One language, many voices

Today was a bit wet, which made it the perfect sort of day to head off to one of London’s museums. We’re very fortunate to have some of the best museums and galleries in the world just a bus ride away. Even so, normally I don’t get the time to visit, so I am hoping to use some of my remaining sabbatical time to catch up with some exhibitions.

So today I was off to one of my favourite places, the British Library. I have really enjoyed recent exhibitions there, in particular last year’s ‘Magnificent Maps‘ and 2009’s ‘Parchment to Pixel’, which celebrated the Codex Sinaiticus Project. The latest exhibition is Evolving English, which tells the story of the English language from its origins in the Old English dialects of Anglo-Saxon invaders to its modern day role as the lingua franca of the 21st century, spoken by 2 billion people (the majority as their second or third language). The exhibition encompasses both the sublime and the ridiculous – here there is room for the original (10th century) manuscript of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (11th century), Wycliffe’s Bible (14th century), a “Boke of Kokery” circa 1440 – and Viz magazine – very late 20th century (to illustrate the section on swearing and slang). Audiovisual presentations remind us that before the Great Vowel Shift, English was pronounced very differently – one of the reasons the spelling of English words seems so arbitrary. As has been remarked, “today, we speak with 21st Century pronunciation, but we write our words in a 15th Century form.”

As well as slang and swearing, the exhibition also looks at dialect and technical language (some of which, like the particular vocabulary used in the mining industry, has almost completely disappeared) and the controversies over the years about ‘correct’ English pronunciation, spelling and grammar. The exhibition also raises questions about the future of the English language, particularly in other parts of the world, but perhaps sensibly avoids coming to any firm conclusions.

A fascinating exhibition, very well laid out, and best of all it’s free!

After touring Evolving English, I couldn’t resist a quick visit to the room where the greatest treasures of the British Library are on permanent display. I reacquainted myself with Codex Sinaiticus (the oldest complete copy of the New Testament to survive, handwritten in the middle of the 4th century), stood reverently before the Magna Carta (the BL has two of the four surviving copies) and admired the collection of manuscripts as diverse as Captain Scott’s diary, the original words of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ and a third century papyrus fragment of John’s Gospel. I have to admit I find these more impressive than the printed books, because they are absolutely unique.

I wholeheartedly recommend Evolving English. It’s on until 3rd April.


About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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