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Bragging about English

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
Melvyn Bragg
Sceptre 2004

A History of the English Language
Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable
Routledge & Kegan Paul 1951, revised 1978.

It is probable that those who have watched Melvyn Bragg on television and have heard him on radio on the subject reviewed here, will find the printed word, in short, his book, by far the superior medium to communicate it. It would be tedious to enumerate the advantages of the printed word, but the lack of sound is its great drawback, for of course language is oral, not visual – yet the only evidence of its past and development is visual, not oral. In his fluent, informative and thoughtful account of our language, Bragg tends get excitable: English faces “challenges” and, at a critical stage even “kept its nerve”, though whether its speakers were aware of these anthropomorphic postures is doubtful. Readers might do well to keep by them the more sober narrative of Baugh and Cable.

Although he gives a mention to the Indo-European stock from which almost all European languages differentiated, Bragg very sensibly begins in the fifth century when a variety of invaders from the mainland of Europe started to land in what is now England, speaking a distinctly different language from those who were already there. This language was a Germanic one, existing in a number of dialects. Some dialects were brought across, others left behind. The resulting mixture evolved into Anglo-Saxon, though it seems its closest living relative is present-day precarious Frisian.

The Anglo-Saxon speakers moved west, gradually conquering the resistance of the Celtic-speaking inhabitants and replacing their language with their own. One must be careful to distinguish this process from one of replacement of the inhabitants themselves, for studies of the DNA of today’s population indicate that this was far from being the case. However, the Celtic language itself survived only in Wales and Cornwall, though refugees transferred it to Brittany in France, while a related Celtic language continued unaffected in Ireland, and what was probably another one, spoken by the Picts in Scotland. Bragg shows that Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, continued to develop more or less in isolation for nearly four hundred years. It took on very few Celtic words and Christianity, from the sixth century, brought in its Latin and Greek terms, such as church, bishop, monk and angel, most, as the examples suggest, originally Greek. Though Latin was learned by monks, little if any other than religious words percolated into the vernacular.

The next event, as far as the language goes, was the series of invasions by the Danes during the ninth century, starting as raids and continuing as colonisation. Bragg sees King Alfred’s victory over them at the battle of Ethandune (Edington) in 878 as bringing this process to a halt, though consultation of any history book shows that Alfred continued to fight the Danes till the end of his life in 899 and the ultimate settlement left most of England in Danish hands. They had, however, agreed to become Christians, a big step to assimilation. Their presence in the north and east of England can be charted by the endings to place names, some 1,200 and counting: “-by”, “-toft” and “-thwaite”: “mickle” (cognate with Greek “megalos” = great) was common to both languages, which were not that distantly related.

It is almost certainly going too far to claim, as Bragg does, that the victory saved English as a language. The Danes failed to impose theirs on the north and east of England which they controlled. When another lot of Danes took over Normandy at about the same time and under the same conditions, they soon became French speakers. Danish donated some one hundred and fifty words to English, according to Bragg and, unlike many later imports, they are recognizable only by experts. What could be more English than they, their, them, birth, take, call, dregs and egg? Very often both English and Danish words continued side by side, diverging into different meanings: we still have English doom, and Danish law. Other features are evidence of speakers of two different languages trying to get along with each other by adapting their speech. As a result even core words – pronouns, prepositions and parts of the verb “to be” passed into English: “They are at…” is an example. Because case-endings were often different in the two languages, they tended to be dropped in favour of prepositions, a process that was going on anyway.

The next foreign language to make its impact was French, after the Norman Conquest in 1066 – and it may be of interest that at the time the invaders were always referred to by the English as “the French”. Once again, Bragg sees two languages in an epic battle with each other; in fact, other sources deny that there was any hostility by the rulers, who spoke French, towards the language of the ruled. French was the language of the government, but there was much less of that then than now. Although Bragg does not make this clear, for the first 150 years or so after the Conquest, English absorbed far fewer words than in the next 150, when French was plainly in decline.

