Would you like to know how much of a word loving language geek I am? (Humor me--just say yes). I actually pre-ordered the American Heritage Dictionary when it first came out (and remember, this was in the pre-internet Dark Ages, when you actually had to go to a bookstore to do such things) because I had found out it would contain a suffix with Proto-Indo-European word roots. Comparing how words drifted down and changed in various languages has always fascinated me, and the long and winding road of the history of the English language has been of particular interest. Therefore, The Adventure of English, a 2002 British series hosted by Melvyn Bragg, jumped to the head of my review line when it arrived, and I'm happy to say its four discs did not fail to delight with an unending array of fascinating facts about its subject.
"Adventure" and "English" may seem at first glance like some sort of weird off-putting joke crafted by some ultra-gifted egghead, but the fact is Bragg makes a very cogent case that the long and winding road English has taken to its present state is indeed an adventure of sorts, and one with many unexpected chapters. Linguists are going to love this series, I have no doubt, but my hunch is even non-specialists, or indeed even those with no particular interest in words and their histories, will find a lot to enjoy here, despite the series' relatively narrow focus.
Bragg starts his story with modern Frisian, a northern European dialect that still retains many elements of Old English-sounding artifacts. Bragg sets up a situation he'll exploit throughout the series, where he'll let us listen to the language for a moment, hoping we'll glean a syllable or two of meaning, and then he lists off words from that given language that have entered the English lexicon. If Frisian is one of the more ancient, hence further removed, sources of our modern day language, it's no less interesting to see its influence. As Bragg moves closer to our modern world, and English undergoes wave after wave of acclimation and assimilation, we get scores of words from such disparate sources as Old Norse and, courtesy of William the Conqueror, French. In fact, 1066 was the harbinger of just one of many doomsday scenarios for English, large swaths of time where the language, despite continuing to be spoken by the hoi polloi, found itself on the precipice of eradication, at least officially "speaking."
There is a seemingly unending array of fascinating little trivia bits dropped by the wayside here, little things like why we have dual words for the same thing (think "sick" and "ill"), due to various languages' influences throughout time on English. But Bragg also tackles weightier subjects, including the vagaries of politics, both as to how it influenced English in its formative stages, and how English politics itself then went on to "enslave" (in the notable words of Gandhi) various peoples that the British conquered.
This is a surprisingly visual piece of work, as Bragg trots the globe to explore various source elements of English, as well as places English "landed" as the British built their Empire. Though the entire series is lusciously filmed and has a wealth of beautiful locales, one of the last episodes, when Bragg examines English in India, the Caribbean and Australia, is especially resplendent. Bragg is a congenial host, if occasionally not completely at ease in front of the camera, and he is obviously incredibly knowledgeable about his subject matter (he is in fact president of Great Britain's National Campaign for the Arts, as well as chair of the Arts Council Literature Panel). Aside from Bragg's hosting in various locations, there's a wealth of source imagery used, from gorgeous illuminated books from the Middle Ages, to tapestries and other illustrations from days of yore. For a series so devoted to the word, it's really a bit surprising that the series is as visually inventive as it is.
I've been known to be something of a grammar policeman in my life. Yes, I cop (no pun intended) to that assertion. I have no qualms telling people they really mean to say "couldn't care less" when they proffer they "could care less," and I am equally prone to give props for correct use of the subjunctive ("If I were a rich man," for example). What Bragg makes abundantly clear is that English is an organic, living thing, and these rules should be at least elastic. Yes, there's "proper" English, but the history of the language shows over and over again that what was proper at one moment becomes passť and actually improper over the course of centuries. I guess I could pretend I could(n't) care less, but that would be stretching it a bit, but at least Bragg has opened my eyes and ears to the fact that English is a living, breathing entity that resists being tamped down, and in fact fights back regularly to reassert its patently defiant streak.
While of course Bragg hits the "biggies"--Beowulf, the Bard, the King James Bible, it's actually in the smaller stories that the life of the language comes, well, fully alive. Bragg shows native speakers in all sorts of walks of life--guys talking soccer at the pub, a weatherman doing a forecast, and manages to extract endlessly interesting tidbits from each of his interactions. It may make you rethink just how much of an "adventure" you yourself are having as you utter some choice English words at that driver who cuts you off during rush hour.