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The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

3.96  ·  Rating Details ·  2,983 Ratings  ·  326 Reviews
"In this book, Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language, from its modest beginnings around A.D. 500 as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its current position as a truly established global language. Along the way its story takes in a host of characters, locations, and events. Bragg brings the reader from the early Anglo-Saxon tribes and Alfred t ...more
Audiobook, 13 pages
Published August 25th 2005 by AudioGo (first published 2003)
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Community Reviews

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Aug 16, 2011 Elaine rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
When reading this review, please bear in mind that I have a doctorate in Linguistics with a specialty in history of English and sociolinguistics (also schizophrenic speech--which may be relevant here if Bragg is as delusional as he sounds).

Bragg says that Anglo Saxon intended to become the most dominant language in the world. Of course, Anglo Saxon was a Germanic dialect in the 7th century, a declined language and totally unrecognizable as English unless one is taught it by a trained scholar. In
Melvyn Bragg is a doyen of British broadcasting, perhaps best known for his previous work with ITV as the editor and presenter of the the weekly Arts programme "The South Bank Show" for over thirty years. He also presents radio programmes for the BBC, including a long-running radio discussion series called "In Our Time", exploring the history of ideas. From his very humble origins in North Yorkshire, he has consistently combined a career in broadcasting with one in writing. He is the Chancellor ...more
I read, and greatly enjoyed, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English last year, and was a bit worried that The Adventure of English would be highly repetitive. They are, however, very different books, the first being much more philological and the second being cultural.

While Bragg's work is generally good and enjoyable, there were some issues. For one thing, there is the notion that the US has fewer distinct accents/dialects than Britain. We have just as many, but because we'
Jan 30, 2009 Ruben rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: language lovers
Shelves: 2008
Oh man, for a language fan like me this is like gardening (for people who love gardening). It's fascinating to trace my words, even these words, back through the centuries watching as they were picked up from different places and in different contexts along the way. What a cool language we speak! How flexible, pliable and bendy our tongue!

But seriously, this could easily have been a snooze-a-thon. However, Melvyn Bragg's enthusiasm for this particular linguistic history is contagious, and with
This is not the first book I have read about the history of English but it is probably the best in its depth and breadth. Bragg has done a magnificent job in tying in both the early relatively linear history with the latter geographical explosion. I took this in first as an audiobook which really was a great way of experiencing the book especially as my knowledge of Anglo Saxon is just about zero and my ability to read Chaucer in the original Middle English not much better. But then I realised I ...more
Mar 30, 2011 Mag rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A delightful, erudite and informative read, even though I happened to spend a whole term studying the history of the English language before. It discusses English of the British Isles with a special place for Welsh and Scottish varieties, of America, Wild West, India, West Indies and Australia. A wonderful book to be read many times, with the following conclusion:
‘An adventure should have an ending but there is no conclusion to the astounding and moving journey of the English language, from its
Aug 16, 2016 Msjodi777 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ok, to begin with, you have to know that I really enjoy learning about where words come from and how language developed, so I was excited when I found this book. The best part of it was that it turned out to be so much more than I expected. Melvyn Bragg really does turn the rise of the English language into an adventure. My only complaint about this book, is that I eye read it on my kindle. This book really needs to be whispersynced (are you listening audible?) so that you can hear the words fro ...more
Remittance Girl
Jun 16, 2012 Remittance Girl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Melvyn Bragg is a broadcaster and a novelist. 'The Adventure of English', is not, as the previous reviewer points out, an academic exploration of the linguistic development of the language, but it makes no pretense of being one.

It is, for the most part, a chronological look at the evolution of the language we have come to know as English from a user's perspective. Particularly from a writer's perspective. Many illustrations of his points come in the form of quotations from prose, poetry and cor
Marius van Blerck
A gem. I listened to the audiobook, superbly narrated by the actor Robert Powell. The book tells the fascinating story of the relentless growth of a polyglot mongrel language, never ashamed to borrow or steal words from every language it encountered. Essentially, that seems to have been its greatest strength, insulating it from attack, and allowing it to evolve into the marvellous tongue of Chaucer, Tindale, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickens, Twain, Wodehouse, Waugh and Tolkien, to say nothing of ...more
Feb 29, 2016 Philip rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Melvyn Bragg subtitles The Adventure Of English with the intriguing phrase “The Biography of a Language”. He thus implies that the language, specifically English, has a life of its own, setting himself the task of creating both an adventure and a narrative that will convince the reader that the language has both an identity and, to some extent, a personality that identifies an individuality. He succeeds on all counts.

