Monday, December 13, 2010

Evolving English

 Popped next door the other day, as one does occasionally. In my case, 'next door' is The British Library. Two minutes from St Pancras, and sharing its red brick but no other architectural features at all, the massive 1990s British Library building fronts Euston Road.

The spires of St Pancras from the British Library courtyard
It is open every day to the curious and the information-seekers, although if you want to actually use it like a regular library, you need to apply for a 'readers' pass', which are not given out to just any-old-body, according to their website. But even without a magic pass, the Library is worth a visit.

Their bookshop is excellent - I found it to be one of those relatively rare treasures, a bookshop where I would have liked to take home nearly every volume, so fraught with interest was its stock. Then there are several casual eating places, looking out on a (now decidedly wintery) terrace, or up into the heights of the venerable tomes of The King's Library. Scattered about various seating areas is a cross-section of London life, including many representatives of the student class, some asleep on their laptops.

'The King's Library'
I will have to return to my next door neighbour again, because there is much to see that I missed on this visit. For example, they have on display the Magna Carta, Shakespeare's First Folio, the manuscript of Handel's Messiah, Gutenberg's Bible and a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci. Oh, and 150 million collection items! Life is too short for this. The Library also, somewhat peculiarly, is a charity and solicits pubic donations. I don't think the Australian National Library does such a thing. Perhaps - if there is an Australian national Librarian amongst the blog readers - we could have a comment?

British Library courtyard

And there are also temporary exhibitions. At present the Library is featuring one such entitled 'Evolving English'. An entire exhibition on the English language? Whatever could they display? Well, er, books. And not just any old books. The carefully curated items in the glass cases here included some of the most fabulous treasures of book-dom. Just a few small things plucked from the Library's stores, I suppose. Here's small sampling:

Examples of Anglo-Saxon runes on bits of carved bone and metal - about 5th century.

'Beowolf', c. 1000, the longest epic poem in Old English. This would usually have been recited from memory by court minstrels. 'Lo! We spear-Danes in days of old heard the glory of the tribal kinds, how the princes did courageous deeds...'

The first book ever printed in English - Caxton's 'Recuyell of the Hoistoryes of Troy' 1471 - printed in Bruges or Ghent, since the Wars of the Roses was going on at the time at home.

William Tyndale's Bible, 1525. The first printed version of the Bible in English. For this project Tyndale suffered religious persecution. This 1525 fragment is the only surviving bit of his first attempt.

A play manuscript from 1593 'The Booke of Sir Thomas More', which fell foul of the Elizabethan censor and was never performed. However, revisions were made on the hand-written manuscript by various people. 'Hand D' - 147 lines - is thought to be Shakespeare. Shakespeare's hand writing!

A Folio Text of 'Richard III' by William Shakespeare, 1623 - from the first collection of Shakespeare's plays, collated and edited by members of his company. Without the First Folio we may never have known 17 of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra and Measure for Measure.

Index cards used by the compliers of the Oxford English Dictionary in pre-computer days to record citations of meanings for words collected via circulars sent out to 'riends of the Dictionary'. 19th - 20th centuries.

A page from George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion' (1913) showing red emendations; along with the official letter granting it a license to be performed, issued by the Lord Chamberlain's Office on 23rd February 1914. The letter says "The play is entirely without offence, except perhaps to the opinions of old-fashioned people who must be accustomed to having their opinions offended in modern dialogue." On 11th April 1914 the Daily Sketch tabloid carried this headline:
The fuss was Eliza Dolittle's line: "not bloody likely". She did indeed say it, and the rest is history. The audience gasped, roared with laughter, and took up saying 'not pygmailion likely!' (That one hasn't lasted.)

A manuscript in the hand of Harold Pinter, on yellow foolscap, recording a telephone conversation with his wife, and the corrected typescript which he later used in a play (where the dialogue was transferred to two patients in a hospital.) It dates from around 2006. Pinter died in 2008, and this is one of his last pieces of writing. It was included in Pinter's People in 2007. Here's a bit:
A: How are you?
B: Very well. And you? Are you well?
A: I'm terribly well. How about you?
B: Really well. I'm really well.
A: I'm so glad.
B: Apart from...oh you know...
A: I know.
B: Apart from...oh you know...
A: I do know. But apart from that...?
B: How about you?
A: Oh, you know...all things considered...
B: I know. But apart from that...?
A: Sorry, I've lost you.
B: What do you mean?
A: I lost you.
B: No you didn't. I'm right here. Where was I.
A: Anyway where were we?
B: Sorry?
A. I mean apart from all that, how are you really?

I could go on and on. The exhibition includes examples of everyday English, English used in jokes and puns, used at work, accents and dialects (yes, those strange English variations explained), and English around the world. There is an 1898 dictionary by Edward E Morris called 'Austral English' which lumps Australian and New Zealand English together, Maori and Koori imported words all mixed up together. The display helpfully reminds exhibition-goers that words like kiwi and koala were originally indigenous words.

There's so much more as well: I haven't even mentioned Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and the interesting factoid that Dr Suess wrote 'The Cat In The Hat' in response to a call for simplified children's books, and it has only 156 different words, most of only one syllable. Plus there is audio material (Margaret Thatcher, Muhamed Ali...) and to round off your afternoon you are invited to record your own voice for the archives. I wonder if they already have a 1950s Tasmanian accent on file?

The excellent book of the exhibition, to which I owe much of this material (having not a good enough memory, folks, to bring all this back to you on my own) is by David Crystal. It appropriately ends with a 1985 poem by Guyanese writer John Agard (1949 - ) called 'Listen Mr Oxford Don'. I too will leave you with a few representative lines:

I ent have no gun
I ent have no knife
but mugging de Queen's English
is the story of my life...

Dem accuse me of assault
on de Oxford dictionary/
imagine a concise peaceful man like me/
dem want me serve time
for inciting rhyme to riot
but I tekking  it quiet
down here in Clapham Common

I could do with a cup of tea after all that...

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