The Adventure of English – Melvyn Bragg (ongoing)

15 April 2012
Chapter 1
It takes Bragg less than a quarter of the book to take English from its early beginnings in the languages of 5th Century Germanic invaders to a version we’re beginning to recognise at the end of the 1300s. But Chapter 1 only takes us as far as the first flowering of the language before the next interlopers come along in Chapter 2, the dreaded Vikings. Bragg is known as an interested layman – that’s his role in In Our Time, the radio programme in which he picks the brains of experts in order to tease out the history of some aspect of culture – and this book is popular history rather than academic. He calls it a ‘biography’ of the language, and sometimes he stretches the metaphor: English is a plucky survivor against the odds, adaptable but strong in adversity. Sometimes it can be a bit corny.

We’re in southern Britain after the fall of Rome. Bragg doesn’t go into the forms of Latin and Celtic English being spoken then, because they are soon to be pushed aside. Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrive in different parts of the country, bringing their languages with them. Soon there are very few Latin words left, whilst surviving speakers of the Celtic languages are literally marginalised. Later he tells us that only 200 words of Latin survive from this time, and only ‘a score’ from Celtic. This obviously isn’t their story, and as though to emphasise this, Bragg takes us to where Frisian is still spoken in parts of the Netherlands. It’s close to what would have been spoken in England in something like the 6th Century. It isn’t much like the English we speak now, except for basic, usually one-syllable words we just about recognise. The grammar is different – Old English is still inflected – and, well, it sounds like a foreign language to us.

The early Christian missionaries have been around for some time and have established their centres of religious learning. They read and write Latin, obviously, and soon English has replaced its runic alphabet with one which is almost entirely based on the Roman. (Two of the exceptions, thorn and eth, are still used in Icelandic texts, and if we ever stumble upon them those letters look like fossils.) We start to get what becomes a familiar note of pride as Bragg describes the literature of the time: the greatest thing ever written anywhere in Europe in the 8th Century is obviously Beowulf. On the non-fiction front the only history of its kind being written anywhere at this time is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Take a bow, Venerable Bede, for acknowledging a recognisable English identity for the first time. It’s starting to look as though English is unstoppable. You wish….

17 April
Chapters 2-6
…because it’s time for more invasions. In the latter part of the 8th Century Norwegians and, especially, Danes decide that there are some easy pickings to be had in these islands. Monasteries are soft targets for these raiders whose typical behaviour, if we believe Bragg – and what else can we do? – is to rip the jewels from illuminated sacred texts and wear them as adornments. At best they discard the manuscripts; at worst they burn down libraries. Hiss. England isn’t a single country, so any resistance is piecemeal. The Vikings have a fine time pushing through the country until they have it all except the south-western corner. Old English is still spoken by the people, but Old Norse will soon take over if things carry on like this.

It’s a good job there’s a champion hiding in the wild regions of Somerset: Alfred, later to be known as the Great. He considers himself the proud king of the Anglo-Saxons, gathers enough support to raise an army and manages to win a decisive battle (Ethandun, and I’ve never heard of it either). He’s doubly important in Bragg’s story because he’s also a champion of the English language. Once he’s recaptured most of the country – and I’ve no idea how this would have worked – he decides to start on some big educational projects. He appears to understand the importance of the language, now referred to as ‘Ænglisc’ – that ‘æ’ (æsc or ash) is a back-formed short ‘a’ – and wants to be seen to use it. So, if I’m remembering this properly, he has some parts of the Bible translated from Latin into English and multiple copies made. And he celebrates the achievements of the English in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We’re in the late 9th Century now, and these chronicles will continue to be written in different centres of learning for about 300 years. My goodness.

So it’s English 1, Old Norse nil? Unfortunately not. All this is happening in the south-western half of England, with its capital in Winchester; in the north and east the Vikings are immovable, and Alfred decides to accept this formally: he has England, the Danes have the Danelaw; they are run as separate countries, with the border only to be crossed for trading purposes. Fine. (Pause for a section on Old Norse place names in Northern England, and for some anecdotal stuff about the dialect spoken in Bragg’s home town in the North-West. I find this ok, perhaps because I recognise some of it – and I recognise the pressure even now to water down regional accents and dialects in educated, Southern-based circles.)

