Bragg’s English

/ Scholarship / Reading Notes /

The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg

2016 04 11

Writing begins as the secondary arm but soon, for many, becomes the primary source, the guardian, the authority, the soul of language.

Yes, writing stabilizes, so does a calcified spine. Wine may be more stable after it’s turned to vinegar, but do we want the wine or the vinegar? Tricky area.

the visible map of the mind

English’s vital combination of deep obstinacy and, when faced with real extinction, astonishing flexibility and that vital survival technique, the power to absorb.

Hindsight is the easy way to mop up the mess which we call history; it is too often the refuge of the tidy-minded, making neat patterns when the dust has settled.

Yet in its life, for eight hundred years, virtue alone, that one word, has illuminated and explained something of what we think we are, it has enriched our description of ourselves, uncovered yet more of the human condition which seems to crave infinite description.

… what [English] did most remarkably was to accept and absorb French as a layering, not as a replacement but as an enricher.

That was 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.

he Black Death killed a disproportionate number of the clergy, thus reducing the grip of Latin all over the land.

Through his English, Chaucer gave England its first National Portrait Gallery.

That’s marvelous!

Everyone wanted to get hold of English and tell it how to behave.
Joseph Priestley: Grammar is defined by common usage and should not be dictated by self-styled grammarians.
It was a paradise for those terrible twins — Class and Snobbery
English, like water, will find its own level.
… a gap grew between what was said on the page and what was said on the tongue.
The pronunciation of English provided its speakers with a matchless gamut of prejudices and added greatly to the spleen and gaiety of the nation.

… blind faith at the heart of what seems pure reason.
… a battalion of human grievances, power struggles, religious resentments, repressed regional and national furies and viscerally held ideologies
“our Language”: They saw their character stamped on the words and they were right. They believed it embodied, preserved and encouraged the English spirit of individual liberty, of a resistance to central regulation, of not liking being told what to do
It would yield to an alphabetical order but to nothing else.
John Horne Tooke attacked Johnson for violating his (Tooke’s) theory that there should only be one meaning per word.
Priestley: grammar is defined by common usage and should not be dictated by self-styled grammarians.
… Grammar was as conservative and prescriptive as Priestley was liberal and tolerant.
It was a paradise for those terrible twins — Class and Snobbery
English, like water, will find its own level.

In his book An Essay Toward a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), Wilkins argued that since the minds of everyone functioned in the same way and had a similar “apprehension of things,” there was no reason to believe there could not be one universal language.

One thing I love about this book is that it recapitulates so many of my own former beliefs, beliefs I’ve now not held for decades but that I see inchoate all around me: everyone else still believes those shaky assumptions. Now I believe that ptoples’ minds do not work the same way, that there is no universal experience. I’m not even sure that identical delusions are universal:
But: these ideas are still being explored. And however many perceptions get interrupted and malformed before they’re formed, the pursuit continues.

One enduring problem is that abandoned assumptions replant themselves. And since accurate records can never be kept by the interrupters, we can’t know how often before we’ve been over the same ground. My professors who interrupted me and perverted what I was trying to say never learned that they had done so. Pilat cannot be shown that he crucified god: he has the authority, the military power, to insist that his solderies act only lawfully: that is lawfully by Roman law< and can't imagine that Roman law is inherently incapable of being god's law.

But’s that’s nothing compared to Christians confidence that they can murder god and that that murder proves how much god loves us. That too is nothing compared to American’s belief that their corrupt laws are god’s laws. Worst is that since we have laws, laws up the ass, we’re confident that we are lawful. All our trials are to prove our innocence.

One day maybe yet I’ll say all that right.

My reading program isn’t keeping accurate bookmarks, I find that I’ve read some parts over and over: maybe quoted the same passages more than once. Good stuff either way.

… begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

The relationship between sound and spelling in English is a nightmare.

Morality censored language.
It was all part of putting English in its place. It was treated by the self-appointed censors as if it were an unruly mob, a subversive faction, a party of revolution.
Correcting English is one of our great indoor sports.
shapes and sounds which reflect strait-laced manners, class prejudice and competing moralities. [emphasis added]

Accent is the con man’s first resource.

the global language of economic progress.

the time when slang refused to retreat any more, especially not in London

As the Victorian age hit its stride and fired on all cylinders, including the censorious, public language, mainly innuendo and slang, became an enjoyably risky way to tweak noses.

the “cultural cringe”

Those Who Know Best
2016 07 18 I love Bragg’s phrase “those who know best” to deride the culture’s decision makers who tell us how to speak, how to spell, how to pronounce: based of course on ignorance and prejudice. The sarcasm is delicious. Of course social authorities do not know best but you can’t tell them that.

Language has its own force and works, I think, to demands and impulses which cannot always be slotted into the received idea that economic and military superiority alone produce linguistic dominance. Pressure groups and revolutionaries can play a part.

A characteristic of English throughout is the ease with which it can borrow or steal words from other languages.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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