During the first period, kings of England ruled large areas of France as well, and the aristocracy were as much at home there as in England. These lands were lost in 1204, and after that their feudal owners had to make the choice of being either French or English. Gradually, with this link cut, Norman-French became more and more isolated from mainstream, metropolitan French, and by 1250 there is evidence that some, perhaps most of the nobility, probably, Bragg suggests, because they had been brought up by English mothers or nurses, were actually having to learn French as children. Upwardly mobile English were doing the same – and, of course, still speaking English as well. The kings also started to speak English, at least as a second language. Edward I (1272-1307) knew it well enough to make jokes in it, and used the threat to it as a rallying call against a French invasion. By the end of the century proclamations and directives to local officials were made bilingually.

As the French-speaking, and generally better-educated people turned to English, they inevitably brought into it large numbers of French words. This influx peaked during the lifetime of Chaucer (1340?-1400), a courtier who wrote in English, while Wycliffe (1329?-1384), or rather, it seems, his followers, translated the Bible (from Latin) into English, obviously now the dominant language of those who could read. But, paradoxically, it was just as French was going out of use that it enriched English the most. Indeed some French words replaced the English ones – uncle, envy and noble, for example. During the whole period slightly more than 10,000 French words came into the English language, 75% of which are still in use today – 40% of all of French origin.

It was during this time that pronouns and auxiliary verbs progressively replaced case endings for verbs. As for nouns, all endings were lost except two. One is those for the plural, “-s” and the rare “-en”, found now only in brethren, oxen, men, women and children – and if the last is replaced by kids, only men and women will soon be left. The other is the possessive case-ending, where “-‘s” (once “-es”) is still an alternative after the noun to “of” in front of it. Together with these grammatical changes went the loss of gender for inanimate objects, which effectively became neuter, together with any need for adjectives and adjectival pronouns to take the gender of the nouns they were attached to. There was also a shake-up in possessive pronouns, which are now “my”, “thy/thine” (obsolete or obsolescent), “his”, “her/hers”, “ours”, “yours”, and “their/theirs”. The neuter possessive pronoun, once “hir”, got lost for an obvious phonetic reason. For some time, it was replaced by – well, “it”, and “thereof” placed after the noun (which is always the case in the King James Bible), until “its” was invented around 1500. Its came slowly into use and, purists will be disconcerted to learn, was optionally written “it’s” until about 1800.

If all these changes were a blessing, English spelling has been regarded as its perennial curse, partly due to changes in pronunciation and partly due to the importation of foreign words, also altered, together with attempts to retain for both the original spelling. A free for all in spelling continued through the sixteenth century, writers sometimes varying the spelling of a word throughout a single letter or document. By the end of the century there were calls for order: Richard Mulcaster, for example, issued a list of 7,000 words in 1582.

Well before 1500 English was recognizably the language we have today. If we stumble over Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (pre-1400), we have less trouble with Wycliffe’s Bible (revisions up to 1407) and hardly any at all with Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470). The printing press now enters the scene: the Englishman William Caxton returned from the continent, where he had learnt the craft and set up as a printer-publisher in 1476. Over time, the printed word has done much to stabilize a language as literacy spreads from such modest beginnings. Caxton printed both Chaucer and Malory – not Wycliffe, of course: translations of the Bible were burnt whenever they fell into the hands of the authorities.

It took more than fifty years before the Bible appeared in English in print, and this was largely due to the work of one man, William Tyndale (1494?-1536), to whom Bragg pays generous tribute. For most of the first half of the sixteenth century promoting a vernacular translation of Holy Writ was a dangerous thing to do, not merely in England, but in large parts of the continent, unfortunately those with the best printing-presses. Tyndale was caught in the Netherlands and, his work unfinished, strangled and burnt. What he had done, however, became the foundations of the English Bible for the next four centuries. Bragg hits the mark when he says:

“It is impossible to over-praise the quality of Tyndale’s writing. Its rhythmical beauty, its simplicity of phrase, its crystal clarity have penetrated deep into the bedrock of English today wherever it is spoken. Tyndale’s words and phrases influenced between sixty and eighty percent of the King James Bible of 1611 and in that second life his words and phrases circled the globe.”

