'One thousand five hundred years ago a few tribes from across the North Sea invaded and settled in Britain, the land occupied by the Celts. There were probably only about one hundred and fifty thousand people altogether, about the same as the population of the Carlisle district today. In the intervening years, the various German dialects that they spoke have developed into the English language which is spoken by one and a half billion people worldwide.
In his latest book, Melvyn Bragg tells the story of this extraordinary growth, the way that something so insignificant has grown and evolved to become the dominating cultural force in the world today. He sees the language like an individual developing and learning, meeting challenges and changing, or like a species evolving and adapting to survive and thrive in a diverse and difficult world.
Our history, whether as an individual or a nation, is locked up in our language.Melvyn.s own began with the thee and thou and byeuk and feace of Wigton.s Norse inheritance and the baary and paggered that came from the Romany horse-traders. Sadly, as he suggests, there was no sense of the antiquity of his language and whenever he .strayed from his Cumbrian patch. he was made to feel like .a rudemechanical, .to wipe the dialect off our lips..
English itself is shot through with the thread of its own history. The varying dialects of southern England still carry the colourings brought by the Angles, Saxonsand Jutes. The dividing line between the Danelaw and King Alfred.s kingdom can still be traced in the sounds and words of Northern accents. The very words the Normans used when, for three hundred years, French was the language of the English ruling classes, still echo their superiority. We call a cow a cow because the native Anglo-Saxons did the work and beef beef because the Norman French ate the meat. And the same division of labour is still to be seen in allour words in everything from our culture to our courts.
The excitement of the Elizabethan age saw the language explode with new words from Latin, Greek and Arabic and exploration and expansion brought a rich horde of words from all the corners of the globe just as surely as it brought the wealth of the world to Britain.s shores.
But English has grown elsewhere. The American states asserted their identity with the differences in their language, whether it was Noah Webster and his dictionary correcting our eccentric spelling or the anarchic rumbustuousebullience of language as America expanded westwards.
Neither was the culture of the Afro-Americans to be enslaved. It has asserted itself in its own right to add energy and colour to our own speech just as it has become the fountainhead of our popular music.
The same story is told in the life and vitality to be found in English as it isspoken in Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, India, Singapore, China andeven in Europe. English is the world language and it will grow and develop asthe people use it.
Melvyn Bragg is, of course, not a professional linguist. He is a lover of words, anovelist, a communicator, a broadcaster and an historian. He has told the story of his native language with the verve and zest that comes from his own intoxication with words.
Our history and language are bound together. Our language is what we are as individuals and as a nation. The biography of English is our own biography.
In the final pages of the book, Melvyn Bragg pays tribute to his old English teacher in Wigton, George Blacker, who showed him the richness of the English language. He also pays tribute to Willie Carrick, Wigton.s historian andstory-teller. Willie made him understand .that the dialect we spoke was not adebased tongue but something rich, with a history, something to be proud of..' - Steve Matthews, Bookcase.