The Adventure of English
British readers need no introduction to novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg: among many other activities, he is Controller of Arts at London Weekend Television and president of the National Campaign for the Arts. He has presented 25 radio programmes about English under the punning title of The Routes of English; ITV has just finished broadcasting his series telling the story of the evolution of our language from earliest times. This is the book of the television series. It’s a chronological journey from the genesis of the language in the fifth century to the present day.
Along the way it passes and notes the key milestones, such as the growth of Old English and the influence of King Alfred, the shock of the Norman invasion in 1066 that drove the native language from power and influence for three centuries, and the resurgence of English after the loss of England’s possessions in France. He describes the influence of the translators of the Bible such as Wycliffe and Tyndall and key figures such as Shakespeare. Later chapters trace the energetic growth of English in the New World, the West Indies, India and Australia. He ends with a coda that suggests English is likely to split into several varieties so that it will cease to be a lingua franca for much of the world’s population. He is not afraid to make the journey in part a personal one, based in the Cumbrian dialect of his youth in Wigton, a dialect that has within it more than an echo of the Norsemen who colonised that part of the country before the Norman Conquest.
Melvyn Bragg admits that he is no expert in the field. Sometimes this results in his leaving the reader no wiser. He refers at one point to the Great Vowel Shift which occurred between the late fourteenth and late sixteenth centuries, making light of his lack of expertise by quipping that it “can take a lifetime to investigate and another to explain”. It’s true that academics are still working on it, but it would have been nice if he had at least told the reader that it was a process in which the long vowels in English shifted to the values they have today, which is why Shakespeare sounds as though he might be intelligible but Chaucer is a foreign language.
His section on slang is brief and misleading, as it is limited to that of Cockneys, with a brief excursion into the slang of the ancient universities; fascinating though those are, they represent a minuscule part of the slang lexicon.
I spotted several etymological howlers in the TV programmes. So I came to the book with forebodings, to find my fears confirmed. He has uncritically accepted many common folk etymologies, such that highfalutin is from the high, fluted smokestacks of Mississippi river boats, that nitty-gritty is the detritus left in the bottom of slave ships after a voyage, and that the real McCoy derives from the cattle baron Joseph McCoy. He even believes that tip is from the first letters of “To Insure Prompt (Service)”. He devotes more than a page to the tales told about OK, without making it clear that its origin in the presidential campaign of Martin van Buren in 1840 has been accepted ever since Allan Walker Read discovered it in the 1960s. He says firmly that Davy Crockett “was one of the first exponents of ‘Tall Talk’ — using new words like ‘skedaddle’, ‘hunky-dory’ and ‘splendiferous’ ”, but in fact it was later writers, trading on Crockett’s reputation, who invented many of the outrageous words often linked to his name (the first recorded use of hunky-dory is from thirty years after Crockett’s death). He says that to carry the can derives from boys employed in woollen mills to move the cylinders of spun yarn from machine to machine (as this bit of misinformation in the television series was accompanied by pictures of Quarry Bank Mill near Manchester, I know which site guide told him that, because he told me the same story a couple of months ago).
These faults diminish the book. That’s a great pity, as Melvyn Bragg has great skill as a populariser and he writes beautifully. He is at his best when he explores the relationship between society and language and when he focuses on the role that individuals have played in influencing the growth of English. It’s very sad that what is otherwise an interesting and accessible work has been let down by sloppy research.
[Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English: the Biography of a Language, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 13 October 2003; pp354; ISBN 0-340-82991-5; publisher’s UK price £20.00.]