In some ways Tyndale was a conservative strand in the development of English. During the century following his death some 12,000 new words were incorporated into English, many via French, others from Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch – the last, apparently, adding obscenities to the curses until then only blasphemies. The renewed interest in the classical languages brought words in via the academy. All these would be absent from the Bible translations that followed Tyndale’s. Even Tyndale may have been deliberately archaic: “thou” and “thee” are retained, though found only once in the contemporary translation of Froissart from French (1525), “ye” and “you” remain nominative and accusative throughout, “yes” occurs only four times instead of “yea” and “its”, as noted, is absent. The translators who followed Tyndale, who regarded themselves as revisers rather than innovators, kept these archaisms.

The influence of Shakespeare, who revelled in using new, even experimental words, is more difficult to evaluate; most people would never see or read his plays, certainly not in the way they would hear and read their Bible. But he could, with his English thus enriched, give us, as Bragg says “a new world in words and insights which would colour, help, lighten and depict our lives in thought and feeling. He had to the known limit exercised that most important and mysterious faculty, the imagination.” And Hesketh Pearson, a now forgotten popular biographer, enraged his father by pointing out (nearly a century ago) that there were more quotations current from Shakespeare than from the Bible.

Bragg does not quite say that we would all be speaking Spanish if the Armada had managed to do its job and put several thousand troops ashore in 1588. After all, its purpose was regime change rather than conquest and England’s population was still about two-thirds Catholic, with much of the nobility liable to swing either way. However such a outcome might well have obstructed the overseas expansion of England – and English. Spanish, and the closely related Portuguese had, or were about to spread, granted rather thinly, right over South and Central America and much of North America and then across the Pacific to the Philippines. England had barely a foothold at the eastern edge of North America by 1600.

Rather more than 200 years later, to skip the important events that brought it about, most of North America was English-speaking. The United States dominated the continent, its population increasing phenomenally both by the high birth-rate of its predominantly English white settlers and by a completely open policy (or a neglect of any policy at all) of immigration, almost entirely from the Protestant countries of Northern Europe and still mostly from the British Isles. Bragg pays much attention to the development of American English; rather staid, disciplined though still innovative in the East, with Webster’s Dictionary replacing Dr Johnson’s, while in the West, as Bragg puts it in his hyperbolic fashion, “English went wild”.

The spread of American English reinforced, perhaps guaranteed English as a world’s common language, a near necessity for international communication. Indeed, especially in India it has achieved that status for internal communication as well. During the nineteeth century some fears (or perhaps hopes) were expressed that the speech on either side of the Atlantic would become mutually incomprehensible. Insufficient attention was paid to the rapid progress of all forms of intercommunication; instead each has absorbed words and locutions from the other, with most of the traffic flowing this way. Hollywood films, later supplemented by American soap operas on television helped this traffic, while pop songs, if they are to be taken seriously, must have an American accent.

Originally a Cumbrian dialect speaker himself, Bragg perhaps makes too much of dialects and patois as survivals, and pidgins and creoles as possible developing languages. All of these have to be discarded by the individual, as Bragg admits was his own case, who wants to get into the mainstream and make his way, though the pressure is not what it was. Though dialect words are inadmissible, especially in writing, differing accents, if mild, are generally tolerated and even imitated by the elite when afraid of sounding too posh (a word with a well-known false etymology).

The homogenization of writing and speech was well under way by the eighteenth century and the Scots philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) submitted drafts to his English friends for correction. Samuel Johnson, with his Dictionary, did much to stabilize the language, particularly its spelling, though he claimed to describe, rather than prescribe. He would be surprised that, as Bragg points out, for the next century and more, “correct” speech and writing would be propagated by the pastime of reading novels. Jane Austen led the way and Scott and Dickens firmly relegated vernacular speech to the lower classes.

