Melvyn Bragg's fascinating biography of the English language
Melvyn Bragg's first novel, For Want of a Nail, was published in 1965 and since then his novels have included The Hired Man, for which he won the Time/Life Silver Pen Award, Without a City Wall, winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Credo, The Maid of Buttermere and The Soldier's Return, which was published to huge critical acclaim in 1999 and won the WHSmith Literary Award. He has also written several works of non-fiction including Speak for England, an oral history of the twentieth century, Rich, a biography of Richard Burton and On Giants' Shoulders, a history of science based on his BBC radio series. He was born in 1939 and educated at Wigton's Nelson Tomlinson Shool and at Oxford where he read history. He is controller of Arts at LWT and President of the National Campaign for the Arts, and in 1998 he was made a life peer. He lives in London and Cumbria.
Bragg, a prolific British novelist and broadcast journalist, offers a lively "biography" of the English language, highlighting key individuals, places, and literature that advanced it, as well as the political and social trends that influenced it. Following a chronology of how English developed from its Germanic base, Bragg discusses its evolution in the English colonies, devoting four chapters to the United States and one each to India, the West Indies, and Australia. John Wycliffe and William Tyndale receive substantial, moving portraits for translating the Bible into English an amazing effort that supported national literacy and provided a Bible for Henry VIII's newly independent church. Bragg also underscores the sonnet, the poetic form that Shakespeare and others used to match in English the beauty of Italian and other European poetry. Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales also get a nod. Well researched yet more accessible to a wide audience than scholarly treatments by linguists or historians (e.g., Robert McCrum's Story of English and Albert C. Baugh's History of the English Language), this volume takes a novel sociological approach, focusing less on the grammar's development than on how the language developed via people and events. The result is a work more readable to a broader audience than similar titles yet also satisfying to scholars. Highly recommended. [Originally published in England, this book is a tie-in to an eight-part TV series, produced by Bragg, which is expected to air in the United States this spring. Ed.] Marianne Orme, Des Palines P.L., IL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
'Melvyn Bragg's superb new history of the English language is told as an adventure story, and rightly so. There is much splendid intellectual firepower in this book.' -- Andrew Roberts, Spectator 'Concise as well as learned...Melvyn Bragg takes the high road and strides confidently through the origins and growth of English. It gives us an impressive and sage view of the big picture.' -- Robert Winder, New Statesman 'Bragg is an expert translator in areas that academics find difficult to popularise...he produces a pithy, accessible narrative.' -- Guardian 'This breathless tale of the English language is one of struggle, resilience and triumph' -- Irish Times 'Beautifully clear and, indeed, thrilling' -- Waterstone's Books Quarterly 'Bragg's approachable account gleams with little gems. It has power and clarity...rewarding.' -- Sunday Herald 'Always readable, often thought-provoking, and consistently entertaining.' -- Independent 'This is a highly readable, jargon-free treatise on a notoriously prickly subject. Bragg's affection for his subject is infectious. In this he successfully joins a long tradition of gentleman enthusiasts from peppery Dr Johnson to genial James Murray.' -- Observer
This compelling and charmingly personal companion to an eight-part television documentary (scheduled for the fall) makes for an idiosyncratic rival to PBS's bestselling blockbuster The Story of English, by Robert McCrum et al. Titling a history of the evolution and expansion of a language an "adventure" presupposes a hero, with such obvious choices as Alfred the Great, for defeating the Danes; Chaucer, for his Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare, for his poetic inventiveness; or Samuel Johnson, for his groundbreaking dictionary. Bragg, a British TV and radio personality and novelist (The Soldier's Return), gives all their contributions their due, but English itself, with its "deep obstinacy" and "astonishing flexibility," emerges as his favorite character. Bragg's enthusiasm for his subject-hero, whether the Old English of Beowulf or the new "Text English" of the Internet, makes up for his shortcomings as a linguist: his sources, unfootnoted, are at times at variance with the OED or Webster's Third. For instance, Bragg furnishes only one putative origin for the disputed "real McCoy." Moreover "candy" does not seem to have Anglo-Indian origins (it's from the Arabic "qandi"), and the first recorded use of "vast" is not from Shakespeare (the OED cites Archbishop Edwin Sandys). Nevertheless, this "biography" succeeds in its broad, sweeping narrative, carrying the reader from the origins of Anglo-Saxon through the Viking and Norman invasions to the consolidation of "British" English and outward to America, Australia, India, the West Indies and beyond. After some 1,500 years, with one billion speakers now worldwide, according to Bragg, the English language has displayed an amazing ability to repair and reinvent itself, as Bragg ably shows. 32 pages of color illus. Agent, Vivien Greene of Shiel Land, U.K. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.