Perhaps there isn’t as much separation as all that, because one of the biggest changes in the English language takes place now, as a direct result of the contact between the two populations. The inflections of Old English can be confusing for non-native speakers – i.e. anyone living in the Danelaw. But trade has to go on, and the difficulties of case-endings start to be dealt with. They are gradually replaced with prepositions: a genitive case-ending is replaced with ‘of’ before the word; a dative with ‘to’… and so on. (Bragg doesn’t use the technical terms because, I suppose, he feels he doesn’t need to.) Meanwhile, other words like ‘they’ and ‘them’ are taken from Old Norse, and the grammar and word order of modern English start to emerge. Meanwhile, ‘the’ replaces the confusing number of versions of the definite article in Old English. Surprisingly, not many actual Old Norse words ever make their way into English: there are those basic nuts and bolts words and place-names (Bragg lists elements like ‘-by’), but that’s it. The language has settled into its new form: it has been forced into some doughty rearguard action, but has fought back. (I’m not quoting directly, but sometimes Bragg’s descriptions do read like this.)

It doesn’t last long, because there’s an even bigger fight coming up following yet another assault from overseas. Reader, we need to talk about William. He’s the violent, obsessive control-freak who beat Harold in 1066. His takeover was astonishingly systematic: the whole of the English nobility was replaced, everything owned by the English was catalogued and requisitioned, and the system was kept in place with an efficiently organised military bureaucracy based on repression. (I’ve always thought of William I as a proto-Nazi.) Norman French became the language of the court, of the law… of everything close to the seats of power. The English, who retained their language, found that speaking it got them nowhere. No more than five per cent of the population were native French-speakers, but that didn’t matter: English was on the back foot for over 300 years.

Thousands of French words came into English, and at first it was a takeover. Anything to do with the state, or with the law, or power, had a French word to go with it that we recognise today: arrest, bailiff, serf. At the same time, words associated with the French upper-class lifestyle appeared: words for food, and anything concerned with the kitchen… and so on. Outside the strongholds most people spoke English, but for centuries nobody in power was listening.

The relentless repression of the early decades of the regime didn’t go on forever, and other influences on the language came about more subtly. The Normans’ homes were infiltrated through inter-marriage, through the staff that the English wives brought with them, through everyday dealings with English employees…. Then, in the middle of the 12th Century, the French-speaking Henry I married the French-speaking Eleanor of Aquitaine. So, no change there, then? Wrong, because there was a huge influx of a non-Norman, ‘Francian’ French culture. What we think of as the chivalric tradition of courtly love arrived at this time, with its attendant vocabulary and mind-set.

Bragg likes the idea of new words bringing about different ways of thinking: for him, it’s a great cause for celebration as English vastly expands what he insists on calling its ‘word-hoard’. The grammar of English was hardly affected, but new words come to sit alongside older English words, offering near-synonyms that enable the fine-tuning of meaning. It’s the sort of thing everybody knows: even in modern English there are often choices to be made between older, no-nonsense words like ‘start’ and ‘bit’, or French-derived, classier (or fussier) near-equivalents like ‘commence’ and ‘morsel’. And there are the ones we all know about like sheep/mutton, pig/pork etc.

Meanwhile, of course, there were still two languages. Right into the 14th Century, the English-speaking population couldn’t gain access to power. But two big things happened in the middle of that century to change things: war with France – so that the French-speaking ruling classes started to be regarded as ‘foreign’ – and the Black Death. The first of these was good for English, obviously, and Bragg quotes a contemporary scholar stating that while not everyone could speak French, and definitely not Latin, everybody in the country could speak English. As for the Black Death… it killed something like a third of the population; enclosed communities like abbeys and other seats of power were, Bragg alleges, worse hit than the communities of the poor. Only ‘the dregs’ of society remained, mourns one desperate inscription, and most of these were English-speakers.

In the second half of the 14th Century the balance of power – Bragg might not actually use the phrase that French must previously have thought that it had won, but he uses something like it – shifts from French to English. Parliament is opened with business being conducted in English and eventually, the monarchy catches up with the new reality: when the Peasants’ Revolt takes place, the king negotiates – i.e. plays a dirty trick on the leaders – in English; and in 1399, Henry IV becomes the first monarch to be crowned with the non-Latin sections of the ceremony being spoken in English.

To put the finishing touches on to it, Bragg gives us a chapter devoted to Chaucer. Yep. As he says, every one of the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales contains at least one word from the French, but this is definitely English we’re reading. The Knight and his tale illustrate Chaucer’s familiarity with the chivalric stuff that had been going for over 200 years by now; the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (the one about Chanticleer and his harem of hens – is a satire of a particularly European-sounding romance; the Miller’s Tale shows how Chaucer can use earthier, older, often one-syllable words to create a different story-telling persona. The whole thing demonstrates where the language has got to – at least in London – by the end of the 14th Century. And Chaucer uses a European style of verse: rhyming iambic pentameter couplets. You know where you are with Chaucer.

21 April
Chapters 7-12
Enter the first real hero in the story. John Wycliffe might just be the most admirable man in the sorry history of Christianity in England. He was an Oxford scholar, hated almost everything about what had happened to organised religion since not long after the death of Christ, and decided to take on Roman Catholicism almost single-handed. For him, the Church was a self-serving, self-perpetuating clique which had nothing to do with Christian teaching. He saw the Church’s insistence on the use of Latin as central to its corrupt purpose: the priesthood used it as an impenetrable wall against the general population, hiding behind it their own ignorance and greed. Bragg quotes the number of priests discovered by one bishop to have no knowledge of the Ten Commandments or even of the Lord’s Prayer. For Wycliffe, Christianity was about conveying the teachings of God. For the priesthood it was about holding on to what they had – vast wealth and privileges. Phew.

He began to translate the Bible into English. Soon, his Oxford college became a centre of dissident thought, with men like Nicholas Hereford assisting him to gather fellow revolutionaries to copy out and disseminate the Word of God in English. It’s surprising how such a dangerous enterprise would attract so many, but lay preachers – the ‘Lollards’, an insulting name that seems to mean something like ‘Blah-blahs’ – began to spread across the country in the last third of the 14th Century. Before this, the only Bible stories the population had heard that weren’t interpreted for them by the priesthood were through the Mystery plays, simplified versions that were only permitted outside the churches.

The Church realised it had been slow to act against Wycliffe, and now it decided to do something. It was easy for the hierarchy, and soon there were arrests, torture and executions. It became illegal even to own a copy of Wycliffe’s Bible, and by the time he died in 1384 his venture seemed to be a failure. But many Lollards carried on – William Langland was one, and Piers Ploughman is an anti-Roman Catholic text – and thirty years after his death, the Church was still worried enough to disinter Wycliffe’s bones and have them ritually burned. The good news is that the protest prefigured the much later emergence of Protestantism in Europe: later translators obviously knew his work, and it’s surprising how many of Wycliffe’s phrases found their way into later versions. The bad news is that English was firmly outside the bastions of organised religion: Latin had won, for now – Bragg likes these battlefield analogies – and it was illegal to translate the Bible until well into the 16th Century.

However, things were different elsewhere. We know that the monarchy and parliament were using English for their state ceremonies, and in the early 15th Century Henry V took it further. His dispatches from France after Agincourt were in English, and later he cleared up a final anomaly: State documents and proceedings, even the business of the law courts, were still in French. But soon the French language, according to Bragg, would be routed as thoroughly as the French army at Agincourt. (I told you he likes these analogies.) Henry put in place a new Chancellery, or ‘Chancery’, using English. But, as Bragg asks, which English? Chaucer’s English was that of London, with some Midlands influences. But state and other legal documents had to be in a language that could be understood throughout the country – not easy when dialect forms were so marked that it speakers of one were practically unintelligible to speakers of another. The bureaucrats would have to make some big decisions about how to standardise the language – and this becomes the story of English in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

The Chancery scribes had to make constant decisions about which word to use when there might be a choice of several amongst the different dialects. Inevitably, they tended to go with what they knew – which, I suppose, is why Chaucer is mostly familiar to us: his dialect is an earlier version of what the scribes would have used. Bragg doesn’t make it clear how this new bureaucratic English might have been received in the North-East or South-West – although it’s clear from later chapters that, as only the educated classes needed to worry about written texts, their English became standardised long before that of the illiterate workers in the regions. (Fast-forward a century or so, when London English was the standard not only in writing, but in pronunciation. A huge amount of snobbery grew up concerning regional accents and dialects, and this led to a pressure that was still recognisable until very recently to use the current ‘received’ pronunciation. I’ll come back to that.)

The next big move was towards the standardisation of spelling. The same word could be spelt in dozens of ways in documents written in different parts of the country, dependent on variations in pronunciation. This wasn’t going to be easy. ‘Tamperers’, as Bragg calls them, made sometimes arbitrary decisions, for instance inserting the ‘l’ in ‘could’ because there was one in ‘would’ and ‘should’, the vestige of archaic pronunciations. Then, some decades into the process, enter William Caxton. He made his own decisions based on what were still not firm spelling patterns. And then… enter the Great Vowel Shift, a process that is apparently still a mystery. As spellings were being standardised, the pronunciation of most long vowels changed from what was common in mainland Europe to something different: ‘bite’ had sounded like ‘beet’, dale’ had sounded like ‘dahl’, and so on. But spellings were now more or less set – which accounts for some of the peculiarities of modern spelling. So it goes, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.

