The Adventure
Of English

The Biography of a Language
Melvyn Bragg
It almost got wiped out when the Normans overran England --- 1066 and all that. For three hundred years it went underground, or rather, lived with the peasants. The official languages were Latin for matters of the Divine and French for love, politics and the court. English?

    Despite being the officially ignored language, despite being driven out of so much of its written inheritance, English continued to change, to endure, both resisting and absorbing the invader's language, selecting, nursing itself like an exiled and wounded animal, hoping for the opportunity to re-emerge.

Bragg is no dull linguist. He can and does write with verve and understanding. He is in love with the language, and its strange history, and he manages to capture so many of the heights (and depths) of English, and its survival --- viewing it in terms of an extended guerrilla war.

To prove, for example, its rural base, he takes us to one of the great songs of late medieval England,

    Sumer is icumen in
    Lhude sing, cuccu.
    Groweth sed and bloweth med
    And springeth the wude nu.
    Sing cuccu.
    Awe bleteth after lomb
    Lhouth after calve cu
    Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
    Murie sing cuccu!
    Cuccu, cuccu
    Wel singe thou cuccu
    Ne swik thou naver nu.

    "med" = meadow
    "lhouth" = lows
    "verteth" = farts
    "swik" = cease

We get to follow the language from its lowly beginnings, originating with the West Germanic-speaking invaders of 500 A.D. We go with it through times of what one of my students called "The Venereal Bede," through King AEthelred and monk AElfric and Archbishop Wulfstan, going into hiding during the time of the Normans and finally emerging into the light with, of all things, the coming of the plague of 1350.

Why? "The Black Death killed a disproportionate number of the clergy thus reducing the grip of Latin all over the land."

    Where people lived communally as the clergy did in monasteries and other religious orders, the incidence of infection and death could be devastatingly high.

Laymen took their place, "sometimes barely literate, whose only language was English."

Some of the finest writing in The Adventures of English comes with the story of the translation of the Bible into English. The Mother Church did not take lightly to those who tried to steal it from the Latin. Those who were caught in this crime not only got their books burned, they often got themselves burned.

The first to dare was John Wycliffe. His Bibles were outlawed, many of his followers were tortured and killed. His successor, William Tyndale was hounded out of the country, caught, and imprisoned in the dungeon at Vilworde. In his last letter before execution, he asked only that he might have "a warmer cap, for I suffer greatly from the cold..."

    a warmer coat also for what I have is very thin; a piece of cloth with which to patch my leggins. And I ask to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary, that I may continue with my work.

§     §     §

Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Australian English, India English, American English --- they all make appearances here. Along with some powerfully elegant ideas. That:

  • The rise of English in the fourteenth century was a "sweet revenge" against the Norman French (so many of their words were stolen in the process);
  • One of the greatest political speeches ever given in English was that of Elizabeth, in 1588, just before the defeat of the Armada;
  • Mark Twain may well have been the Geoffrey Chaucer of his day.

Bragg quotes this wonderful dialogue between Jim and Huck on the stars from Huckleberry Finn, "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss whether they was made or only just happened. --- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened:"

    I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd get spoiled and was hove out of the nest.

§     §     §

Words are power, and Bragg notes that in India, home to over 200 languages, English came to represent the not-so-benign power of the raj. Gandhi said that it "enslaved" his people, but not only has it outlasted imperial rule, almost a third of the population still utilize it.

Defoe's Robinson Crusoe encounters a "native" on the island and tell us, "I began to speak to him, and teach him to speak with me and first I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life;"

    I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my Name; I likewise taught him to say Yes and No and to know the Meaning of them.

The many pleasures of The Adventure of English include not only Bragg's fine writing and unimpeachable insights, but the etymological asides to let us know where words come from --- "banana" from the Wolof of Senegal; "voodoo" the word for "spirit" in Yoruba, and "boogie-woogie" a black euphemism for "syphilis." This was a surprise to me, even though, as an old jazz buff, I knew about "jelly roll" and "cherry pie" and "custard pie." Too, I was ignorant about the fact that "hip" came from the African word "hipikat," meaning one who is "finely attuned to his/her environment."

Finally, there is the joy to reëncounter passages we had read but forgotten over the years. The pastoral poem from above, the galactic observations of Huck Finn and Jim, or Tyndale's masterful translations, eighty years before the coming of the King James version of the Bible:

    In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    The same was in the beginning with God.
    All things were made by him;
    And without him was not anything made that was made.
    In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
    And the light shineth in darknesse,
    And the darknesse comprehended it not.
    And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among vs.

"English at last had God on its side," says Bragg. "The language was authorised by the Almighty Himself."

--- A. W. Allworthy

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