The Secret Life of Words How English Became English

In a comprehensive evaluation of the English language, this entertaining book is more than just a survey of where English is spoken and why it has become the lingua franca of the global community.

Henry Hitchings, a Cambridge University academic, traces the development of the language of the island of Britain from its origins in prehistory through to the successive waves of conquest of and immigration to the British Isles by Romans, Vikings and Normans.  Each episode has left a clear and indelible mark on the formation of the English language.

The author dispassionately relates the history of British and English invasions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (followed by encounters and conflicts in Europe and further afield – Asia, near and far, the Indian sub-continent, and Pacific islands as well as Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and the Caribbean).

What comes across is not only a picture of English domination and British colonialism, but an account of how elements of the indigenous languages and culture of these peoples, nations and nationalities' were absorbed by and regurgitated by the invaders.

It's an informative story, which unearths a paradox. English was used as the language of subjugation but also absorbed phrases and words of the conquered people leaving a permanent influence on what we know now as English language – in itself a form of resistance.

The role and influence of Arabic, Persian, Spanish and Portuguese, French, Italian and Dutch and other European languages are all surveyed. More surprisingly native American words, the indigenous languages of the Caribbean, South America and those spoken in Central America get a mention, as do the languages of the Africa, the Indian sub-continent.

But this isn't a political or historical analysis, so whilst we get a clear picture of the deeds of the British – for instance the penetration of West Africa and the Slave Trade, the author glosses over the genocides and crimes carried out as part of this process. There is no survey of the impact of English on the destruction of native tongues and languages. That's relegated – by omission – to a side issue.

He certainly knows his stuff though, and his inclusion of contemporary phrases and cultural references is entertaining without diminishing the seriousness with which he treats his subject. Contemporary buzzwords, music and culture – Snoop Dogg, Ebonics and hip-hop get a mention together with the giants of English literature, all demonstrate Hitchings erudition.

Full of historical insights and surprising factoids this is an intriguing and well thought out appraisal of the evolution of the English language. Happily this is not a 'look what we've done for the world' chauvinistic diatribe.  Rather The Secret Life of Words is a careful examination of the varied strands of world language that have contributed to the English we now speak.

Author:                      Henry Hitchings

ISBN:                          978071956454-3

Publisher:                   John Murray

Published:                 2008