Defining English by Word of Mouth; England Is like a Giant Language Laboratory - and Liverpool Has All the Prime Ingredients, Writer and Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg Tells Peter Elson
Byline: Peter Elson
THE spelling is a nightmare, the grammar is unfathomable, but Melvyn Bragg is certain of one thing: we should all relish the privilege of enjoying at first hand the richness and beauty of the English language.
Bragg is a big enthusiast for Liverpool, with its own particular contribution to the English language, besides its history, culture and architecture. He keenly recalls our last meeting in Picton Library (part of Liverpool City Library), in its massive drum-shaped main room and waxes warmly about its treasures such as the American wildlife artist Audubon's elephantine album.
Libraries, he believes, are the repositories of our civilisation accessible to everyone. He is appalled to hear of the Liverpool City Libraries selling off some of these treasures given through bequests or collected in an earlier age.
``What is the answer to stop this happening? Well, I think that the people in charge of libraries at the highest level should bloody well appreciate the importance of what they've got is the answer, '' he says. ``Also, those that live here should use the libraries more and complain loudly when this sort of thing happens. ''
Bragg certainly does his bit to encourage such fervour. In spite of a writing and broadcasting schedule that would drive most of us to a rest cure, he found time on that earlier occasion to accept an invitation from Liverpool University's English department to lecture to mature students about creative writing.
Among his recent achievements has been a wide-ranging review of the history of the English language, on radio, television and in book-form. All this research and information was combined in his book The Adventure of English, now out in paperback.
He says: ``The English language differs a great deal, even throughout Lancashire. The diversity, in European terms, is that these islands have three great tectonic plates of language that have crashed into each other.
``The Germanic group planted themselves here in the fifth century, then the Romantic group from the Normans crashed in during the eleventh century, but between them, battling in came the Nordic languages. ``Beneath them was a sea of Celtic language cushioning it, which made for incredible diversity and speed and this great cocked-up spelling system and unfathomable grammar.
``In particular Liverpool is a fantastic place for language -- a wonderful mixture of Irish, bits of Manx, Germanic and leftovers from the Celts, '' says Bragg.
``It's a real language melting-pot. Like all great ports, people were forcing their ways into the city and forcing their ways into jobs. In the very early days people had to speak their way into things.
``So incomers are both trying to get on and trying to define their difference. It became a place renowned for its wit, its speed of talk and thought. Liverpool's a very, very interesting study because so much linguistically happened at once. '' Bragg's three years of research and broadcasting for his linguistic ma gnus opus had some personal benefits. Although much-imitated and beloved by impressionists, Bragg considers his nasal-toned voice a sort of media middle-class English.
However, born and brought up in Wigton, he spoke with a strong Cumbrian accent, laced with numerous dialect words, before studying at Wadham College, Oxford University.
Bragg says: ``It would have needed an extremely deliberate effort to hold onto my original accent.
``Until I went back to Wigton to research the local language for a radio show, I'd always assumed that I spoke this crude and vulgar dialect.
``Actually, what I'd been speaking was authentic oldEnglish, which is still the basis of English wherever it's spoken.
``The fifth century English is the basis of the world language still, the 100 most common words are still old English. So I'd been speaking old English, old Norse, Romany (which came out of India) and bits of French and Latin. …