Evolving English at the British Library

I had a quick whizz round the fascinating Evolving English exhibtion at the British Library after work.  It’s a really interesting mix of rare printed works in old, middle and modern English from throughout the ages to more mundane things like notes of phone calls taken at work, and songs from various parts of the UK and the rest of the English speaking world.

It was fascinating to see the earliest printed book, and illustrated manuscripts, for example Beowulf, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (all of which I’ve studied).   From later times, there was  a letter supposedly in Henry V’s own handwriting, which was more recognisably English.

But it wasn’t just great works of literature represented.  There was equally a focus on “everyday” English with the 1440 “Boke of Kokery” (cook book!) as important as Viz!.

I thought the 19th Century grammar books for children were brilliant – using poetry to introduce nouns, adjectives, verbs etc as guests at a party – so adjectives:

“took their places/

Before the great Nouns, and turn’d round with a sneer/

To tell what their virtues and qualities were”

It was great too that they used music to demonstrate accents – so Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dance Floor (and especially the way she pronounces “dance”) was used as an example of received pronunciation, with the Proclaimers unsurprisingly used as an example from Scotland.  And I never knew that there was such a thing as “Valspeak”.

I think more could have been made of the regional dialects – I noticed a passing reference to Ulster Scots and Northern Irish English, but I guess they could have had a whole exhibition on that.  I hope people don’t go from this thinking that all NI peoople speak and sound like the old guy from co Tyrone who was singing in a way that’s totally different from the way I speak ;-D

I even added my own voice to the voicebank – doing a reading of an extract of Mr Tickle.  I realised as I was doing it that reading out loud meant that I wasn’t exactly pronouncing some words as I would if I was, say, at home in Northern Ireland or tired, for instance.

I wish I’d had more time and space (a bit like the Book of Kells and other similar exhibitions people tended to cluster around interesting artefacts), but it was lovely to see some of these rare pieces of literary and linguistic history.  I actually said to someone afterwards that I think this should be a permanent exhibition at the Library, as it really does trace the language’s development in interesting and relevant ways.

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