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on 12 February 2004
If you are interested in the history of the English Language, word derivations and English generally I strongly recommend this book. I would have given it 5 stars but knocked one off because at times, especially in the first few chapters, Bragg can get a bit tedious. His writing style is very odd too. I'm not saying it's bad, just odd. It's as if he is slightly off-kilter with the world. Also some of his sentences go on for ever with little punctuation, which struck me as peculiar given that Bragg is a consummate intellectual and is writing about English!
Nit-picking aside the book is a great read. It is full of interesting history and, especially in the latter half of the book, full of fascinating facts you always wanted to know about words but couldn't be bothered finding out. Such as the reason for expressions such as 'the Real McKoy' and 'Maverick'. Why Americans pronounce every syllable while us Brits tend to clip vowels as in 'Cem-e-ter-y'(US) and 'ceme-try'(England). How Kangaroo, supposedly, wasn't actually the name of the animal but the aboriginal for 'I don't know what you're talking about' when a native was asked for it's name in English. etc etc
If it's quick fire facts about the English language you're after I would recommend Bill Bryson's 'Mother Tongue'. It is an easier read and has more humour. Bragg's book goes into much more depth charting the progress of English from it's very beginning up to present day America and Australia. Not as readable as Bryson, his style more lecture hall than matey, but definitely worth it.
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VINE VOICEon 4 May 2005
This book has more plots twists and dark Catholic deeds than a Dan Brown blockbuster and its all based on fact!
The best implemented sections are those that cover the language from the 4th century through to 17th century, and encompassed the repeated invasions during the first millenium by anyone on mainland europe with a boat and an axe, the Norman invasion and subsequant 300 year occupation, the plague, the catholic strangle hold of the 15th and 16th century, attempts to translate the latin bible to english for all to read, catholic attempts to stop this, the origins of Protestantism, the formalising of the language away from its regional spellings and dialect into a singular language, the work of the tamperers in making the language more difficult to learn thru the first official publication of the English Bible by King James 1.
Pros: Its all great stuff and additionally provides a real taste for the history that has shaped much of this country as it stands today.
CONS: It does lose its impact as it takes onboard the modern forms of english; American, Jamiacan etc but that might be because these hold little interest for me at this time.
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on 23 March 2011
I found this very interesting. It answered a lot of questions for me. My wife is from Brazil and always comments about how the rules of English are not uniform like they are in Portuguese. Melvyn answers this question.

I also could relate to how he felt the need to change his Northern accent when he reached 16 years old and began moving in different circles. I had a very thick working class north side Dublin accent until I was 19. Then I became very conscious of the way in which I spoke as I had left home and was living with a house full of foreign students. There was also a certain stigma attached to my accent, that I did not want. I regret now that I have lost so much of my old accent yet it still hangs in there, and people can still pick it up sometimes, just like with Bragg.

His section on the influence of Bible on English was generally OK, but being an avid student of Church history it was nothing I didn't know, and I actually felt he got a few of his facts wrong, but I won't go into that here as it didn't take away from the point of the story.

I really enjoyed the 2nd section of the book which spoke mainly about how English has spread around the world including America and Australia and how different nations have taken English and adapted it like India. One example he uses in "Singlish" in Singapore. Another interesting part was about the English of the West Indies including Jamaica.