When it comes to the incursion of English into India, Bragg is in a dilemma but does succeed by grasping both horns. His book, after all, verges on the triumphalist, but then, on the other (left) hand, wasn’t the Empire a matter of exploitation and a source of misery? Somehow “English was often eagerly sought by Indians and yet it was also forced on them.” As for the reasons for learning English, these were not only for mere self-betterment. Bragg quotes the disappointment Rammohan Roy felt in 1825 when he found that, instead of spending funds for education on “employing European Gentlemen of talents and education to instruct the Nations of India in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Anatomy and other useful sciences,” the East India Company “are establishing a Sanscrit school under Hindoo Pundits to impart such knowledge as is clearly current in India.”

Macaulay clarifies this situation in his much misunderstood (and surprisingly inaccessible) Minute “On Education in India” of 1835, issued when he was a member of the Council of India. He was seeking to change the type of support, confined to “learning in the native languages”, given by the Company since 1813. One result had been the setting up of schools to teach Indians Sanskrit (for Hindus) and Arabic (for Muslims). Unfortunately the graduates, after being supported through ten or twelve years of instruction, could find no means of employment. Macaulay puts it succinctly: “We are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanskrit students, while those who learn English are willing to pay us.” He also points out that 23,000 volumes of Sanskrit and Arabic works had been printed, at a cost of about œ6,500 (multiply by 40 to get present day value), which next to no one would buy.

As for the matter of what should be taught, Macaulay is dismissive of what Indian literature had to offer. Bragg quotes: “I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the value of the Orientals themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” In fact Macaulay wrote “at the value of the Orientalists”, i.e., students from Europe of Oriental languages and literature, not “Orientals”, and Bragg’s mistake distorts the meaning of the whole quotation. Certainly it was not within “Oriental learning” that Rammohan Roy (who died two years before Macaulay wrote his Minute) would obtain what he wanted.

Macaulay was successful and forty to fifty million Indians speak and write English as well as we do, and often better, while “three hundred million have some sort of familiarity with it” out of population of nearly a billion. Bragg does not document his assertion that at any time it was really “hated and resented”, or there was “often savage opposition” to it. Perhaps Ghandi, whom he cites, stands in for the usual clutch of intellectuals who seek victim-status from benefits conferred, like the woman writer of Indian origin I heard recently liken herself to an offspring of rape, after confessing her love of Shakespeare.

The British rulers could not have been so stupid as to be unaware that the literature Indians were thus given access to was replete with enough subversive words and deeds to stimulate imitation. From the very nature of our culture, and the vehicle which carried it, this was simply inevitable. Was it our fault that Indian politicians chose Marx and Fabian socialism instead of Adam Smith and capitalism? I fear the answer is probably Yes, for our own politicians were doing much the same thing when we gave India its independence.

In conclusion: what else do I wish Bragg had included in this excellent book? A comparison with other languages to further justify this English Success Story would not have come amiss, especially the degree to which they have incorporated foreign words, something research (which Bragg must have on tap) could easily quantify. It has been estimated that only 5,000 of our words come from Old English, though ninety three of the hundred most-used words do (two come from French, five from Danish-Old Norse). A serious omission is an account of how English spread to other parts of the British Isles, particularly within Scotland, where England had (apart from a few years) no political control.

20 comments to Bragging about English

  • Julian Williams

    I read this book too and highly recomend it

  • dof

    There’s a remaining -en case ending for nouns that’s easily overlooked because it results in a material adjective, as in wooden, flaxen, golden (but not sodden).

  • dearieme

    My dear wife read throught the Bragg book which taught her many things that she wasn’t taught at school but I was. She says it would have been more fun if only Bragg were a good writer.

  • David B. Wildgoose

    Interesting Stuff. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I must take issue with one thing however. It was my understanding that in the early years of the Norman Conquest it was actually illegal to teach English – I shall have to check this out.

