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On November 12th at the British Library, the world's first ever exhibition exploring the English language in all its national and international diversity is set to open. Iconic manuscripts and printed books will be on show alongside engaging everyday texts to show the many social, cultural and historical strands from which the English language is woven. Treasures such as Shakespeare quartos, the only surviving manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the King James Bible, Dr Johnson's dictionary, Jane Austen letters and recorded speech by Pankhurst, Churchill, Gandhi and Mandela will be exhibited together with posters, lists of slang, the first newspapers from around the world, trading records, comics, adverts, children's books, dialect recordings, text messages and web pages.

Drawing on the Library's sound collections the exhibition will explore how English is spoken in the UK, from rural dialects to urban youth speak, and celebrate English as it is spoken by 1.8 billion people around the world. An interactive and media-rich exhibition, it will emphasise how, from the very beginning, English has been shaped by the different cultures and languages with which it came into contact.

The exhibition will contain seven main sections. The first, entitled English Comes of Age explores the beginnings of Old English and the development of the language. On display will be some of the earliest 'English' ever written down--carved in runes on coins and bones. Also on display will be the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, the earliest known history of England written in English. It will be open on the page that tells the story of Viking long-boats arriving in Northumbria. With the Vikings came the Norse language, which still influences the English of the North-East.

The first book ever printed in English will be there to see, printed not in England, as one might expect, but in Flanders. Alongside will be the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, strikingly illustrated with the Green Knight descending, sword drawn, upon Camelot and the assembled knights of the round table. The section culminates with a manuscript written in English in the hand of Henry V. By 1419 the King himself was now writing in English, rather than Latin or French. 900 years after its arrival with the Anglo-Saxons, English was now the language of power and prestige.

Of course, while the elite of the medieval world were relatively slow to adopt English as the language of law, literature and the church, it was already the language of everyday life. A whole section, therefore, will explore the various everyday usages of English--from the slang of the Georgian underworld to the creativity of contemporary youth-speak.

English at Play explores two fascinating aspects of English: creative writing and language play. The startling rise of the novel from its beginnings in the late 16th century to become, for many, the dominant literary form in the language is fascinating. It is impossible to identify the first ever novel, but Thomas Deloney's The Pleasant History of John Winchcomb can lay claim to being one of the earliest. Licensed in 1597, it tells of the adventures and eventual financial success of the weaver John Winchcomb, known as Jacke of Newberie (Newbury in Berkshire). Rarely if ever exhibited before, Deloney's novel will be on display alongside Austen's manuscript of Persuasion, Joyce's manuscript of Finnegans Wake and Shelley's draft of the Masque of Anarchy. Punning, wordplay and comedy are also explored in this section with footage of language-based humour from The Goon Show to Catherine Tate available on monitors.


English at Work, exploring persuasive language, jargon, rhetoric and advertising, will be an opportunity to display some of the most visually striking material in the Library's collections: Victorian posters, World War 1 recruiting posters, adverts, execution broadsides and radical publications aligned to the 1960s' counter-culture and civil rights movements. …


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