This book tells the story of the English language from the post-Roman Germanic invaders who imposed their language on the resident Celts, right up to the present day.
What makes this book such a fascinating read is the way that Bragg personifies the English language, treating its journey as a kind of adventure story, without losing any of his academic authority over the subject.
The book begins with the introduction of a germanic language which became the common tongue as the Celts withdrew to the outer regions of the British Isles. Much of our language is still founded in this Old Norse language, and although the language has changed almost out of recognition since this time, our hundred most common words came from this original language.
The invasion of the Normans is described by Bragg as the potential destruction of the English language. For many years the people of the court spoke French, and English was in danger of disappearing. But it survived through the common people, and by taking on many Norman words and integrating them into itself. Bragg tells how, when the King wanted to speak to his people, he spoke in English, and eventually English replaced French in schools until English had once again become the dominant language.
Chaucer and Shakespeare, of course, have chapters to themselves. In Chaucer we see how French language and ideas had penetrated into the English psyche and how he himself influenced our language while giving us a superb picture of English characters in his Canterbury Tales.
Between Chaucer and Shakespeare, we see the beginnings of the fight to bring religious texts from Latin into English. A fight that resulted in loss of life and a stubborn resistance from the Church that seems startling to our 20th century attitudes.
Shakespeare expanded the language, and many of the words and phrases we use without thinking today were invented by him. Phrases such as, playing ‘fast and loose’, ‘budge an inch’, ‘vanish into thin air’ and many, many more all began with Shakespeare. He expressed different levels of society in language and, as Bragg describes: ‘gave us a new world in words and insights which would colour, help, deepen, lighten and depict our lives in thought and feeling.’
From there we travel to America and see how English travelled with the early settlers to the New World and how it developed there into its various Amercian characteristics through the experiences of the pioneers who travelled into and settled in the Wild West, the influence of the Native Americans, and of the American South where words and phrases from slaves integrated themselves into the language.
From America, they came back to us and are now part of our every-day speech.
As the enlightenment in England progressed, attempts to control the language, including correct spelling and grammar, were begun, as well as the idea of a ‘proper’ way to speak in terms of accent. However, as we moved into the industrial revolution, more words came into being, and the greater awareness of the classes and differences in pronunciation and accent. Dickens used language to describe these differences to great effect, including cockney rhyming slang and the language of the streets.
Again, we leave the British Isles to journey to India, and see how the British Empire took on words such as ‘bungalow’, ‘bandanna’, ‘bangle’, ‘jungle’, ‘lilac’ and ‘yoga’. From there we travel to the West Indies and then to Australia where the language developed its own Australian characteristics and, again, came back to us with words that we now take for granted. There is a wonderful interpretation of the song Waltzing Matilda which is mainly made up of Australian out-back slang.
With a quick look at the not-so-pretty aspects of the English language (racial insults, swear words etc), Bragg brings us up to the present day, and how our language is now being influenced by the modern-day computer age and the recent devvelopment of mobile phone texting language. English is now spoken as a second language in many countries of the world and influences other languages, as it was once infuenced itself.
The book is a fascinating read, and if you ever thought that there was a ‘correct’ way to speak the English language, this book will challenge that belief as Bragg explains how a living language can only survive through change and influence from other languages. English continues to develop and change, and will do so as long as it survives.