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DVD Review: The Adventure Of English with Melvyn Bragg

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I've always been fascinated with words and their origins, wondering where they came from and how they came to mean what they do today. I studied enough Latin in high school, and know enough French, to know where quite a few words of English come from. However, even a quick glance at other words will tell you that there's no way they could have roots going back to either French or Latin. So it didn't come as much of a surprise to learn that English not only has its origins in about a half dozen older languages, but every time it's contacted another language, it's sucked up new words like a vacuum.

Now I had always joked about English being a mongrel language but I wasn't prepared for just how many different cultures had contributed to building the words I work with on almost a daily basis. Watching The Adventure Of English, the four-disc set of the British television show just released by Athena, a division of Acorn Media, was therefore an eye-opening experience. Hosted by British author Melvyn Bragg, the series traces the history of the English language from its roots in the mists of time to the language of mass communication and commerce it's become today. It may not sound like the most thrilling of topics, but in the hands of Bragg the journey is nearly as exciting as any adventure story.

The early history of the English language revolves around a series of invasions of the British Isles that took place over a 500-year period. English as we know it today has its earliest European roots in the North Sea. It was Germanic tribes from the Friesian Islands invading in 500 AD that brought the beginnings of English to Britain. They conquered the native Celts and established kingdoms in the east, west, south, and north of England with only a small enclave of Celts surviving in what is now known as Wales. However those kingdoms weren't to last long as the Danes under their king soon followed and drove the Saxons out of the north and east and established their own holdings there.

Bragg shows us how each of these two initial waves of invaders left their mark upon present day English through offering examples of their tongues presence in today's speech. In the north and east of England, for instance, names that end in "son" — Robinson, Harrison, and Williamson — can be traced back to the Norse tradition of naming people "son of." He also shows how place names have retained traces of the former dominant language. However it was only after peace and trade between the two sets of invaders were established that "Anglo-Saxon" began to thrive (the Anglo comes from the name of one of the Kingdoms, East Angles, which is now known as East Anglia).

With the introduction of Latin and the Roman script, they were even making headway on establishing "English" (what we know as Old English and barely recognizable as being the same language we speak today) in the written form, when the Normans invaded in 1066. That was nearly the death knell of English as French became the official language of the land. It did die out as a written language because of the Norman invasion, but while English absorbed some words we now take for granted (justice, court, and castle) it lived on as the spoken language of the majority of the population. Ironically enough it wasn't until the new "French" empire invaded and conquered Normandy, cutting off all links between the rulers of England and their former homeland, that English made its comeback.

Of course it doesn't take too long for the English to go on the offensive once they've got their own house in order. After taking care of the whole matter of the Catholic church and establishing the Church of England under Henry VIII thus ensuring masses are held in English, not in Latin, their eyes turned further afield. The Puritans took English with them to North America where they incorporated mispronounced Native American words into their vocabulary in taking the first steps in establishing "American English". Then came the first forays into India and the Caribbean.

While initially British merchants in India were forced to learn the language of the rulers as they were dealing with a civilization both older and more sophisticated than their own, eventually the roles were reversed. Taking on the "white man's burden" of elevating the poor misguided coloured people of the world, the East Indian Trading company passed laws prohibiting the teaching of any language but English to those Indians receiving an education. While this was an incredibly patronizing attitude, it did result in the development of "Indian English", which in turn helped support Indian nationalism by supplying those struggling for home rule the vocabulary with which to articulate their demands.

Bragg doesn't mince any words in his descriptions of how English was spread throughout the world. While his conversational approach to delivering the material may sound like he's making light of the way events took place in India and other locales, he doesn't shy away from telling the truth when it comes to showing English being spread by the sword. From Australia to America settlers and traders were backed up with gunships and muskets to ensure that business was carried on in the Queen's English. When the sun began to set on the British Empire after the World Wars of the twentieth century, the American Empire took up the task of imposing the language on the rest of the world through a mixture of economic and martial might. When you think about it, not much has changed since the Germanic tribes left the Friesian Islands.

In The Adventure Of English Melvyn Bragg does an excellent job of not only unravelling the roots of the language we all take for granted, but he does it such a manner that he makes it enjoyable to watch. Often programs like these are either so dry as to be indigestible, facile to the point of being useless as sources of information, or delivered in such a manner that the dirtier aspects of history are whitewashed out. Remarkably none of that happens here. Not only are details of the history of the English language revealed that most likely you would have never discovered on your own, Bragg's approach is that of a storyteller, not a lecturer. In fact he's so good a storyteller you hardly notice your learning anything, and you eagerly await the next adventure.

If you have any curiosity about how and where the words you speak came from, The Adventure Of English not only supplies the answers, it does so in a way that brings both the language and its history to life. One thing's for sure, after watching this program you'll never look at a word – any word – in quite the same way again.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.