The Adventure of English
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The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

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eBook - ePub

The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

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“A captivating history” of the world’s second most widely spoken language, from ancient dialect to digital slang ( The Daily Telegraph ).
What role did the Black Death play in the development of the English language? Where did “the real McCoy” come from? Why is Singlish on the rise? In what ways in language evolving in the age of the internet? How and why did “kirc” become “church”? And what’s the difference between autumn and fall?
Here is the riveting history of the English language, from its humble beginnings (around 500 AD) as a regional dialect to its current preeminence as a truly global language, estimated to be spoken or understood by as many as two billion people worldwide. Along the way, its colorful story involves 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.
In this “thorough and incredibly enjoyable trip down a linguistic memory lane” ( Bloomsbury Review )—the basis of an eight-part History Channel documentary—Melvyn Bragg shows how English conquered the world. It is a magnificent adventure, full of jealousy, intrigue, and war—against a horde of invaders, all armed with their own conquering languages, which bit by bit, the speakers of English absorbed and made their own.

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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 battlehardened 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; ...

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