Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Adventure of English, by Melvyn Bragg

This is my first Melvyn Bragg book, and I was very satisfied with the experience.

Bragg has a good, clear writing style and intuitively knows which word to use and where. His intellectual and aesthetic judgements I found to be very agreeable.

For example, when talking about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Bragg likens Twain’s accomplishment to that of Chaucer’s. I couldn’t have agreed more.

In fact, in the sentences leading up to this pronouncement, I was hoping as I read that he would draw such a conclusion and agree with me that the language of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most amazing literary achievements in English.

Bragg sets his book out in a nice easy time line, and treats the English language as a major character, almost like an adventurer, travelling far and wide and picking up all sorts of exotic words and phrases and expressions, then weaving them back into the language itself, like a tapestry.

First we have the invading Germanic tribes, then the Norman conquest of 1066, bringing in a wealth of French words. French would actually become the official language, that of the English monarchs and business and administration, for some 300 years.

Once the English language had again been liberated, we got the wonders of Chaucer’s poetry, which used to great effect the common English spoken by the people.

After the English language had won back the state, it went on to conquer religion.

The Bible had not been translated into English, and hence the commoners could not read it. They had to rely on the clergy that could read Latin. This allowed great power to reside with the church.

William Tyndale thus went about translating the Bible, most of it later used for the official King James version. For his trouble, Tyndale was executed. It’s extraordinary we don’t know more of Tyndale, as there are so many expressions he gave the English language that we all use: ‘scapegoat’, ‘let there be light’, ‘the powers that be’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘stumbling block’, ‘sea-shore’. And on and on.

After Tyndale, another great: William Shakespeare, who gave us some 2000 words and expressions.

English then moved onto America, where it expanded again.

Happily, Bragg also gives us a chapter on Australian English, highlighting our propensity to put an ‘o’ and an ‘ie’ in front of our words. Sickie for sick day, arvo for afternoon, to name but two.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book were the long lists of words and where they came from. The provenance of most English words would surprise most English speakers, words we take for granted as being quintessentially English. As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily so.

I really learnt a lot from this book on English. Maybe only dullards like me find this a fascinating subject. If you’re a fellow dullard, you will find this book very enjoyable.

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