Melvin Bragg: Bad linguist, terrible writer.

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Melvin Bragg’s book ‘The Adventure of English: the Biography of a Language’ has been out since 2003, but I have only just tried to read it. This is because in the meantime I have been satisfied with old stalwarts like Baugh and Cable (The History of English), Larry Trask (Historical Linguistics) and, more recently, David Crystal  (The Stories of English).  But on page 186 of Bragg’s breathless 312 pages, I have had to give up. It is just too stupendously ill-conceived and I am weary of it.

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How old is your language?

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The death was reported in the press a few weeks ago of an 85-year-old lady living in the Andaman Islands. She was the last surviving member of the Bo tribe, and the last native speaker of its language. Since the death of her parents, more than 30 years ago, she had been the only native speaker of her language, and had had to learn Hindi and another Andaman tribal language in order to communicate with other people.

The Andaman Islands remained isolated from the modern world until well into the 19th century, and its people had lived undisturbed by outsiders since they arrived there from Africa some 65,000 years ago. This is truly remarkable. Most human cultures, at some time or another, migrate to pastures new, or integrate with other human groups. Not so the Andaman Islanders who, having got to their shores, stayed put for tens of thousands of years while the rest of humanity never came to call.

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