The story starts of course with a birth and then unfolds chronologically throug
Andrew Skretvedt
Any user of the English language really owes it to themselves, at some point in their lives, to listen carefully to this!

It's also available in book form, which I've never read, and was adapted into a multipart TV series for the BBC (also presented in the past on the History International channel).

Melvyn Bragg, being also a well-known TV presenter in the UK, presented the TV adaptation himself, and lends much richness to it. For the audio CD version, Robert Powell delivered an unabridged present
Feb 01, 2009 Hans rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I really wanted to like this book especially since I enjoyed "Mother Tongue" By Bill Bryson so much. But at times this book has some real low points. I am frustrated by many of the linguistic theories proposed about the future of English and I disagree with most of them. I strongly believe that now that English has become the Language of business it will not only become increasingly difficult to dislodge it as the global language, but the need to learn it to communicate with even non-native Engl ...more
Adam Wiggins
Oct 23, 2011 Adam Wiggins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Popularly-accessible works on linguistics are rare enough that I'm inclined to rate them highly just for existing. This one seems to be an oddball companion to a BBC documentary, but I'll take what I can get.

It covers the history of English through its contact with (and typically, battle for domination with) the Celtic language, the Scandinavian languages (during the Danish occupation of Britain), French (during the Norman occupation of Britain). When Britain finally returned to independent rule
Apr 01, 2009 Guy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, culture
A history of the development of the English language from the 5th Century to the present, told as if English was a person and this was its biography.

So, this is a good example of why you shouldn't try to turn a "popular science" TV series into a book. The biography device probably works on the screen with an energetic and passionate presenter, but it falls flat when you read it. The passion is still there, but the overall effect is a little juvenile. Add to that the apparent lack of an editor wi
Thomas Allen
Sep 27, 2010 Thomas Allen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
"Wow!" That's really all I can say after the last word of this book! Throughout the book, the author treats the language as a living, breathing, growing entity. And after experiencing this book, I'd say he's right! At times, English is facing persecution and extinction. At other times, English is rolling roughshod over whole nations. The author deals in details of history to make his personification of English stand on two feet. After this book, I have a new found pride to speak a language that ...more
I was completely blown away by this book. I learned so much, growing by leaps and bounds in my understanding of the English language. The nerd in me was captivated throughout the entire book. This is a book that one must own! I highly recommend the audible version as well. I think you will benefit from owning both. This is a book I will reread again and again as there is so much information in it that it will be something that has layers of value.
Feb 17, 2013 Mignon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've listened to this audiobook at least three times, probably more. It's one of my favorites. The reader has a great voice and the book is filled with interesting tidbits. Every time I listen, I pick up something I missed before (or had forgotten).
Chrissie Willicombe
I devoured this book. Absolutely fascinating.
Very entertaining and loaded with terrific general knowledge trivia. I listened to the audiobook and the performance by Robert Powell alone was worth the price of admission.

Trivia eg. We all mostly know that Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens, but did you know he took it from the expression to measure 2 fathoms of water depth from a riverboat?

A discovery for me was the Jamaican patois poetry of Louise Bennett-Coverley aka Miss Lou esp. her "Bans O' Killing", in defense of patois as a
Bookshire Cat
Odlozeno ve 20 %, mozna se k tomu jeste vratim. Historie anglictiny se mi ale lepe vstrebava z Crystalovych knizek, tohle je i na popularne-vednou prirucku mimoradne pitome napsana kniha. Kazdy fakt se omila porad dokola a autor soustavne popisuje anglictinu jako zivou bytost, ktera ma umysly a pocity.
Jeff Yoak
It's been a long time since I enjoyed a book this much. I was already pretty familiar with the author from the BBC podcast, In Our Time. I've long been impressed by Bragg's ability to discuss a wide variety of topics with intelligence spanning humanities, social sciences, history, math and natural sciences, but I hadn't noticed until recently that he is an author and most of his books seems to be on topics surrounding the English language.

Bragg traces the development of English from a minor Germ
Dec 27, 2011 Sally rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks, ebook
I don't think I've read a non-fiction book in a long time that I have enjoyed as much as this one. There were a number of times I wanted to write a review as I was reading, but settled for telling every one I could about how enjoyable it was as I went along.

