It’s very easy for the history of the English language to be a dull list of words and sentences delivered by long-dead classic authors and upper class figures.
But this exhibition liberates the subject from this kind of treatment.
For a start, it’s clear from the moment you walk in that it is about many “Englishes”—the different kinds of English spoken in Britain and all over the world, with the accents and dialects depending on who’s speaking and who’s listening.
You can stand at a “listening post” and hear Frank Zappa and his daughter doing Valley Girl—one of the first ever examples of what we now recognise as a particular kind of young woman’s speech, full of “whatever” and “so” and “I’m like, ‘Hi!’ and she’s like, ‘Hi!’...”
Walk over to one of the cases and there’s the cargo list from the East India Company of 1724, with the names for fabrics that have since become standard English, like “chintz” and “gingham”.
This is an exhibition about change in language located in the moment and place of where and how it happened.
It tries to show the struggle over the last four hundred years or so between people who wanted to describe English and those who wanted to control it.
The story starts with the fragments and inscriptions of the language written by the peoples who settled in the British Isles in the fourth century.
These first settlers seemed to come from Frisia, the islands off the coast of Holland, and wrote using runes—letters that look a bit like “matchstick writing”, all straight lines and no curves.
One of the last exhibits is a poem by the Guyanese-born poet John Agard, which begins: “Me not no Oxford don/me a simple immigrant/from Clapham Common/I didn’t graduate/I immigrate...”
In between, there is a fascinating display of leaflets, jokes, songs, plays, dictionaries, novels, stories across a wide spectrum of people and purposes.
Not to be missed.
Evolving English is at the British Library in London until 3 April. The exhibition is free and is also available on the internet. Go to www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish