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Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices Exhibition at the British Library

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, open 12 November 2010 – 3 April 2011 is the first ever exhibition exploring the English language from Anglo-Saxon runes to modern day rap. Driven by developments in religion, politics, technology, economics and culture, English today is spoken by a third of the world’s population.

This is a unique opportunity to see and hear its evolution from a language spoken on a small island to a global language spoken by 1.8 billion people. From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Papua New Guinea Pidgin, the exhibition will examine where the language is now, where it has come from and where it is heading. The new varieties of the language appearing in world literature and on the internet show that this incredible story is by no means over.

Visitors will discover how the history of the English language goes well beyond the canonical works of literature. Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices also looks beneath the tip of the linguistic iceberg at comics, adverts, text messages, posters, newspapers, trading records and dialect recordings that make up the bulk of the English language. See:

Highlights include:

Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye translated and printed by William Caxton (1473/74). This is the first printed book in English, produced by William Caxton in Flanders (Belgium) at Bruges or possibly Ghent. The text is a compilation of stories about the Trojan Wars by Raoul Lefèvre, originally written in French. The spelling is inconsistent (the word French is spelt ‘frensshe’ and ‘frenshe’ on the same page), but the decisions that Caxton and other early printers made would have a major influence on how we write English today.

King James Bible (1611). The King James or ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible drew on the best of earlier versions of the English Bible, resulting in a conservative text that kept some words and phrases which were already outdated. This version was read in most English and Scottish churches until the mid-20th century. Its language therefore achieved a greater level of prestige than any previous translation. Many everyday sayings either originated or were popularised through the King James Bible, including ‘salt of the earth’, ‘an eye for an eye’, and ‘the signs of the times’.

Poor Letter H (1854). During the 19th century many publications were produced that exploited the linguistic insecurities of the lower-middle classes. This pamphlet focuses on h-dropping. If you want to rise up the social ladder, you are advised to pronounce the initial ‘h’ in words such as ‘house’ and ‘head’. It tells us however that the ‘h’ in ‘herb’ and ‘hospital’ should remain silent, thereby showing us how pronunciation has changed since Victorian times.

Gleanings from the Harvest-fields of Literature by Charles C Bombaugh (3rd edition, 1867). The poem ‘Essay to Miss Catharine Jay’ in this collection from America will look familiar to those of us of the mobile phone generation. It includes the phrase ‘I wrote 2 U B 4’, printed a century and a quarter before the invention of text messaging.
David Crystal, author of the accompanying exhibition book Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. An Illustrated History, said:

“This is a first. No exhibition anywhere has ever been devoted to the entire history and present-day global use of the English language. While some of the famous items have been displayed before, this is the first time they have all been brought together into a single room with the sole purpose of showing how the language developed and diversified during its 1,500-year history. And they are supplemented by an array of lesser-known works and ephemera, all fascinating in their own right, many of which have never been on public display. It is an extraordinary story and only the extraordinary resources of the British Library could ever do justice to it.”

Roger Walshe, Head of Learning at the British Library, said:

“Anyone with an interest in language will find something fascinating in this new British Library exhibition. The everyday phrases we use, our slang, our professional usages and our accents, all have intriguing and telling histories. Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices uncovers these histories by displaying for the first time the artefacts that tell the story of English from its beginnings 1,500 years ago to its present-day use around the world.”

Visitors to the exhibition (and get the chance to record their voice for researchers to use at the British Library’s Sound Archive. Using phone booths inside the exhibition (or Audioboo on the website), people will be able to choose between reading an extract from the Mr. Men story of Mr. Tickle (adapted to capture how different people pronounce the same words and phrases), or sharing their own words and phrases. Do you say sofa or settee, mum or mam, or something else? The British Library would like to know.

Image: Punch, British Library

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries. It provides world-class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library’s collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation. It includes: books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages.

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