The Adventure of English

The Adventure of English

2003, History  -   47 Comments
Ratings: 7.86/10 from 96 users.

The Adventure of English is a British television series (ITV) on the history of the English language presented by Melvyn Bragg as well as a companion book, also written by Bragg.

The series and the book are cast as an adventure story, or the biography of English as if it were a living being, covering the history of the language from its modest beginnings around 500 AD as a minor Germanic dialect to its rise as a truly established global language.

In the television series, Bragg explains the origins and spelling of many words based on the times in which they were introduced into the growing language that would eventually become modern English.

1. Birth of a Language. The modern Frisian language is the closest sounding language to the English used approximately 2000 years ago, when the people from what is now the north of the Netherlands travelled to what would be the United Kingdom and pushed the Celts to the western side of the island. Words like "blue" can be recognized in the Frisian language.

2. English Goes Underground. Bragg discusses how class also affected the use of English, especially in the time of William the Conquerer and for approximately 300 years after his reign; during this period, only the French language and Latin were used in state affairs and by the aristocracy, while English remained in use with the lower peasant classes.

3. The Battle for the Language of the Bible. In the early to mid 1300s, English fought to be the language of the Christian Bible through the efforts of theologian John Wycliffe, who opposed the church's use of a Latin scripture because it prevented most of the population from reading the bible for themselves.

4. This Earth, This Realm, This England. In Queen Elizabeth I's time, English began to expand to even greater depths. Overseas trade brought new words from France, as well as the now popular swearwords "fokkinge," (f--king) "krappe," (crap) and "bugger" from Dutch, in the 16th century.

5. English in America. Upon landing in North America, settlers encountered Squanto, a native man who had been captured and brought to England to learn English and become a guide. After escaping, Squanto returned to his tribe, which happened to live near the place that the English settlers had created their small village.

6. Speaking Proper. The Age of Reason began, and English scholars of mathematics and science like Isaac Newton started publishing their books in English instead of Latin. Jonathan Swift would attempt to save the English language from perpetual change, followed by Samuel Johnson who would write the A Dictionary of the English Language, made up of 43000 words and definitions, written in seven years and published in 1755.

7. The Language of Empire. British trade and colonization spread the English language. In India, scholar William Jones finds some English words already present in Sanskrit. Convicts land in Australia, blending London criminal slang and Aboriginal words into a new dialect. Jamaicans reclaim patois.

8. Many Tongues Called English, One World Language. The globalisation of the English language in the 20th century owes most to the United States. Here we look at the predominance of American Black street talk, how the Second World War and American movies threatened to "infect" the mother tongue in Britain and how some nations are attempting to stamp in the invasion of English out - for example franglais in France and Singlish in Singapore.

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47 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Steve in Australia

    This excellent TV series failed miserably in it's explanation of the Aussie accent. Our accent down under is not simply a derivative of slang originating from London's criminals. Any Australian academic would tell you we speak a blended & levelled down mixture of accents from the British Isles, not just from London. Look through a telephone book in Australia & check out the huge number of Irish surnames for example. The second fleet of arrivals at Sydney were mostly Irish. Within one generation of those born in the new colony, English had married Irish, Scots married English, Irish, & Welsh and so on. Furthermore people from a cross section of the English counties intermarried & their children spoke this levelled, uniform accent. The same blending occurred in settlements in other parts of the continent as not only convicts but settlers arrived to take up farmland, & to establish themselves as merchants, tradesmen, & a little later gold diggers. Even in Perth on the opposite side of the continent a similar blend of British people had children who spoke an almost identical levelled down accent. The claims made (by this TV series) about the origin of Aussie English stem from a silly obsession that the only thing we need to know about Australia is "convicts". I would say 'get facts not myths'.

  2. Mark

    Excellent series. But where are episodes 7 and 8?

  3. Edrick

    Remove the DAMN arabic subtitles!!!!

