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.

I admit Bragg is not writing for anyone who loves hard-won nuggets of information from painstaking historical research, with tables of figures, diagrams, and careful statistical analyses. That might sound dry to a non-specialist, but it does not have to be, as David Crystal’s book shows; you can do all these things and produce a wonderfully entertaining and rich history for both academic and general readers alike.  It is not necessary to be a distinguished Professor of Linguistics to bring that off. An informed layman can write a really good text about English — Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue springs to mind here — though he or she does have to approach the task with a suitable nod to the general academic thrust of modern linguistics. This is something Bragg cannot or will not do. The novelist in him won’t be denied and his jingoistic imagination stalks this book like a wide-eyed John Bull in Union Jack waistcoat.

In a nutshell, the problem is this. Bragg sees the English Language as a living organism, with hopes, fears, courage and determination all of its own. Its history is an epic tale of breaking free from the confines of mainland Europe, leaping into the wide expanse of the British Isles, heroic resistance to the onslaught of the Vikings, then cruel defeat by the Normans, dark years of oppression as it gazes upon looming extinction. Then, just when all seems lost, comes triumph over its enemies, a glorious blooming, a bursting forth to take on the world and win the prize of Top Language, as it has always felt its destiny to be.

If that sounds like a ridiculous film trailer, it is not because I am parodying Bragg.  He really does write like that. Here are some quotations from just from the first five pages:

This ability to plant itself deep in foreign territory became another powerful characteristic of the language’. (page 2)

‘This hungry creature, English, demanded more and more subjects’. (page 2)

‘English’s most subtle and ruthless characteristic of all: its capacity to absorb others’. (page 3)

‘English, finding a new home, its powerful voice freed by water from old roots, groping towards the entity it would become, wanted all the space it could claim….Until it grew confident enough to take on newcomers, it needed the air and the space to itself. ‘ (page 5)

This anthropomorphising of the language goes on through the book (or at least to page 186 when I felt I had had enough.) By chapter four, on the ‘against all odds’ stand of English against Norman French, Bragg’s writing has become embarrassing.

‘ …despite being officially ignored, despite being driven out of much of its written inheritance, English continued to change, to endure, both resisting and absorbing the invader’s language, selecting, nursing itself like an exiled and wounded animal hoping for the opportunity to re-emerge.’ (page 44)

Things which are very normal features of the processes of language change (migration, invasion, language shift, lexical borrowing, reanalysis of grammatical structures) are presented by Bragg as extraordinary. His exuberant narrative implies that everything that happened to English from 450 AD to 2000 AD was designed to bring it to its current status as a global language.

‘It seems as if English knew exactly what it was doing: building slowly to last, testing itself among competing tribes as in centuries to come it would be tested among competing nations, getting ready for as difficult a fight as was needed, branding the tongue.’ (page 8)

A more realistic and evidence-based interpretation is that English got to where it is today, not through Destiny, nor any ‘innate’ characteristic such as fortitude or cunning, nor uniquely superior structures in its grammar,  but through the fortuitous coming together of geographical, economic, social and political factors, unromantic as that sounds.

This is a central problem with Bragg’s interpretations of linguistic history. He dismisses perfectly sound scholarship when it does not fit his epic tale.  For example, the re-emergence of English as the language of power in the couple of centuries after the Norman Conquest is, in the opinion of most historical linguists, entirely predictable and inevitable. The circumstances were never right for a wholesale language shift from English to French. In the first place, it has been estimated that only about 15,000 Normans ever came to England, a very small number compared to the three million English. They brought few women with them and so married English wives. They had no choice but to run their new estates and businesses with English- speaking labourers, clerks, servants, tradesmen.  Their children grew up speaking both languages, and within only a few generations we find evidence that families from Norman stock were having to employ French tutors for their offspring.  The English population maintained their resentment of their Norman overlords and showed no inclination to adopt their language. Then, after the loss of French territory in the early thirteenth century, the Normans in England began to view themselves as English and the continental French as enemies.  Through the 1200s and 1300s we see English used more and more in wills, in letters, in contracts, while French gives way in Parliament, the justice system and the Royal Household. Why? Because no-one spoke it as a first language anymore and it was just too much of a bother pretending otherwise. By all these tokens, French was never a realistic contender as the new national language of England.

 Bragg concedes that ‘ ..some historians now regard the survival of English (after 1066) as inevitable.’ But such a view spoils his preferred account of English bravely and resolutely holding on during dark centuries of foreign subjugation.  His writing gets very colourful about this.

 (English was) leaderless, oppressed, under the Norman heel.”  (page 35)

Conquered English could hunker down, brood on the iniquity of the French and the injustices of the world, cosset the English language as the one true mark of identity and dignity, bide its time, stealthily steal from the rich foreigners.  (page 51)

(‘English) was helpless….before an inevitable pressing down, a percolation which would eventually eat away at it and so reduce its powers that more and more of its speakers would feel compelled to put it aside.’  (page 55)

He has this completely the wrong way round. More and more English speakers did not feel compelled to put it aside. The evidence shows that more and more French speakers felt compelled to give up French and switch to English, in the course of doing which they brought with them a lot of French vocabulary.  Here’s Bragg getting this wrong, too:

‘Even after the middle of the thirteenth century, the record shows that French words continue to stream into English. The worrying thing, when you do the sums, is that far more came in after 1250 than before’. (Page 57)

Why describe this influx as ‘worrying’? (It’s like a Tory MP railing against illegal immigrants.) The correct interpretation is that here is clear evidence of French speakers switching to English, and if you wish to see this as part of a heroic battle, then it’s glorious, surely. Two pages later, Bragg has completely changed his tune:

‘…the sweet revenge which English took on French: it not only anglicised it, it used the invasion to increase its own strength; it looted the looters, plundered those who had plundered, out of weakness brought forth strength.’ (page 59)

It very emotive to write about words being plundered or looted, as if a language’s vocabulary (or word-hoard as Bragg likes to call it in mock Anglo-Saxon) were a treasure chest.  It is more accurate to write about adoption and adaptation of vocabulary items from a foreign source. It’s nothing special. All languages engage in it when a handy word comes along that fills a lexical gap. Once adopted, a word undergoes phonological and morphological adaptations that nativise it, bringing it into line with the rest of the language. Thus, French has borrowed the handy English word sandwich, bent its pronunciation towards French phonotactics (son-dou-eedge)  and given it a French ending to derive the word for a sandwich -shop; sandwicherie.  Sandwich is now a proper French word.

By the time Bragg arrives at the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (last quarter of the 14th century) you would think that he might concede that French was dead in the water as far as the overwhelming number of people in England were concerned. But no, the tale of endurance and hardship must go on. Bragg seriously suggests that Chaucer would have considered French or Latin (!) as the medium for his Canterbury Tales.  His choice of English is presented here as momentous, when it was an absolute no-brainer. Had Chaucer written in Latin he would have had next to no audience; had he written in French he would have had an audience that perhaps knew a bit of French but would all have been native speakers of English, wondering why these tales for English people and about English people were in a language most of them did not know very well. What nonsense then to write, as Bragg does:

‘Chaucer planted English deeply in the country which bore its name, with a brilliance and confidence that meant there was no looking back….’ page 77.

To conclude: It is commonplace for someone to think that his own native tongue is the best that can be. Diderot (1751) was convinced that French was ‘unique among languages in the degree to which the words correspond to the natural order of words and ideas.’ (Chomsky 1965:7). William McGee, (first President of the American Anthropological Association) in outright opposition to Diderot, says much the same thing of English:

‘….it is to be remembered that the Anglo-Saxon language is the simplest, the most perfectly and simply symbolic that the world has ever seen; and that by means of it the Anglo-Saxon saves his vitality for conquest instead of wasting it under the Juggernaut of a cumbrous mechanism for conveyance of thought.’

In 1848 Jacob Grimm, the formulator of the sound law by which Germanic languages changed their pronunciation of certain sounds, saw in these changes something virile and splendid:

‘…the invincible Germanic race was becoming ever more vividly aware of the unstoppability of its advance into all parts of Europe …. How could such a forceful mobilization of the race have failed to stir up its language at the same time, jolting it out of its traditional rut and exalting it? Does there not lie a certain courage and pride in the strengthening of a voiced stop into a voiceless stop and a voiceless stop into fricative?’

Bragg falls into exactly this error and stretches it out into a whole book.

If you can strip out his annoying conceit of English personified, if you can ignore the ridiculous melodrama, you can find in this book a lot of information about the history of English, especially on the subject of vocabulary. (Syntax and phonology barely get a look-in.) True, there are occasional errors. Proto-Indo-European did not arise in India (page 4) but somewhere between present-day Turkey and Russia. Runes are a script. (page 10) What else could they be?? But for the most part, Bragg has done his homework and heeded the advice of the linguists he consulted.  My advice to you, though, is not to buy his book, unless you find it at a car boot sale. It is not worth the £8.99 cover price.

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8 thoughts on “Melvin Bragg: Bad linguist, terrible writer.

  1. Deborah Cameron launched into a similar attack on McCrum’s Globish book in The Guardian at the weekend, having a go at its flag-waving for English. I’ve used Bragg’s book and the DVDs to go with it with A level Language classes, but it does need a bit of mediation or the students leave singing Rule Britannia and Engerland.

  2. This book is lots of fun if you don’t take it too seriously. But I did get near to throwing it across the room when I got to page 19, and came across the author’s assertion that "a great white horse was carved into a Wiltshire hillside to commemorate the victory of Ethandune. "Apart from the small technical point that the White Horse was never in Wiltshire, when I walked across it it last it was in Berkshire, admittedly fifty years ago. It wasn’t carved by or for Alfred the Great, although perhaps his tmerry men may have coloured it in- white of course. . It was built in the Bronze Age, and apparently it is found on the coins of the Iron Age. It is sometimes regarded as a tribal boundary. Unfortunately this slight faux pas cast doubt over the reliability of the rest of the book. But it’s nicely written, and a most enjoyable read.

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    DISPLAY: none! important } </STYLE> </HEAD> <BODY> <DIV id=idOWAReplyText43461 dir=ltr> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT face="Times New Roman" color=#000000 size=4>Sorry, but&nbsp; I can’t agree this book is nicely written. The bits I have quoted&nbsp;above just make me cringe. They are truly awful.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT face="Times New Roman" color=#000000 size=4>I agree though about the reliability of&nbsp;the&nbsp;content; Lord Bragg doesn’t seem too scrupulous about fact-checking. </FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT face=Tahoma size=2><B>From:</B></DIV></DIV></BODY></HTML>

  4. I also found his claim of a Northumbrian man who could understand Icelandic within a couple of weeks because of the shared Viking heritage unlikely in the extreme. Yes, there are plenty of ON words in Northumbrian dialect but knowing what "leiking around" means does not modern Icelandic unlock!

  5. We now have a rather more balanced addition to the genre in Henry Hitchings’s ‘The Language Wars: A History of Proper English’.

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