), "forca" (fork); a few for buildings, "weall" (wall), "ceaster" (camp), "straet" (road), "mortere" (mortar), "epistula" (letter), "rosa" (rose). The Roman influence was to be revived through the reintroduction of Christianity but, as with the Celts, we have the Angles, Saxons and Jutes taking on very little at first. It could be that they rejected the Romans because they did not want to kow-tow to a language, therefore a people, who had a historical claim to be their superior. The masses — the Celts — would be enslaved, their language rejected; and equally the relict of empire would be spurned, its great classical sentences also rejected. Less than three percent of Old English, the bedrock vocabulary, is loan words from other languages. The invaders kept it tight, just as their heirs, the Puritans, a thousand years later, were to do when they went into America.

Though purists maintain that English did not fully exist until the late ninth century, the time of Alfred the Great, there is little doubt that as its many varieties increasingly consolidated, English in one of its dialects from much earlier on determined the common tongue.

We can see it most plainly in many places in England today. The "-ing" ending in modern place names means "the people of" and "-ing" is all about us — Ealing, Dorking, Worthing, Reading, Hastings; "-ton" means enclosure or village, as in my own home town of Wigton, and as in Wilton, Taunton, Bridlington, Ashton, Burton, Crediton, Luton; "ham" means farm — Birmingham, Chippenham, Grantham, Fulham, Tottenham, Nottingham. There are hundreds of examples. These were straightforward territorial claims. The language said: We are here to stay, we name and we own this.

Then came the great work, the laying of the foundations of the English language, and one which endures vigorously to this day.

Our everyday conversation is still founded on and funded by Old English. All of the following are Old English: is, you, man, son, daughter, friend, house, drink, here, there, the, in, on, into, by, from, come, go, sheep, shepherd, ox, earth, home, horse, ground, plough, swine, mouse, dog, wood, field, work, eyes, ears, mouth, nose — "my dog has no nose" — broth, fish, fowl, herring, love, lust, like, sing, glee, mirth, laughter, night, day, sun, word — "come hell or high water." These words are our foundation. We can have intelligent conversations in Old English and only rarely do we need to swerve away from it. Almost all of the hundred most common words in our language worldwide, wherever it is spoken, come from Old English. There are three from Old Norse, "they," "their" and "them," and the first French-derived word is "number," in at seventy-six.

The hundred words are: 1. the; 2. of; 3. and; 4. a; 5. to; 6. in; 7. is; 8. you; 9. that; 10. it; 11. he; 12. was; 13. for; 14. on; 15. are; 16. as; 17. with; 18. his; 19. they; 20. I; 21. at; 22. be; 23. this; 24. have; 25. from; 26. or; 27. one; 28. had; 29. by; 30. word; 31. but; 32. not; 33. what; 34. all; 35. were; 36. we; 37. when; 38. your; 39. can; 40. said; 41. there; 42. use; 43. an; 44. each; 45. which; 46. she; 47. do; 48. how; 49. their; 50. if; 51. will; 52. up; 53. other; 54. about; 55. out; 56; many; 57. then; 58. them; 59. these; 60. so; 61. some; 62. her; 63. would; 64. make; 65. like; 66. him; 67. into; 68. time; 69. has; 70. look; 71. two; 72. more; 73. write; 74. go; 75. see; 76. number; 77. no; 78. way; 79. could; 80. people; 81. my; 82. than; 83. first; 84. water; 85. been; 86. call; 87. who; 88. oil; 89. its; 90. now; 91. find; 92. long; 93. down; 94. day; 95. did; 96. get; 97. come; 98. made; 99. may; 100. part.

English had also dug into family, friendship, land, loyalty, war, numbers, pleasure, celebration, animals, the bread of life, the salt of the earth. This deep, long-toughened tongue proved to be the basis for dizzying monuments of learning and literature, for surreal jokes and songs superb and slushy.

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight it seems as if English knew exactly what it was doing: building slowly but building to last, testing itself among competing tribes as in centuries to come it would be tested among competing nations, getting ready for as difficult a fight as was needed, branding the tongue. Even in its apparent simple directness and comparatively limited vocabulary — twenty-five thousand recorded words compared with the hundreds of thousands of today — it is always able to rise to greatness.

"We shall fight on the beaches," said Churchill in 1940, "we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Only "surrender" is not Old English. That, in itself, might be significant.

* * *

Rome came back, not with a sword but with a cross. In 597 Augustine arrived in Kent, sent from Holy Rome with all its authority by Pope Gregory, who had been impressed by the blond-haired Anglian boyslaves ("non Angli," said the apparently compulsively punning Pope, "sed angeli"). In 635, Aidan independently arrived in the north of England with all the apostolic zeal and learned crusading ferocity of the Irish Celtic Church. In remote monasteries and enclosed orders, in arcane services and devoted godly scholarship, without threat and despite hindrance, these men and their successors fed the growing English with their Church Latin. Gradually English, partly I think because it could control these marginal praying clerics, took on Latin, the second classical tongue of the ancient world, and Latin smuggled in Greek. The English talent to absorb and its appetite for layerings had begun with what are called "loan words."

These words began by creeping in at the outer edges of the concerns of the pagan English. "Angel," "mass" and "bishop" came in, as did "altar," "minster," "abbess," "monk," "nun" and "verse." Greek slipped in via Latin with, for example, "alms," "psalm," "apostle," "pope" and "school." As importantly, existing Old English terms were given new powers, a new philosophy. Heaven and hell, for instance, or Halig Gast (Holy Ghost), Domesday (from Judgement Day). Eostre, a famous pagan goddess, gave her name to the most important of the Christian festivals. And through Christianity we have the first recorded entrance into our literature of the common man, Cædmon the swineherd who, untutored we are told and inspired wholly by faith, composed this hymn in English.


Excerpted from The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg. Copyright © 2011 Melvyn Bragg. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Also by,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
1 - The Common Tongue,
2 - The Great Escape,
3 - Conquest,
4 - Holding On,
5 - The Speech of Kings,
6 - Chaucer,
7 - God's English,
8 - English and the Language of the State,
9 - William Tyndale's Bible,
10 - A Renaissance of Words,
11 - Preparing the Ground,
12 - Shakespeare's English,
13 - "My America",
14 - Wild West Words,
15 - Sold Down the River,
16 - Mastering the Language,
17 - The Proper Way to Talk,
18 - Steam, Streets and Slang,
19 - Indian Takeover,
20 - The West Indies,
21 - Advance Australia,
22 - Warts and All,
23 - All Over the World,
24 - And Now ...?,
Picture Acknowledgments,

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