Monday, November 15, 2010

"Evolving English" exhibit opens at the British Library: "One language, many voices"

A page from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 11th century

Pity the British. Their empire was once so large the sun never set on it, which was quite a trick -- it was always a busy tea-time somewhere in the world. Where would their grand design have been without worldwide markets for tea, opium, and tobacco? Now the English language is the remaining common thread that holds the whole crumpet together.

Thursday marks the 533rd anniversary of the first book printed in the English language in movable type, William Caxton's Dictes and Sayenges of the Phylosophers. Here's a sample of the book's typeface, from Tom Christiansen:

Detail of Caxton's type

Beginning November 12, the British Library is celebrating "Evolving English," which in itself a mighty undertaking: Anglo Saxon Chronicle, check. Voices of the UK reading "Mr. Tickle," got it. Anyone for texting?

There is also the Evolving English blog, which outlines some of the difficulties a mighty empire encounters when trying for centuries to get so many people to speak the same language: "The sound in words like think, for instance, has recognisable alternatives in London, the Republic of Ireland, Jamaica and on the Indian subcontinent and pronunciation varies considerably among non-native speaker groups."

Politically and socially, the exhibit is a way to contemplate the ways dialect differences separated the rural from the urban, the royal court from the East End, and all other kinds of linguistic yardsticks that a lively language assumes.

If a trip to London isn't in your plans before April, the website is a good alternative: "the roots of Old English, slang dictionaries, medieval manuscripts, advertisements and newspapers from around the world come together - alongside everyday texts and dialect sound recordings. Follow the social, cultural and historical influences on the English language."

A quiz on the site tests your knowledge of the history of English, or more properly see how much you've forgotten about it. And, finally, a hat-tip to the colonies from a reader at Language Hat about the exhibition: "Many thanks to the Americans who sponsored it!"

1 comment:

The above fore-mentioned. said...

Oh to be in London - it looks great!