  • Doug Jones

    One of my favorite t-shirts has the caption

    “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

    -with an image of two men fistfighting on the ground.

    More information (and the original quote):

  • John Thacker

    There are, of course, plenty of strong verbs with “irregular” past and past participle forms. (“Irregular” even though they fall into a reasonable number of groups.) In addition, there are of course quite a few irregular plurals, especially amongst the animals, like mice, geese, and so on– all left over from Old English when vowel change was a common inflectional marker.

  • Millie Woods

    There are two factors which accoount for the predominance of English today. One is the phonetic structure of the language – meaningful elements, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, are stressed whereas those which serve grammatical or syntactic functions do not – i.e. abbreviated auxiliary verbs, conjunctions in locutions such as ham ‘n eggs, Jack ‘n Jill etc. This makes English an easier language to understand than others. French in contrast has mots phonetiques where the meaningful elements are mixed in with the others and all equally stressed phonetically.
    The other is that English is the primary language of access to knowledge just as French and German were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  • Occasionally one still runs across the silly old multiculti argument that English is an inferior language because, for example, unlike the Inuit who have 20 or so nouns for snow, we have only one. Come on. How many nouns do the Inuit have for “red?” “Flower?”

    If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.

  • Euan Gray

    There are two factors which accoount for the predominance of English today

    Perhaps the fact that the dominant global powers for the past 150 years have been English speaking nations might have had something to do with it as well.


  • John Rippengal

    Of course; what else?

  • RPW

    Good article, well written. However –

    “The Anglo-Saxon speakers moved west, gradually conquering the resistance of the Celtic-speaking inhabitants and replacing their language with their own. One must be careful to distinguish this process from one of replacement of the inhabitants themselves, for studies of the DNA of today’s population indicate that this was far from being the case.”

    I understood that the evidence was actually quite compelling for population replacement (see “Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration” for details), and if I were to be cynical for a moment (as perhaps befits a descendant of the Celtic speaking inhabitants who managed to survive) I’d theorise that such controversy as exists on this subject is more down to residual squeamishness on the part of English historians reluctant to admit that they are benificiaries of one of history’s more successful acts of ethnic cleansing than to any dispute about the evidence.

  • Findlay Dunachie


    Thanks – I am willing to stand corrected and the article looks interesting. Perhaps I should make clear that it was not a point made by Bragg, but by myself from rather vague statements I must have picked up from somewhere.

    Colin Renfrew’s migration thesis, “Archaeology and Language” (1987) is interesting and very plausible, but for an earlier period, when agriculture was moving slowly from its origin in Anatolia into areas occupied by hunter gatherers (density 0.1 to the square kilometre) which, with agricultural exploitation, could carry 5-10 to the square kilometre. He was, of course, writing before Y-chromosome/mitochondrial DNA analysis had been developed.

    It is, of course, more politically correct to assign migratory movements (and especially language spread) to peaceful methods than the old fire and sword massacres formerly in vogue.

    Donald Wildgoose

    It’s hard to prove a negative and I haven’t searched very hard, so if you can find evidence that there was an attempt, post-conquest, to make the teaching of English illegal, I should be glad to know. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” (kept by monks) was being updated in English for nearly 100 years afterwards in some places. Preaching in Cathedrals in English was common. So Poole: “Domesday Book to Magna Carta” in the Oxford History of England Series.

  • Verity

    Euan Gray – (Forgive me, fellow posters! I know I will unloose a torrent of meticulously argued irrelevant commentary) Perhaps the fact that the dominant global powers for the past 150 years have been English speaking nations might have had something to do with it as well. – 150 years? Since 1845? Are you serious? (I’m sure he is.)

    I would say English has been the dominant language of the world since 200 years before that. Indeed, the lingua franca of commerce for around 350 years …

    Also Anglo-Saxon, in effect, has conquered the world because, as Doug Jones says, we are relaxed about taking in anything that suits our purpose.

