Posted by: suekenney | August 3, 2011

New Read

Cover of "The Adventure of English: The B...

Cover via Amazon

Just started a new book.  (Gosh, just realized I’ve just started about 4 or 5 new books!)  This one is titled The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language.  It’s written by Melvyn Bragg, who hails from Wigton, in the Lake District of northwestern England.  Haven’t gotten too far (only just started, remember?), but already I am enjoying the book.  This is obviously a history of the English language, engagingly told, and full of all sorts of interesting little tidbits. 

For instance, the English language began as a minor Germanic dialect back around AD 500, and came to England with the invasions of the Angles and Saxons.  This one dialect eventually topped the others, also overwhelming the Celtic language of the natives; we now often call it Old English, to distinguish it from, as well as relate it to, Middle English and Modern English.

As one might expect from the foundations of a language, Lord Bragg noted that most of our everyday conversations are “founded on and funded by Old English.”  Many of our most commonly used words, and often the simplest, are from the Old English.  In a list of the hundred most common words in English worldwide, five or so are from Old Norse, less than five are from Old French, and the rest are from Old English.   The, of, and, a to, in, is you, that, and it are the first ten on the list.  Only two of the words (number and people – and both of them from Old French, mind you) are longer than five letters. 

At the time, there were perhaps 25,000 recorded words of vocabulary in Old English, as compared with the hundreds of thousands of words we have today:  words like man, son, daughter, friend, house, drink, home, shepherd, earth, broth, ears, eyes, nose, fish, love, like, sing, laughter, night, and day.  Pithy and concrete and durable – that was Old English. 


Winston Churchill

I will conclude with a quotation from the book that really struck me as I read it:

“We shall fight on the beaches,” said Churchill in 1940, “we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  Only surrender is not Old English.  That, in itself, might be significant.


  1. That sounds quite interesting.

    • Thanks. I’ve been interested in the history of English since I was a teenager, and this book is full of all sorts of interesting stuff. Will report more later as I continue reading.

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