The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

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The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language Melvin Bragg London: Hodder and Stoughton 2003

Not a book for the academic scholar of English, but one which may well be read with pleasure by such. Packed full of titillating information, The Adventure of English traces the history of the vocabulary of a West German language that has become the preeminent lingua franca for humanity. Its prime attraction is the wide information it gives on the origin of the most common words we use in everyday speech, and the fact that it sets these in the context of the unfolding history of the English people. Indeed, it may be regarded as much a colorful history of English culture, from the dawn of Anglo-Saxon septarchy down to the present day, as a history of the English language. Words demarcate what we know and what we think, and English has more words, and is capable of expressing complex ideas more explicitly, than any other language mankind has ever known.

Melvin Bragg traces the roots of English in an early mingling of the closely related Anglian and Saxon dialects following the arrival of these peoples from what is today Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. Other West German peoples such as the Frisians and the Dutch also had an input into English, as also the North German Jutes, Danes and Norwegian Vikings. Additional vocabulary was in the course of time absorbed from the Celts who had settled the British Isles centuries before the arrival of the English. When the Normans (also of Viking descent, but speaking an early form of French), accompanied by Celtic Bretons and West German Franks, arrived with William the Conqueror, English largely disappeared from the public records, being subordinated to Norman French. However, it survived among the common people, and steadily gained strength until it resurfaced as an official language in the 1300s under Edward 1, and finally achieved victory over French during the reign of Henry V. …

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