The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

Article excerpt

The Adventure of

English: The Biography

of a Language

Melvyn Bragg, Sceptre,

2004, 8.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 0340829931

Lost for Words:

The Mangling and

Manipulating of the

English Language

John Humphrys, Hodder, 2005,

8.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 0340836598

Beyond Words: How

Language Reveals the

Way We Live Now

John Humphrys, Hodder, 2007,

7.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 0340923768



In the Introduction to his book The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, Melvyn Bragg refers to the 'tradition of the permitted amateur' that exists in the history of many academic disciplines--to the dabblers who have made their contribution to fields of knowledge that range from local history to ornithology. Debates about the English language have, of course, attracted more than their fair share of enthusiastic amateurs, and the recent explosion in books about language aimed at a general readership--the linguistics equivalent of popular science--attests to both the existence of a sizeable readership for such books and the willingness of various writers, including Bill Bryson and Lynne Truss, to turn their hand to matters of language. Bragg is, of course, something of a 'permitted amateur' in a number of academic fields, and has already made a notable contribution to popular studies of language through his Radio 4 series The Routes of English. In The Adventure of English--the companion-volume to his 2002 ITV series of the same name--he has produced a historical study of the development of English from 500BC to the present day. He has been joined in the ranks of these 'permitted amateurs' by his Radio 4 colleague John Humphrys, whose books Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language and Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now are notably different from Bragg's work in both subject-matter and tone.


The fact that Humphrys' books have been praised by both Ann Widdecombe and the Daily Mail ought to give readers an indication of their line of argument. His main emphasis is on the need for 'a dependable common language' that is 'clear, simple, plain and unambiguous', without any fuss or pretension. As a result, much of his energy is directed at lambasting those who abuse language, in an adversarial manner that will be familiar to listeners of Radio 4's Today programme. Politicians, broadcasters, management consultants, advertising copywriters and 'personal development gurus' are all chewed up and spat out, accused of producing a kind of 'verbal excrement' that conceals the truth and renders language ridiculous. Humphrys draws our attention to the slipperiness of language, to the invidiousness of phrases such as 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and the sheer banality of much contemporary public discourse: there is very little that escapes his attack.

In the midst of all of this, and especially in Lost for Words, Humphrys raises a number of important questions. How much discipline does language need? Is all linguistic change both necessary and desirable? Should children be drilled in formal grammar? Who should be charged with making decisions about language? The problem is that these issues tend to get lost in his relentless polemic--and that this polemic leads to a number of inconsistencies. Quite early in Lost for Words, Humphrys asserts, quite reasonably, that we should confine our worries about language to 'the really big things', rather than getting bogged down in debates about split infinitives and prepositions at the ends of sentences. Yet he devotes so much time to describing his own 'polystyrene moments'--those examples of language use that set his teeth on edge--that such statements quickly seem disingenuous. …


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