  4. Mox

    English is used widely because back then and even now, the people who speak this language have the biggest guns of all. It is a consequence of empire and colonialism.

  5. xman

    English is now the strongest language.

  6. devans

    why is it now coming up as a private video?

  7. wald0


    See that just my point, I don't have that problem because I speak English which is a very expressive and ambiguous language, not to sound like a broken record. You want quotes i'll get you some, may take a little while but I'll get them. more to come-

    1. robertallen1

      Once again, every language is expressive in its own way; otherwise, it wouldn't be a language.

      Take your time about getting me the quotes, but remember, they must pertain to English in particular and not to language in general.

    2. wald0

      Now see, you're already back tracking- you just said that using these terms to describe ANY language was id10tic, now you just want to say that using these terms to describe English is wrong. Nice try but it doesn't work that way Junior, you made the statement now live up to it. Here is proof it was an id10tic statement because these are terms all linguists use to describe all languages, including English. And yes i will reference Chomsky directly in this.

      "This often quoted example of structural (also called syntactic) ambiguity comes from Noam Chomsky.Sentences that contain lexemes that change their word form or even word class depending on the sentence’s interpretation are part of this category. Flying planes in this example sentence may be understood as “to fly planes” as well as “planes, which fly”

      This was referring to a list of ambiguous sentences written in the English language by Chomsky that you may find at Glottopedia by searching the terms, "Ambiguity, Polysemy and Vagueness". These are terms used by all linguist, obviously including Chomsky, to discuss the phenomenon of ambiguity in language and these examples are particularly to do with English. Doesn't seem they, meaning linguists in general, think it is quite as "id10tic" as you do, isn't that odd?

      Here is a wikipedia page that also discuses ambiguity in language, (wikipedia . org / wiki / List_ of_ linguistic_ example_ sentences) remove all spaces to get URL to work. In fact this article discusses in detail several different forms of ambiguity linguists have identified- Lexical ambiguity, Syntactic ambiguity, as well Syntactic ambiguity and incrementality together- if its so silly it sure seems odd they would flesh it out like this, I mean seems to me quite obvious this is simply accepted jargon for the field of linguuistics. Yes I know this isn't from Tolkein or chomsky, but it sure proves my point that this is a widely discussed topic in linguiustics and has been particularly connected to the English language, after all every example on this page is in English.

      Alright, so I am having trouble finding any Tolkein quotes on line but I know that in one of his essays he writes about the ambiguity of the English language and how that is inherent for any language that is as expressive as English is. I read the essay in college is why I know it, but i don't remember the name- That said, I will concede this point. I have no problem with that, even though I know he did lets say Tolkein never even mentioned the word ambiguity- you can have that one. My point is still proven in my opinion. I have clearly demonstrated these are linguistic terms and concepts that the authorities on the subject often discuss and ponder. Your accusation was that using such terms to describe any language was "id10tic", myself as well as the vast weight of academia beg to differ.

      i think I have also demonstrated very clearly, and anyone can find the relevant info. via Google, that English is considered by most linguist to be a particularly subtle, ambiguous, and expressive language. If you still disagree that's fine, and if you want to pretend you are just disagreeing with me instead of most linguists and academia in general, that's also fine-but after going out and doing just a few Google searches it is so plain that i am right about this for you to deny it is some what ridiculous. Now this has gotten old, because at this point i feel like I'm dancing for some troll that has simply figured out how to waste my time and get me wired up a little- so have a nice day, no hard feelings, your wrong but who cares.

    3. robertallen1

      I wrote, " . . . but remember, they must pertain to English in particular and not to language in general," i.e., more so than to other languages.

      Saying that something is easier to express in one language than another, that something comes out clearer in one language than another, that the vernacular associated with a topic fits better in one language than another or that for a person with a certain linguistic background and given a certain set of circumstances, a particular language would prove easier for this individual to learn than for another individual is one thing, but to say that one language is any more ambiguous than another, that any one language is more expressive than another, that one language is any more subtle than another or that any one language is harder to learn than another is idiotic.

