The Adventure of English

by Jake Meaney

12 July 2009

This series is restless, supremely inventive, and endlessly entertaining – just like the language it explores
Host Melvyn Bragg 
cover art

The Adventure of English

US DVD: 2 Jun 2009

Restless, supremely inventive, and endlessly entertaining – just like the language it explores – The Adventure of English is a lively eight-part series produced for the BBC in 2002. Hosted by the affably engaging Melvyn Bragg (who’s sort of like the David Attenborough of the English langue), the program crams 1,500 years of linguistic history into about eight too-short hours, crafting a biography of the language that is at once both discursive and economical, wide-ranging and precise – again, just like English itself.

First, a bit of a caveat, for those of you who may be wary of signing on for something so soporifically stodgy sounding as an eight hour English lesson: The Adventure of English is, simply put, an absolute joy to watch—good, eminently cogent learning done right. Where such a show could (and by all rights should) lapse into tedious pedantry, it is actually quite lively and briskly paced, seeming to be breezy while still being densely packed with information. A large part of this has to do with Bragg, whose infectious enthusiasm for the wonder of the English language is only equaled by his talent for ferreting out salient connections, his eye for rich details, and his effortless ability to tie together various tangents into one easily comprehensible bundle.

So, onward! The first half of series covers the first 1,000 years or so, sketching out the path English took from being the insignificant, guttural tribal tongue in 500AD to the diverse, complex language that stood on the precipice of global dominance in the 17th and 18th centuries. Arriving on England’s shores from an influx of Germanic invaders (mostly from Friesland, presently part of the Netherlands,  where you can go today to hear the closest thing to spoken 6th century English), “Old English” quickly overspread the lower portions of the island, pushing out the indigenous Gaelic tongues of the natives.

Close on its heels, a second “invasion” of Christianity introduced Latin in to the mix, channeling into the fledgling language a new influx of words. This also began a pattern that would become the core engine of the language for the rest of its history – an openness and vulnerability to the new, coupled with a power to adapt to and absorb other languages and bend them to its own end, and never be fully subsumed.

We see this again and again, with the Norse invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries (which were beaten off by King Alfred the Great, who became a great protector of spoken and especially written English), and then the greatest threat, the Norman conquest of 1066. In both cases, invading languages (in the former case, mostly Danish, in the latter, French) threatened to supplant the native tongue, or at least drive it far underground. In both cases, English outlasted any attempts to oust it, surviving through the internal stubbornness of the tongue, as well as because of external circumstance (political and geographical).

We can hear the results of all this early turmoil all around us still. It is such an ingrained part of the way we speak and think in English that it doesn’t garner our attention – until, well, it does. The Norse influence is there in the streamlining and simplification of grammar (yes, though simple does not always come to mind when thinking of the infamous inconsistencies of the language), notably in the loss of inflections and the rise of prepositions. And the French influence, mainly in the form of a vast broadening and enriching of vocabulary, is so ubiquitous and deep that it defies any sort of easy summation.

But what’s key, here, more so than the details, is how English reacted to each subsequent incursion. It has this remarkable ability to take in new words and let them peaceably settle down alongside existing words that mean basically the same thing, to let everything layer and lie on top of each other like geological strata, through which we can witness the evolution of the tongue. It can confuse things, but these parallel tracks, all coming in from different angles (ha!) give English its remarkable diversity, the shades of meaning that is one of its great hallmarks.

From the 14th century on, English began to tread down twin paths, converging and diverging between attempts to consolidate and corral what was becoming an unruly tongue, and letting it act according to its nature, expanding both linguistically and eventually geographically.  The evolution of the English Bible – the first attempt to transcribe the words of God in a European vernacular, as well as the first sustained effort to codify English – not only brought religion directly to the people, but also reinvigorated and legitimized the language.

John Wycliffe, translating in the late 14th century, offered up the first salvo in what would be the great project to bring some order to English even while enriching it with a flurry of new words. William Tyndale built on this groundwork, and his Bible, along with a diversity of others sprouting up in the 16th century, eventually were consolidated into the great King James Bible, one of the masterworks of the language, both a great summation of, and a great embarkation point for, the future of English.

Working in a similar vein in the literary arts, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales became the “great staging post” for English’s rise as a language of great literary invention and diversity. Chaucer’s finally tuned ear and stylizations formed the foundation between high English and low street talk that Shakespeare perfected in his masterful plays.

By the mid-17th century, English – robust at home, continuously growing and expanding exponentially – stood on the verge of setting off out into the world, as the English were becoming a nascent naval and colonial power. The second half of the series explores the global spread of English – how it came to dominate the world today, and how it changed, and was changed by, the new countries it settled down in.

In the New World of the Americas, English was allowed to run wild – almost too wild. The vast expanse of the continent complemented and encouraged the wild exuberance that is always latent in English. Vocabulary – the need for new words, and the recasting of old ones—was the great exponent of democracy run amok. Back in England about this time, there was occasional renewed effort to reign in and confine English, to treat it as if it were an “unruly mob”. Such attempts always seemed to end in failure. The mongrel nature of the language, its susceptibility to the happy accidents of politics, social upheaval and geography, and even the infamous wild inconsistencies (in spelling, usage, grammar, etc., many of which were, surprisingly, quite deliberate) ensured that any attempted stranglehold on the tongue would never actually take hold in the end.

America was one fertile ground for a “new” English. The ever growing British Empire – from the 18th century through to the 20th—provided other theaters for the language to evolve and diversify. In India – as linguistically rich and diverse a land as may have ever existed – English faced its most formidable challenges, and again was colonized itself by hosts of new words even as England colonized India politically. Though English was forced upon India during the Raj as the official language of state, this imposition actually sowed the seeds of the eventual revolt and freedom of India in the mid 20th century.  It’s almost as if the notions of freedom, of independence, are encoded into the very fabric of English, that it’s natural openness and egalitarianism encourages such in the political/social theater.

Though of course the British Empire no longer exists politically, in a way, the global triumph of English – as the lingua franca (ha!) of international commerce and politics – is its true legacy and seems, at times, as if it were its purpose all along. English has so thoroughly suffused the globe it’s almost impossible to go anywhere without seeing and/or hearing it in some form. Why is this? Is there something intrinsic in the language itself? Maybe – or really, it might be as simple as having had the most clout behind it – politically, militarily – for the last couple centuries.

That is the theory the program sticks with it at the end (oddly inconsistent with the historical record that had preceded it), but there seems to be more at work here – it can’t be that simple. The imperial nature of how the language was spread belies what is, again, the true strength of English – its openness, its susceptibility to change, but also how it welcomes and thrives on interacting and adapting from other language. In a way, it is never static, never one language, but has this overarching characteristic of giving birth to itself over and over again, in different lands and different cultures.

Though there is a sort of Darwinian relentlessness to its global march to dominance, it also becomes a multifarious and extremely diverse tongue, splitting off into different “Englishes” – bonded by similar roots, recognizable across cultural and geographical divides, but also distinct and new. The excitement inherent in the language – its inability to stay put – is what has made it into the great, messy, unwieldy, beautiful tongue it is today.

The Adventure of English


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