Puberty Haunts Everyone—Bragg’s Story of the English Language

Commentary, Editors

Rebecca Reese

The English language has come through many different stages. It went through an infantile stage where it did not know much about itself or how to get around without help. It went through a toddler stage where it started to become more independent and more able to express itself. It went through a child stage where it was finally able to move around on its own and able to fully express itself on its own. The most interesting stage to me, though, is the middle school stage.

While reading through chapters 7-12 of The Adventure of English by Melvin Bragg, a resounding human-like theme came to my mind about the English language—middle school drama. The English language had grown from its infantile state in the first six chapters, and now it is beginning to take wings of its own. It is going through the lovely phase that we refer to as “puberty.” English is kind of awkward, doesn’t know what happening to its body, and deals on a daily basis with the “mean girls.”

The English language is kind of awkward in the sense that there are so many different accents and dialects—it is hard for someone from one region to communicate with someone from another region. “Across the country a great number o dialects were spoken and people would still have had trouble understanding each other…This local tenacity and loyalty continued for centuries and in certain areas it perseveres” (p. 91). Bragg offers examples of a few words that could have easily been misheard:

The word ‘stone’ in the south was ‘ston,’ not ‘stane’ as in the north. ‘Running’ was spoken in the north as ‘runnand.’ It appears as ‘runnende’ in the East Midlands and as ‘runninde’ in the West Midlands. Runnand, runnende and runninde: ad the singular twang of a local accent and it is possible to imagine even words as close as this coming out confusingly different.


This whole paragraph reminds me of the English language today, as well. Southerners and northerners in the United States often struggle to communicate, too. If you take a man from New Jersey and a man from Georgia and sticky them in a room together, there are bound to be miscommunications and debates on words (and iced tea, too). This is one of the ways that the English language is kind of awkward, not only during the time presented in the book, but even today.

The second way English is like a tween going through puberty is that it doesn’t know what is happening to its body—it’s language is being brought together in a more uniform way, and certain areas don’t like that very much. This is seen mostly through spelling. Before the Chancery came to the rescue to help with bringing a uniform spelling of words, there were so many different ways to spell everything that it was very difficult to read English. Take for example the word in those day for “church,” “kirk”—it could’ve been spelled in a million different ways: “kyrk,” “kyrke,” “kirke,” “kerk,” “kirc,” “kric,” “kyrck,” “kirche,” or “kerke” (p. 92). This disunity caused great confusion; however, the Chancery came together to bring unity to the English language through spelling. This uniformity was taken up immediately, though. It took time for people to all get on board with the “new rules.” Most of the time certain regions would want to hold on to their particular spelling of words as a sort of prideful trophy; however, eventually most people agreed that the language needed to have some set ways of spelling and pronouncing so that people from different areas could communicate easily and clearly. Even though the English language at the beginning was unsure of what was happening to her, in the end it became one of the most influential times for the English language to grow as a whole.

Lastly, the English language had to deal with a lot of bullies. Specifically when it came to the religious affairs. William Tyndale attempted to and succeeded at translating the Bible into the common tongue of the people, English. However, just like in a typical middle school drama, the people in charge don’t like that someone else is taking away their power; so, they decide to get rid of him. (I understand that middle school drama does not tend to end with the “good girl” being strangled and burned at the stake by the “bad girls,” but please just entertain my metaphor.) Later in English history there was more drama; this time between the English language and medical terms. Most medical terms are brought to use through the use of Latin or Greek; however, it was not something taken on easily. There was a bit of a snobbery based around this acceptance.

The word-grab into Greek and Latin for the new science and medicine of the Renaissance might have had elements of apprehension and snobbery about it…To give something a Greek or Latin name gave it an exclusivity, made it something of a cult, meant that you had to have at last the smatterings of a superior education to be on terms with it, took it away from the common tongue, as had happened in the Church. Some Latin scholars thought that English was simply not up to certain tasks. Francis Bacon, for instance, wrote in Latin on subjects in which he thought that English would “play the bankrupt with books.”

p. 115

It is clear to see in this quote how snobby that those who studied Latin and Greek were being towards those who only studied English—just another typical example of mean girls picking on the new girl at school.
Bragg continues to shed light on the development of modern English in a way that captures the reader. In these few chapters, he has taken us back to our own middle school days—awkwardness, puberty, and drama. With humans we tend to block out this part of our existence, but with the English language this was when a lot of the most important influences came about—uniform language, Bible written in the common tongue, and Shakespeare himself! So, maybe the tween age shouldn’t have such a bad reputation.

Bragg has done a marvelous job of portraying the journey of the English language. He makes the development of the language sound like a true adventure—like a story of a long lost hero. The English language went through every life stage that we as humans go through. So, maybe we’re a little closer to our language than just through using it to communicate.