Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks Pig Latin should have become the world's tongue.
"Today English circles the globe. It inhabits the air we breathe. What started as a guttural tribal dialect seeming isolated in a small island is now the language of well over a thousand million people all over the world."
That statement above might worry France, where there are laws against "franglais," but it shouldn't. As it turns out, thousands of their words have worked their way into English, courtesy of the Normans. When you talk about food, love, war, and government, French words will crop up somewhere in there. That tidbit from The Adventure of English suggests that our language grew dominant because it's a two-way street, a theme that comes up often in London Weekend Television's eight-part documentary.
Facts of the Case
The Adventure of English features eight episodes, each about 50 minutes:
• Episode 1: Celtic disappears as a Germanic tribe sails into the British Isles with a new language. King Alfred fights off the Norse invasion and saves English, but the Normans take over in 1066—and they speak French!
• Episode 2: English makes a comeback, thanks to peasants, a Norman split with mainland France, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the bubonic plague. Quite a few French words remain, forcing English words like "apple" to find new meanings.
• Episode 3: "The battle for the language of The Bible" proves deadly for William Tyndale, but a king's marital woes bring the English translation into favor. Bureaucrats standardize English, and Melvyn Bragg presents some spellings that only a bureaucrat could concoct.
• Episode 4: Poet Philip Sidney and playwright William Shakespeare make up some new words and phrases. Sailors bring a lot of new words, including some fun Dutch profanities, home from sea. English gets a dictionary.
• Episode 5: While East Coast colonists resist tampering with the language, westward expansion and railroads restart English's evolution in America. Mark Twain puts the New World's new words into print. South Carolina's Gullah dialect brings in African words.
• Episode 6: Jonathan Swift tries to "ascertain" the language, fearing works like his Gulliver's Travels will quickly become obsolete. He fails, but his concerns turn out to be unfounded. John Locke (not a Lost character; look him up) and Samuel Johnson also want to guide English's path.
• Episode 7: Trade and colonization spread the English language. In India, scholar William Jones finds some English words already there—in Sanskrit. Convicts land in Australia, blending London criminal slang and Aboriginal words into a new dialect. Jamaicans reclaim patois.
• Episode 8: Because of "natural selection," English means business around the globe. Two world wars, America's black migration, films, and European immigration to America help further its evolution.
The Adventure of English is a crash course in history and linguistics. You're going to learn something here. If you have any doubt, check out the study guide that accompanies the DVD set, with episode summaries and questions to ponder.
However, it's not designed strictly as a course supplement. The Adventure of English was made for a commercial broadcaster in England, and a wide range of visuals and other TV tricks help bring the history of English alive. Words, often with their original spellings, march boldly across the screen, and the lessons are reinforced with everything from ancient texts to contemporary road signs. You'll hear everyday people talking about how they use and pronounce words. Readers demonstrate the ancient pronunciations. You'll also get a look at the English countryside and several foreign locales as Melvyn Bragg does standups at just about every spot that factored in the history of English. He also goes into the streets and to the universities to get more perspectives on the language.
Bragg does a good job of guiding viewers through the lessons without being intrusive. He does venture an opinion once in a while, as when he notes that bureaucratic gobbledegook is not a good language for poetry, but it's hardly an opinion piece. I gather he's a familiar figure on British TV; I think I've seen him in a DVD extra somewhere. Bragg's pictured prominently on the box, but I doubt he's as big a selling point here as, say, Michael Palin or Clive James.
The picture and sound quality are unobtrusively good, important for all those pronunciations.
The one extra on the DVD, text bios of fifteen people who figured in the documentary, is helpful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Watching The Adventure of English in a week for a review can feel at times like cramming a freshman college course. It's accessible, but the amount of information to absorb might discourage a casual viewer.
The Adventure of English makes a good change of pace. It's high-minded and educational, but brings its lessons down to earth and can even be fun.
Not guilty. I just hope the language hasn't evolved into something
unrecognizable in the time it took to write this review.
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