      All your examples and citations can be applied not only to English in particular, but to other languages in general and merely stand for the proposition that words (and for that matter, phrases) often take their meaning from what surrounds them. This does not make one language any more ambiguous than another or less expressive than another.

      How many languages have you studied other than your own--and by this I don't mean to the point of either oral or literal fluency, but as far as gaining a general idea of their grammar, syntax and general structure? By your own admission, you haven't studied Latin which is a shame, for had you, you could have found out a lot about not only your own language but language in general--However, back to the subject of ambiguity. In Latin, there is no way to distinguish between a book and the book. Is this an ambiguity? Not to the Romans who got along perfectly well without this distinction. In other words, it became not only an ambiguity, but a necessity only in later languages. On the other hand, "He has his book" is ambiguous in English, not in Latin, and because in French, adjectives agree in number and gender with the noun they modify, further verbiage is needed to clear up any ambiguity. In other words, ambiguity is only relative. This does not make English any more or less ambiguous than French, French any more less ambiguous than Latin, etc.

      "I think I have also demonstrated very clearly, and anyone can find the relevant info. via Google, that English is considered by most linguist [sic] to be a particularly subtle, ambiguous, and expressive language." No, you haven't. You have not provided one shred of evidence demonstrating English to be more subtle, ambiguous or expressive than a lot of other languages (and your quotes and citations certainly do not bear you out). In short, you're the one who's wrong.

    4. AntiTheist666


      I gotta admire your Testicles Wald0. Taking on the Ice Man in the Devilish domain of the English Language. Respect. I hope you’re feeling better.

  8. ????

    English is now the strongest language. I am much impressed by knowing that the language of English met crisis of disappearance several times and each time the language had to be reformed and became stronger. I want to learn more about why and how the language was able to survive.
    I am very pleased to study English and language altogether.

    1. Tom Holloway

      because of folk identity...when its said that English has had 'crises of disappearance' this is from official records and chronicles; not from common-speak through oral traditions.

  9. Kateye70

    Well done documentary, and could probably have gone on for twice as long as it did!

    Thanks yet again, Vlatko!

  10. Educated Coaching

    It would have been interesting if they had included Canada in this series to demonstrate how torn the country is between American and British English and the hybrid that has been created as a result...

  11. Jade J

    I have watched alot of documentaries. This is by far my favorite, enough that I have shared it with several of my friends. I'm so glad that I was able to find it here. Thank you

  12. Gabe Karl

    I like this, so much history

  13. ame

    That's just soooo great! I really love this ...

  14. CJ Gilsdorf

    Liked this so much I watched it twice. Probably spent just a wee bit too much time on Shakespeare...but man is GOOD!

  15. Jimmy Fitz

    Murders, scumbags, 800 yrs............ come on like are ye brainwashed in school or are ye just American, be ashamed Britain.

    1. Raste Wadio

      Be ye a scurvy pirate, Jimmy Fitz?

  16. Anthony Lloyd Edwards

    Great doc but on the first episode the thing cuts out after 18 mins - shame

  17. Kasper Dyrberg

    I as a Dane find this very interesting. it reviles a lot about my own language that i didn't know... awesome!!! i love it!!!!

  18. Elinore

    Should I watch this one or read the book? Are they similar in context?
    It will be too expensive to buy the DVDs & the book at the same time
    Could someone tell me if the book comes with CDs?
    Thank you.

    1. Cutter

      Elinore, the book does offer useful information but the DVD's are very entertaining and wonderfully narrated by Mr Bragg. If you want to learn aout this subject I would go ahead and invest in the DVD collection.

  19. Guest

    Zut! just when i needed to watch this.

  20. Erik Sanchez

    Just an Amazing... More people need to see this... because so many people forget that all things are born and grow.

  21. Lord_Kral

    As a language lover, this is definitely the best I've ever seen on the English language!