A short book, packed with information. Very interesting subject.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 August 2012
The history of the English language is rich and complex but this book makes it seem slightly tedious. It does go through every stage of development (such as the Conquest, Chaucer, the Bible, Shakespeare, America etc) in detail but the print is small and, although there are pleasant but rather irrelevant photographs, the overall impression is a tad dull. I agree with the reviewer who prefers Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue" which is learned yet fun and can produce a laugh on this scholarly topic although Bragg is good on insults! I was disappointed in the section on the Conquest which failed to emphasise the enormous changes to grammar which the side-lining of English to the status of an oral tongue allowed to take place. Because French and Latin were the revered written langauges, English managed to shed such attributes as grammatical gender and most inflexions including that of the definite article (which our erstwhile conquerors are still lumbered with). This seems to me more crucial than a few linguistic borrowings and central to why our language is as it is today. Semantic change is another area which could have been developed in greater detail as the way words alter their meanings says so much about the psychology of a nation and its individuals.
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on 9 January 2005
The English language comes alive in Melvyn Bragg's hands, an acquisitive, adaptable and cunning baron accumulating a "word-hoard" culled from every language the English-speakers encounter. Always engaging, he traces the language from Britain's Frisian invaders through its darkest hours of domination by Danish, Norman and French to its emergence into the sunlight of Shakespeare and beyond. The ordinary people are the heroes, affirmed as the repositories of the language, resisting and eventually overcoming suppression by French and Latin elites.
While making no claims to be academic the book is linguistically well-informed and packed with endless (and often surprising) examples of borrowings from other languages throughout its 1500 year history. Bragg sees this facility for borrowing as the key to the current global domination of English, resisting in doing so even its home-grown grammarians, lexicographers and other guardians of stagnation. The English dialects are part of that rich pattern and Bragg has no difficulty in celebrating their survival or the continuing resistance to standardised pronunciation.
While fundamentally Anglo-centric, the development and contribution of American English is discussed reasonably fully, along with his understanding of its centrality in the emergence of English as the world's second language. Those who want a comprehensive discussion of the other international versions of English will have to look elsewhere as all get a mention but in superficial detail. This is not to say he is dismissive of them as he sees creoles such as Jamaican patois as no less a part of the language as the English dialects. Ultimately he sees English as diverging into a variety of subsidiary languages in the way that Latin did.
Bragg's style is engaging and compelling despite the extensive historical and linguistic detail, with his love for his language and its earthy roots shining through.
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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2004
This is a truly excellent book. Anyone interested in language, reading and all things wordy will find much of interest. The book is based on the TV series but deals with matters in more depth and you'll be carried along with Bragg's sense of enthusiasm and vivid writing style. Bragg uses history, art, music, cinema and much more to illustrate and explain the development of English. He writes with genuine authority but at no point does he lose the reader - indeed, he leads you into a world of fascinating ideas and information. This is the first book by Melvyn Bragg that I've read but it will not be the last!
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on 31 January 2005
A fascinating book describing the evolution of the English language. It is a very interesting subject (even more interesting than I had thought before I bought the book) successfully brought to life.
The book starts brilliantly and the first half of the book is completely absorbing. - Bragg deals with the development of the English language with great style and insight covering topics like:
- Alfred the Great & Danelaw,
- The Norman Conquest (and the influx of French words),
- Chaucer
- The troubled history of the production of an English language bible (from William Tyndale to Henry VIII),
- The Elizabethan English Renaissance and the Elizabethan poets.
- Shakespeare & his influence on English
Later chapters are a bit more disappointing - at times almost turning into word lists - but the early chapters more than compensate for this.
Highly recommended
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on 19 January 2005
I was recommeded to read this books as a pre-cursor to starting a course through the Open University on English and it uses. So I was approaching it as a necessary evil, and didnt expect to enjoy it all that much. However, It is a fascinating read and I was thoroughly gripped - Bragg transforms 'English' into a viable, living, rampaging beast and takes us on an adventure into its past, present and future. It is truly a good read.
Even better now that I have actually started the course, alot of the first coursebook is covered more eloquently, more approachably, and more understandably by Mr Bragg. But it has given me a great start to this course, and I am glad I took the chance to read this wonderful book.
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on 2 March 2004
An interesting read but unfortunately Melvyn Bragg can never resist the temptation to use a plethora of words when a few would be sufficient. This is the reason why I give it a four and not a five star rating. It's full of fascinating facts and records the effect of the various influences on the language during its journey down the centuries.
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on 3 February 2009
This is a fine history of English. It dates from before the Norman Conquest which was in danger of making French our national tongue. but Henry IV took the court back to English. Then the big names are Chaucer, Wycliffe and greatest of all, Tyndale. Bragg has a real appreciation for the role of these two Bible translators in forming our language. Their influence exceeds Shakespeare. Next, the language crosses the Atlantic and moves on westwards. Bragg gives us the origins of many words, especially those form other tongues. However his derivation of redneck from suntan is I think wrong. My understanding is a derivation form the kerchiefs worn by Scottish Covenanters who settled in the southern USA. Similarly I have heard a differenet origin for on the wagon.
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