BOOKS: Minding Your Language; the Adventure of English: 500AD -2000AD: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg, Hodder and Stoughton, Pounds 20. Reviewed by Jayne Howarth
Byline: Jayne Howarth
It is a language most of us in this country take for granted, but every so often the weird rules which apply to English make us wonder why such a leap in logic came about.
Why is the plural for sheep sheep? Why is the plural of man men, but pan isn't pen?
Why do we have mice and not meese when more than one goose is referred to as geese? Nevertheless, we chatter and write away without barely a thought. After all, most of us have mastered English at our mother's knee. But how fascinating it is to delve into the evolution of this complex and rich language. Most of us know how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded this small island, but it is how these invaders - and the French hundreds of years later - transformed the primitive Celtic languages which were spoken by the tribes here and transmogrified the disparate dialects into the fairly uniform standard of today.
Incredible as it may seem now, when hundreds of millions of people speak English on a daily basis as a first or secondary language, this global language almost died out.
It was thanks in part to Alfred the Great, who resisted the Danish attack and established Danelaw, who insisted on using English and ordered books to be written in English.
But, of course, this was just a tiny part in the development of the language; there has been a veritable rollercoaster of a ride, with battles, wars, religion and royalty all playing significant roles in its evolution.
If it were a novel, this book would be a swashbuckler, full as it is with adventure and layer upon layer of intrigue and cunning: how the English battled to keep their tongue alive, while absorbing foreign words and adapting them for their own usage; how they fought to have the mother tongue accepted in religion, law and high society.
It was a bloody battle, too, with Tyndale and Wycliffe both losing their lives for daring to translate the Bible, the preserve of the educated and the clergy, into English. …