Melvyn Bragg subtitles The Adventure Of English with the intriguing phrase “The Biography of a Language”. He thus implies that the language, specifically English, has a life of its own, setting himself the task of creating both an adventure and a narrative that will convince the reader that the language has both an identity and, to some extent, a personality that identifies an individuality. He succeeds on all counts.
The story starts of course with a birth and then unfolds chronologically throughout the first half of the book, before diverging to examine the different and often parallel geographical manifestations of English in the modern world. These have happened since the dawn of Empire and, as a consequence of their disparate elements and different paths of development, perhaps suggest that English is more of a family than an individual. Amazingly, Melvyn Bragg goes through eleven chapters before considering Shakespeare. The book is thus quite careful in its examination of the origins of the language and its early development.
Later on there are three chapters on the language in the United States, one each on Australia, India and the West Indies. We come across a little, perhaps not enough, Singlish from Singapore, and Africa is largely ignored, except for the influence of African languages on English in the Americas.
Melvyn Bragg also devotes considerable time to the discussion of accent, pronunciation, dialect and correctness. Obviously each of these areas could have been a lifetime’s work, let alone a book in itself, but Melvyn Bragg succeeds at least in defining the territory and correctly identifying the parts played by snobbishness and social class in the application of labels such as coarse, standard or even correct.
A decade and a half ago, I myself managed to astound an American colleague who, having prejudged the length of my “a” asked me to pronounce the word b-a-t-h. He was a New Yorker and was more than surprised when I intoned a sound that rhymed with American math. He had expected, of course, a sound like “barth”. Melvyn Bragg identifies this short “a” with an older version of English, one that predated the strong French influence of the eighteenth century that produced the long “a”, amongst other things, especially amongst the middle classes of southern England. The American settlers, of course, left Britain before this new-fangled foreign influence arrived, so they retained their short “a”, which is of course the correct version. This serves to remind us that whatever we speak in our daily lives and wherever we live, we are perhaps born into a language and the one we adopt as infants becomes part of our very identity.
This is just one example of many of interest that appear in The Adventure Of English. Once assembled, these quirks of history really do allow the language to create its own identity. It is thus portrayed as a living, developing entity, constantly changing its appearance whilst many try to hold it fixed.
The Adventure Of English by Melvyn Bragg is in no way a comprehensive look at the language, its development and its contemporary manifestations. But is does achieve admirably what it intends to do at the start, which is to create an adventure and present an as yet incomplete biography.