Melvyn Bragg's THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
If you’re interested in history and how languages evolve, this book is for you. Bragg treats English like an evolving organism that absorbs and transforms itself as it grows. What I found especially interesting were the historical roots of English in the face of the Norman and other invasions experienced by the people of the British Isles. If like me you’ve always been somewhat confused or just plain out of touch with how English culture developed from early European tribalism, this book really helps explain things through the lens of language.
The influential roles of social class and religion are also touched on, including early resistance by the Church to publication of an English-language Bible directly accessible to “the common people,” bypassing the clergy.
Given Bragg’s tendency to almost poetic anthropomorphism, I wonder how academics might view this book; perhaps not kindly. But no matter. It’s a fun read and is sprinkled throughout with examples of words and pronunciations appropriate to the times and to the dialects. Chaucer and Shakespeare get there due but so do rebellious religious figures, Creole English, Australian speech, royal secretaries, American Indians, black slaves, and the explorers Lewis and Clark. Just the tug-of-war over which language to use in schools and the Court is instructive, as is the interesting assertion that there is more uniformity in American English than in dialect heavy England.
A final note: I listened to the audio version available from Amazon’s Audible service. Robert Powell narrates the book. He does a fantastic job, especially in his reading of Old and Middle English. He really does bring the language to life!
Review copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald