A Common Language

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Review of ’The Adventure of English‘, Melvyn Bragg, Hodder & Stoughton £20

For a good, highly readable overview of how English developed and where it may be going, Melvyn Bragg‘s book, based on the TV series of the same name, does the job. Bragg traces the roots of English back to the Frisian and other Germanic languages of those who invaded Britain from the 5th century onwards - the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. He follows the growth of what have become the varied forms of modern English, not only through the familiar paths of the Norman invasion, Chaucer, Shakespeare and so on, but also through looking at other influences on English - the words of the Wild West in America, the Creole languages of the Caribbean, or the vocabulary the British brought from India. Indeed, the lists of words can become overwhelming at times.

His view of English is in some ways very democratic: the role of the ordinary people and particularly the oppressed is stressed, whether through the survival and transformation into Middle English of Anglo-Saxon under Norman French rule or the advance of Australian English. His account of Wycliffe (the first translator of the Bible into English) and his followers the Lollards shows how ordinary men and women were ready to assert their beliefs against a corrupt and powerful church that claimed absolute authority. Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and his body dug up, but 150 years later thousands of copies of Tyndale‘s new translation were smuggled round Britain. In the words of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII‘s chancellor, he was ’putting the fire of scripture into the language of the ploughboys‘. Tyndale burned at the stake, but his words were read every day by millions for hundreds of years.

Language and religion expressed both the ’heart in a heartless world‘, as Marx explained 300 years later, and the struggles of the time. Bragg describes how the spirituals of black slaves in the American South expressed not simply their hopes for the next world, but also the struggle to escape to the North and freedom. Brought up as a dialect speaker himself, he writes well, too, about the varieties of English and their histories, and shows how the language of ordinary people - whether in the time of Shakespeare or of Dickens - has shaped the language. He also considers the role of English as the major language of international trade and politics.

Bragg does, however, tend to view English, and especially the varieties of English we meet nowadays, as a rich and relatively unproblematic cornucopia, a ’hoard and a history of words whose ingenuity, democratic sourcing, variety, richness, even genius is all but beyond imagination‘. This doesn‘t mean he disregards the key role English has played in advancing British, and later, US imperialism. For example, he quotes Macaulay (writer, historian and member of the Supreme Court in Calcutta) who argued in 1835 for teaching English on the grounds that ’I have never found one among them who could deny that a good shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia‘. Gandhi, in contrast, saw the future of India as a country from which English was utterly banished.

However, whatever the more problematic episodes in its past, English in Bragg‘s view now has something special. In contrast, linguists like David Crystal point to the role of trade and empire, and the huge influence of American English, and deny that English has intrinsic aesthetic or structural superiority. As he points out, this has been claimed for many languages in the past - Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Italian, Chinese and so on. However, the effect of Bragg‘s outlook is to skate over the way English and particular varieties of English have been and continue to be profoundly oppressive for many people, as Gandhi argued.

One only has to consider New Labour’s slavish devotion to testing, and the obsession in SATs with Standard English and linguistic minutiae. As the Russian linguist Voloshinov pointed out, ‘The ruling class strives to impart a supraclass eternal character to the ideological sign.’ In this way, many working class children find themselves and their language labelled as inadequate: it is not the testing regime but the children themselves who are failing. The question of class and privilege is sidestepped. This of course fits well with Bragg’s own political outlook: he is a well-known supporter of New Labour.

The struggle over English is also downplayed, in my view, because English itself has been personified - the book is subtitled A Biography of English. The language is presented as an almost irresistible force, rather than the collective creation of human beings. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating read.