I have done a double-dose on this book. First I got the audiobook, read by Robert Powell. His reading is fantastic, but even though he read so well, I found I was wanting to SEE the Old English text that seemed to flow effortlessly from him,
Neil Pearson
Mar 14, 2016 Neil Pearson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've found myself enjoying segments in other non-fiction works that study linguistics or the history of language so decided to try a book focused on the idea. The fact Melvyn Bragg is a fellow Cumbrian probably swayed me (and it's great there are references to my home dialect) to go for this one. I have to say it's one of the most fascinating books I've read and it is literally jam-packed with FACTS - the kind you can't resist sharing with others. Bragg charts English from it's ancient Friesland ...more
Mar 29, 2012 Johnrh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Audio: Excellent. Clear, crisp, enunciation. Narrator has a British accent, (and why not, the author is English), and was VERY easily understood by this American. This book is a SPECIAL TREAT as it is actually BETTER TO LISTEN to it than to read it. This is because of the innumerable authentic-sounding pronunciations of English word derivations and origins throughout history. Even if the words are spelled phonetically in the book (and I don't know if they are), I say you cannot beat ha
Update: I've listened to this a second time...its been almost 4 years since I listened the first time but I enjoyed it so much, I'm back for a refresher. This is saying A LOT as I have never re-read or re-listened to a book before...I've always figured that there are so many on my list to get through-why repeat? This is the book that gets that first from me.

This is based upon the audio download from

Narrated by: Robert Powell

I've always wondered how languages started, especially Engl
Aug 08, 2011 Judy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had a great linguistics class in grad school taught by a visiting professor from Princeton. This book could have been the print version of his lectures. While I thought the early chapters were a trifle dull (I never could make myself love Beowulf), I loved everything from Chaucer on. The author shows, among other things, how writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Mark Twain impacted the language, how slavery and colonization added to our vocabulary, and how the spread of Englis ...more
Dec 14, 2007 Marin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book started slowly (try as I might, I just can't get excited about Vikings and Celts), but after it picked up, it was absolutely terrific. The English language is the main character in this non-fiction book, and the author cheers it along with zest. Through wars, empires, printing presses, and social revolutions, English always wins.

I especially loved it in audio format because the reader was able to demonstrated the different pronunciations and accents. I'm not sure that all of the accent
May 20, 2013 Shaun rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Brought together two of my favorite academic passions - history and language. I listened to this as an audio book and I think it made a world of difference. The narrator had quite a talent for language and was able to bring to life various dialects and even old forms of English. A nice brief overview of the evolution of the language in relation to the historical and cultural impacts that have influenced it.
Very weak. I picked this up because I really enjoy Melvin Bragg's radio show "In Our Time," because he seems to have a knack for asking the interesting, but still rigorous, questions. This is just plodding and cutesy though. Not any particularly interesting angles on the language or on linguistics in general - yes, English has a lot of loan words - and not very compelling as history. It did make me want to find out more about the Reformation though. I guess that's something.
Mar 09, 2010 Amanda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
Extraordinarily rich and passionate biographical look at the English language, from its unwritten origins to Beowulf, 1066, The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare, through to the discovery of America, the occupation of India, the slave trade, Austrialian deportation and the internet. Bragg cleared up several misconceptions I had been harbouring and completely changed the way I look at my mother tongue and language in general. A linguistic treat.
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Madison Mega-Mara...: The Adventure of English 1 2 Mar 22, 2012 05:17PM  
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  • The Stories of English
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  • Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English
  • The Anglo-Saxon World (The Modern Scholar)
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
  • Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
  • The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind
  • The Story of French
  • Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language
  • The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
  • The English Language: A Historical Introduction
  • Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language
  • A History of the English Language
  • The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
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Melvyn Bragg, Baron Bragg, FRSL, FRTS (born 6 October 1939) is an English author, broadcaster and media personality who, aside from his many literary endeavours, is perhaps most recognised for his work on The South Bank Show.

Bragg is a prolific novelist and writer of non-fiction, and has written a number of television and film screenplays. Some of his early television work was in collaboration wit
More about Melvyn Bragg...

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“Shakespeare shoved into bed together words that scarcely knew each other before, had never even been introduced.” 1 likes
“That, too, is part of this adventure — there are both casualties and survivors as this hungry creature, English, demanded more and more subjects.” 1 likes
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