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Monday, February 28, 2005

Reading List: The Adventure of English

Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English. London: Sceptre, 2003. ISBN 0-340-82993-1.
How did a language spoken by 150,000 or so Germanic warriors who invaded the British Isles in the fifth century A.D. become the closest thing so far to a global language, dominating the worlds of science and commerce which so define the modern age? Melvyn Bragg, who earlier produced a television series (which I haven't seen) with the same name for the British ITV network follows the same outline in this history of English. The tremendous contingency in the evolution of a language is much to be seen here: had Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, or William Tyndale (who first translated the Bible into English and paid with his life for having done so) died in infancy, how would we speak today, and in what culture would we live? The assembly of the enormous vocabulary of English by devouring words from dozens of other languages is well documented, as well as the differentiation of British English into distinct American, Caribbean, Australian, South African, Indian, and other variants which enrich the mother tongue with both vocabulary and grammar. Fair dinkum, innit man?

As English has grown by accretion, it has also cast out a multitude of words into the "Obs." bin of the OED, many in the "Inkhorn Controversy" in the 16th century. What a loss! The more words, the richer the language, and I hereby urge we reinstate "abstergify", last cited in the OED in 1612, defined as the verb "To cleanse". I propose this word to mean "to clean up, ├Žsthetically, without any change in function". For example, "I spent all day abstergifying the configuration files for the Web server".

The mystery of why such an ill-structured language with an almost anti-phonetic spelling should have become so widespread is discussed here only on the margin, often in apologetic terms invoking the guilt of slavery and colonialism. (But speakers of other languages pioneered these institutions, so why didn't they triumph?) Bragg suggests, almost in passing, what I think is very significant. The very irregularity of English permits it to assimilate the vocabulary of every language it encounters. In Greek, Latin, Spanish, or French, there are rules about the form of verbs and the endings of nouns and agreement of adjectives which cannot accommodate words from fundamentally different languages. But in English, there are no rules whatsoever--bring your own vocabulary--there's room for everybody and every word. Come on in, it's great--the more the better!

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

Posted at February 28, 2005 01:41