    (Little side issue here: the French who were a presence in pioneer America, gave French names to things – Nez Percé Indians, for one example among hundreds. The Brits happily adopted the names the local indigenes had given them – thus Tennessee, Mississippi, Seminole, Florida – whatever. If that was your name and your word, fine. You were now part of the English language.)

  • RPW


    Ta for that, I believe mitochondrial studies are more ambiguous than y-chromosome ones which may be what you were picking up (the difference between the two could be explained if we were to postulate invading barbarians killing or driving off the men and enslaving the women, but I’ve no idea if there is enough evidence to support such an interpretation).

    Verity, EG is about right in assigning 150-200 years for the rise of English to global dominance. Up until the early 19th century French was clearly the dominant language of diplomacy, culture and what not – at the battle of Waterloo for example Blucher and Wellington had to communicate in French because they had no other language (and according to people who heard the both speak, Wellington’s French was better than Napoleon’s, but that’s an aside). Waterloo is a good marker for the point at which English seriously began to displace French, but it probably took another generation for the changeover to be decisive.

  • Verity, I’m not sure that your point is valid! In Québec alone we have a dizzying number of Indian names, right from the name of the country (or both countries), to cities (Mascouche, Maniwaki, Umiujaq, Kangiqsualujjuaq, Outaouais) and we could go on. Those are the French that decided to adopt aboriginal names!

  • John Rippengal

    There was an article in the Daily Telegraph recently which claimed to show that the present inhabitants of the British Isles still carried the DNA of the first hunter gatherer inhabitants – pre Celtic invasion. If that is so then it strengthens the case for the inhabitants absorbing the language of the invaders rather than being eliminated. It is similar to the arguments about agriculturalists from the middle east. Did they replace the hunter gatherers of Europe or did the latter pick up the idea of agriculture from them.
    Incidentally in the same article it is claimed the Celts came originally from Palestine or that area.
    Always wondered why my Welsh ancestors on my mothers side looked rather Jewish.

  • Verity

    Alex – I didn’t say the French always imposed their own language on indigenous names; just that they were much more inclined to do this than the Brits.

    RPW, Interesting about my hero, the Duke of Wellington’s French accent. No matter what he did, he did superbly. He was a good dancer, too.

    Yes, I accept that French was the lingua franca of culture, diplomacy and court. But I have a feeling that English had begun, by around 250 years ago, to start making inroads as the lingua franca of commerce.

    And remember, 250 years ago, America was being settled. And India – or most of it – was under British rule. So diplomacy and culture and all the poncy stuff, yes, French. But what makes the world go round, i.e., commerce, English!

  • Findlay Dunachie


    1755 (250 years ago) is a little early to put English as a world language. The French still had Canada and Louisiana, and the British had hardly started to penetrate India: one could say the process started with Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757. Fifty years before that the Mughal Empire was still a going concern. British India didn’t reach its limit until a hundred years later, just before the Mutiny.

    For sheer territorial extent, someone at the time might have opted for Spanish – but only to reject it at once because the mother country and colonies operated a system that simply didn’t work.

    American English spread because the settlers wanted to work the land and so filled it up. Nowadays settlers/immigrants go to the cities, where they never did reproduce so much.

  • Verity

    Well yes, Findlay, once a country’s settled, it’s hard to get into agriculture, unless you want to go to France and buy a vineyard. Of course people go to cities nowadays, and have since the early 1900s.

    OK, Clive’s victory in 1757 … until 1957 is 200 years. Until 2005 is another 48 years. So, 250 years since English began to become the lingua franca of commerce.

    Spanish could indeed have been much more powerful in an international sense than it is today (although it is immensely powerful, obviously, in Central and South America and in Mexico in N America), but although it would be a good trading language because it is a small and not too taxing to learn, it simply never had the powerful trading base that English had with Britain (richer than Spain), the United States, Canada, Australia and England – all players on the world scene – whereas Bolivia, Guatamala, Belize were not. And, 350 years later, are still not.

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