However, in the 16th Century, along comes a man who is concerned with weightier matters. This is William Tyndale, as determined as John Wycliffe before him to translate the Bible into English. He had more success, and his version has far more pre-echoes of the later King James Bible than Wycliffe’s. He had to flee abroad, but over some years managed to smuggle 18000 copies into England, of which 6000 survived the culls that Henry VIII inflicted on them with his fixer Cardinal Wolsey. At the time, Henry wanted to keep in with the Pope, but we know where that story leads…. Tyndale was arrested and executed in the Netherlands before Henry decided that Protestantism and an English Bible were just the thing, to go alongside his recent marriage to Anne Boleyn and the big rift with Rome. So it goes. Later in Henry’s reign, three versions were published in six years.

Next chapter: the competition for World Language status. It’s not really called that, but it might as well be. In the 16th Century, English is nowhere: even parts of the British Isles speak entirely foreign languages. Meanwhile there are Portuguese and Spanish making inroads into Central and South America, French in parts of North America – to say nothing of Hindi as a spoken language throughout India and Arabic throughout the Middle East. Only at the end of the century did England become a real maritime force, with English sailors bringing back ‘cargoes’ of words (thanks, Melvyn) with them. Bragg goes in for indigestible lists of vocab: names of fruit, vegetables and spices from the Middle or Far East, often via the major European trading nations. Then there’s travel to Italy, with more words – and ideas – being brought back with the souvenirs. Ok. But dull.

Time for something more interesting. In the universities in England people were starting to bring Latin into English. Bragg mentions Roger Ascham, Elizabeth I’s tutor, who argued the case for using Latin words for concepts that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. Medical terms, including most of the organs of the body, were always named in Latin… and you know where this is going. Latin and Latinisms became part of the jargon of special interest groups, and there was a growing snobbery surrounding their use. The ‘Inkhorn’ controversy came out of the scholars’ neologisms which struck many people as exhibitionist and elitist. There was a brief attempt, led by John Cheek, to re-anglicise some Latinate words – some of his own neologisms sound Germanic in their resolute anti-Latinism – but it didn’t work. So English got thousands of new words, and although some silly ones immediately fell out of use, a lot have stayed.

Next: the English Renaissance. It was behind that of other European nations – we had no Dante, and nobody like the French poets of the 15th and early 16th Centuries. (Chaucer’s English had far too many obsolete forms for him to count in this particular contest, if that’s what it was.) English tourists to Italy felt a lack… and Thomas Wyatt came home with the idea of an English form of the sonnet. Whoa. Wyatt had a go with the form, but Sir Philip Sidney, all-round Renaissance man, really ran with it. He seems to have introduced that self-conscious, self-referential concern with form and language that marks out not only the rest of the century, but the rest of literary production. We’ll get to Shakespeare soon…

…but not just yet, because something else interesting was happening in the 16th Century – something else that rings bells for a 21st Century reader. The educated classes in the Home Counties weren’t only being snobbish about written English: now we have the beginnings of attitudes to non-Home Counties accents and dialects that have carried on for at least four centuries. In 1585 George Puttenham described how written English could be a great leveller, in a good way, but that in the regions only educated speakers – meaning, mainly, the rich – were able to speak in a way that people in and near London would find acceptable. It goes with the Inkhorn phenomenon: the late 16th Century is when the history of the language begins to be as much about opportunities to be exclusive as about anything else.

Regional forms were only acceptable on safe ground: on the stage. Bragg doesn’t go into the sociology of why lines spoken in dialect by actors are acceptable to all audiences, whereas the same lines spoken in the same accents anywhere else would be entirely marginalised. He writes about how a centuries-old tradition continues in regional soap operas…. Ok. And it leads him, through the Scots, Irish and Welsh captains in Henry V, to Shakespeare. Ok, again. And I’m not going to write about what Bragg has to say about him. As for Sidney, a lot of it – though admittedly not all – comes down to lists of words that Shakespeare was the first to use. All it confirms, of course, is that the mid-16th to the mid-17th Centuries were an extraordinary time for the language, when it became for many a source of national pride. Just look at what we can do with it.

I’m nearly finished. Bragg isn’t, but now we’ve reached a time when the language has finally become what we’d recognise as a newly-minted version of our own, I’m finding his scamper through the centuries a bit wearing. He sails across to America with the Pilgrim Fathers, cites the Native American Squanto as the saviour not only of the new settlers but of English on the North American continent. He describes how proud the newly independent United States were of their role as upholders of the best standards of English in the late 18th Century, quotes John Adams, describes the role of Noah Webster, his grammars, his dictionary, of the popularity of spelling bees….

And I’m going to stop here for a while, possibly for good.


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