  22. Tine

    That's just soooo great! I really love this page and this beautiful documentary and I love English linguistics! :)

  23. Gunnar Reiersen

    So far, I have watched the first 2 episodes and am looking forward to watching the rest, after a good night's sleep. I certainly understand what the narrator means about the versatility of the English language and the fine shades of meaning that can be expressed in it. My birth language is Norwegian (though English is the language I know best, as I was only 5 when my family immigrated to the U.S.), and I also speak Danish. One of my Danish friends once told me that even though Danish is his native language, once he learned English, he found that he could express what he meant more precisely in English than he could in his native language because of English's richness and versatility. Based on my own knowledge of Danish, it does not surprise me that he would say that. On the other hand, Danish and Norwegian are both much more consistent phonetically and grammatically than English, with not nearly so many exceptions to the rules that must be learned by rote, and with simpler verb conjugations.

  24. ZZZX60


  25. NaughtyGnosiophile

    Is anybody else here as juvenile as me and giggled in the first episode at the mention of "happy wood"? (at about 21:00)

  26. Alexa

    watched all episodes. very interesting, but there are some boring bits.

  27. pusspussbangbang

    Great doc Vlatko Shame about the block in part 8 though can you mail me when it is fixed Ta

  28. Dave

    Can these "videos in parts" be joined as a single file & upload to mega video or some other hosts like google videos which support larger FLV files please!!

  29. tomdham

    Thank you once again for another outstanding documentary.

    My wife is Filipina and speaks Taglish (Tagalog/English).
    She enjoyed the documentary as well!

    I really liked when the narrator said that we Americans speak better English than the English.

    We learned many thing that are not taught in school, especially in the US.

    We have lived here in Abu Dhabi for many years and every one of my Arabic and Persian friends speak English quite well.

    Thanks again,
    Tom and Neth

  30. Ian Philipp

    Wow, almost the nicest documentary I have found online. I linked it to my Facebook site. Unfortunately, the eighth sequel is damaged after minute 7:33. One should fix that one of these days. Still: It is so informative, I was really surprised.

  31. christopher

    amazing loved this so much, very good to know the roots of our language.

  32. Rebelliuss

    Simply fascinating.. it truly is an international language.. brilliant doc.

  33. Ton

    Episodes 7 and 8 have problems with the audio and the image.

  34. Mememe

    I watched the first episode - so interesting. I can't wait to watch the rest.

  35. louiseiiid

    Bloody marvellous!!

    I am English living in The Netherlands and have learnt Dutch. In the course of this I had to notice a lot of similarities in some of the words. Then I saw something on line which described old English and I thought, wow, that's just like Dutch!

    Now I am FULLY informed in ways that utterly delight me and I'm even more in love with English than ever, plus I have a new fondness for Dutch.

    I had, after a couple of years of living in India and learning some Hindi, also noticed some of the similarities touched upon in one of these segments.

    A little research had made me realise that words I had taken to be irritating Americanisations, were infact preserved pieces of old English (like 'gotten' for 'got') and now, thanks to this, I have the full story and I'll never be irritated again...... y'all.....

    Just proud of our wonderful, adaptable, richly enriched English.

    We really are all one big family - I'm so happy.

    Thank you Vlatko - for this site and your constant vigilance in adding new material and settling out of control commentaries!

  36. Catherine Schwerin

    I bought the series on dvd and have in the meantime read that it normally comes with a guide, which I did not get. Does anyone know where I can get one?
    Thank you!

  37. afly_on_the_wall

    real good..answered a lot of subjects on English i often wondered about ...thanks

  38. Pacha

    Well presented, easy to understand and really interesting.
    I watched the whole thing from start to finish and I'd recommend it to anyone.

  39. Pacha

    Good stuff Vlatko.
    I've been considering a university course on the same subject so I'll enjoy this.

    1. imran ahmad awan

      pacha tell me that how i can watch the full film coz there's only 8 headings are shown