By Jack Farmer
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Evolving English

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
British Library, Until April 2011
Issue 353

Hwæt! (Pronunciation: What! Meaning: Listen up!)

So begins Beowulf, the most famous Old English poem known to exist. This new exhibition brings together the first known copy of this and others of the British Library’s most treasured books and manuscripts in an effort to chart the complex evolution of the English language.

The exhibition consists of two rooms. The first contains the earliest texts, dimly lit. The roots of English can be traced to Germanic emigration to Britain, as Angle, Saxon and Jute tribes brought their native languages with them across the sea. From as early as the 9th century and the rule of King Alfred the Great, the regulation of English was central to the formation of England as a nation. The dominance of West Saxon dialect in Old English is marked by the first example of a chronicle of English history. Arguments that were to come to a head with the rise of English Protestantism are foreshadowed here – an 8th century Latin Bible, with Old English translations painstakingly written between the lines.

The cavernous second room houses the more modern exhibits. Huge projected letters slide across the wall – extracts from speeches by famous leaders. As I entered, Winston Churchill’s voice echoed through the chamber – “We will fight them on the beaches” rises in a gigantic font up the walls. Soon after, this morphed into something even more disturbing – Margaret Thatcher intoning “The Lady’s not for turning”.

One of the exhibition’s slogans is “The greatest speech, and the speech of the greatest”. This uninspiring hot air serves to illuminate one key lesson – that language, in complex ways, is structured by class domination.

Thatcher’s speech did convey one important thing. Her words are lifeless, but implacable and confident. She is beginning a crusade, deploying “freedom”, “democracy”, “privatisation” and “British values”. She is the embodiment of a ruling class on the attack, teeth bared. Her words provide a telling contrast with today’s politicians, who increasingly spit words like “progressive” into a collective slop-bucket of meaningless rhetoric.

The counterpoint to the pontification of ex Tory prime ministers is an engrossing collection of regional dialects from across Britain, recorded at different times throughout the 20th century. There is also the option to record your own voice for posterity. I’d say it was “canny”, but, as any Geordie will tell you, that could mean “good”, “bad” or “very” (as in “canny canny”).

Various television screens around the exhibition show academics making rather forgettable comments. Speaking about the explosion of non-native speakers, one professor concludes, “For now the future of English seems relatively secure.” This seems a strange comment. If anything, this exhibition is a testimony to the ever-shifting fluidity of English and the fact that it is always a terrain of struggle.

Next to the professor’s head hangs my favourite exhibit. In big, bombastic, 19th century type, a sign says, “THE RIOT ACT HAS BEEN READ.” Take note.

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