English through the ages

An exhibition that explores the history and modern use of English tells how it was influenced by contact with other languages.

"I beg your pardon, Ma'am, but I think you dropped this." This issue of Punch magazine from 1855 takes a humorous look at the British pre-occupation with H-dropping as a marker of social class.
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The influence of Arabic and Asian languages on English is one strand in a spectacular new exhibition at London's British Library, which includes treasures such as the first English-language Bible, the first printed book in English and the first example of the ancient form of the language, on a medallion dating from 450AD.

For example, the word "admiral" made its way into English from Arabic in 1208, as did "almanac" in 1391, "jar" in 1592 and "sofa" in 1624. Facts about these words and others were projected onto walls at the exhibition - entitled Evolving English - alongside priceless first editions, hand-drawn maps, Victorian posters and audio recordings of the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Muhammad Ali and Gandhi.

About 1.8 billion people around the world speak the language, but according to language expert David Crystal, who collaborated on Evolving English and wrote the accompanying book: "This is a first. No exhibition anywhere has been devoted to the entire history and present-day global use of the English language."

Only a couple of books from the huge range on display were borrowed, the majority - books such as Dr Johnson's dictionary from 1755, a 1,000-year-old copy of Beowulf, and handwritten manuscripts by writers such as Betjeman and Pinter - came from the British Library's vast collection. "I have seen these books individually before," said Crystal with awe, talking about four seminal translations of the Bible, "but I have never seen them side by side."

The story begins with an overview of the language's development, from the Old English spoken by the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes that supplanted Roman and Celtic languages, through its combination with Scandinavian dialects and then French during the reign of William the Conqueror.

Middle English continued to evolve into the language as it is spoken today, with the invention of the printing press playing a big role in standardising spellings, but the evolution of the language didn't stop there. Trade, migration, social and political change and technology are a few of the ways that the language keeps changing, and as more and more of the world's population came to speak English as either a first or second language, it has continued to branch out into new hybrid forms.

One section of the exhibition looks at words imported to (and exported from) India, Africa, America and Australia in the early days of the colonies. The British Library owns all the books and logs from the East India Trading Company, so we're able to look at a British cargo list from India in 1724, which includes the words "chints" (from the Hindi), "gingham" (originally Malay) and "seersucker" (from Persian). All became incorporated into standard English.

Nearby there's a copy of Hickey's Bengal Gazette, the first English-language newspaper in the Indian subcontinent. While the front page is written in standard English, the small ads have a few words from Indian languages thrown in, showing their use by the European population of the area. "Godown" is used to mean warehouse, while measurements are recorded in "bigahs" and "cottahs". Unlike the words for fabrics, which had no ready equivalent in English, these didn't catch on beyond the local population.

There's a mixture of words that became widely used in English (such as "poppadam", although its spelling changed) and those that didn't ("hing: a repulsively smelling gum-resin which forms a favourite Hindu condiment") in Hobson-Jobson, a dictionary of 2,000 Anglo-Indian words written in 1886 that is also on display.

The way people speak and write has always indicated more than what they want to express: it can also be an indicator of social status. Underneath a TV playing My Fair Lady, in which an upper-class gentleman gives elocution lessons to a Cockney flower girl, are books showing changing attitudes to socially acceptable grammar and pronunciation. A 19th-century pamphlet on middle-class pronunciation teaches readers to drop the "h" in words such as "hospital", "herb" and "humour"; a trend that's disappeared , with the exception of the American pronunciation of "herb".

Changing sensibilities are also in evidence in a section on profanities, which includes a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, an edition of the Viz cartoon strip Sweary Mary and analysis on different newspapers' decisions on whether to quote expletives in full or use asterisks (The Guardian opts for the former; The Times goes for the more demure route.) Another controversial editorial decision is put on display: the front page of The Sun newspaper on May 14, 1982 when an Argentine cruiser was sunk, with the famous headline "GOTCHA". This was softened in a later edition out of respect for the lives lost in the attack.

Pop culture exported from America, TV and the tabloid press have all played their role in the evolution of the English language. A year-by-year list of new words that enter the language, projected on to walls at the exhibition, gives a fascinating snapshot of social change. When we consider that 1948 brought us "cool", 1956 "sexy", 1963 "Dalek", 1970 "hot pants", 1987 "email", 2004 "chav" and 2010 "vuvuzela", it's like getting a whirlwind tour of the last half-century.

And language changes according to geography, as well as history. At one of the listening posts visitors can don headphones and listen to music that's sung with different accents and different regional dialects. The English of an Appalachian folk ballad differs wildly from the received pronunciation of Sophie Ellis-Bextor's Murder on the Dancefloor (with its defiantly long "a") and from the middle-class Californian "Valspeak" of Frank Zappa's 1982 single Valley Girl, in which a 14-year-old Moon Unit Zappa exclaims things like "for sure, for sure!" and "like, totally" in a strong LA accent.

It's all part of the British Library's successful attempt to make an exhibition about language more than just a series of books behind glass.

The British Library's rare books specialist, Adrian Edwards, is one of the show's curators. He says that the library has been working out how to make the exhibition engaging for the past five years.

He and his team decided to divide up the wealth of material thematically, rather than chronologically (apart from a display on the language's first thousand years) and to add maps, posters, illustrations and projections to the exhibits. There's a voice bank where visitors can add their own snippets of conversation to the archive, an interactive quiz, and lots of visually stunning exhibits. The result is breathtaking and very accessible; school visits to the show have already been booked up until the spring.

Many of the lesser-known works in the exhibition have never been on display before, according to Crystal, and each of them tells a tale about the history of English. Only the unparalleled resources of the British Library, he says, can do justice to the language's "extraordinary story".