Evolving English: On top of the word

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A fascinating new exhibition at the British Library shows how all attempts to standardise the English language have been resisted – and that's why it continues to flourish today, says Adrian Hamilton

While the BBC and the King James Bible Trust are busily proclaiming the virtues of the 400-year old King James Bible as the greatest influence on the English language, the British Library is arguing just the opposite case in an extensive exhibition displaying the sheer variety and mobility of the language.

One of the last havens for unrepentant lefties – indeed the last bastion of unreformed labour practices, you feel as you wait the 20 minutes to deposit your coat – the Library is ever didactic in its approach to shows. Even a marvellous display of London maps a few years ago was accompanied by captions explaining how parks were created by a patronising middle class instructing the lower orders what was good for their health. Its Taking Liberties: the Struggle for Britain's Freedoms and Rights two years ago was a gloriously romantic hymn to the struggle of proper working people against a repressive political establishment.

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices is equally imbued with the spirit of freedom from control and from rules. After a solid start explaining how English evolved from Germanic invaders and settlers, flourishing as the language of the people alongside the French of the Norman rulers and the Latin writing of the scribes and literate, we are into the main room of variations and themes – "Slang", "Swearing", "Grammar" and "Style Guides", "English for Children", "Dictionaries", "Accent and Dialect" – each illustrated by three or four texts.

It's full of fascinations. One had forgotten the whole business of "u" and "non-u", of "couch", "toilet" and "pardon" and John Betjeman's and Nancy Mitford's half-serious teasing on the subject. Indeed, in a series of displays of puns, illustrations and word-game books, the exhibition rightly reminds us just how playful the English have long been with language, probably more so than any other race. There's a charming jest book from the 16th-century illustrating how country folk, the Welsh and the Irish have always been the butt of English humour.

The attempts to teach children grammar and spelling inevitably provide some of the most visually attractive print works, while the manuscripts before printing – of Beowulf, Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knight and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – present the Library's greatest treasures.

And then there are the surprises that come from an item that strikes quite outside its formal context. A section on the dramatic display of posters and early newspaper, including a grim broadsheet of a hanging complete with illustrations, has this appalling billboard message from the government to incite volunteers for the armed services.

"TO THE YOUNG WOMEN OF LONDON.

"Is your 'Best Boy' wearing khaki? If not don't YOU THINK he should be?

"If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for – do you think he is WORTHY of you.

"Don't pity the girl who is alone – her young man is probably a soldier – fighting for her and her country – and for YOU.

"If your man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU.

"Think it over – then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TODAY."

That is what war does to governments, and societies, in any language.

If this diffuse exhibition has a theme, other than the thread of a single language, it is that English has always evolved away from any attempt to control or standardise it.

Jonathan Swift tried, in a tract of 1712 on show here, to promote an English Academy on the lines of the Académie Française to "fix language for ever". It never got anywhere. Too authoritarian for the British or, as Samuel Johnson remarked: "The edicts of an English academy would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them."

Evolving English charts the many efforts to impose conformity on the word, through grammars, dictionaries and etiquette books (inevitably the most humorous of the works). There were efforts, still continuing, to reform the written word to approximate more nearly the spoken form while the BBC attempted to define an acceptable Broadcast English on the introduction of radio.

Accent was ever the subject of judgement. Where regional voices were once derided as betraying provincialism and country yokelism, the 20th century saw them researched and praised as "authentic".

The British Library has a map in which you can pursue local accents and hear them at a press of a button.

The question inevitably posed by the end of the show is where next in the age of the internet and globalised use of a language. English, as David Crystal – the presiding voice throughout the show – points out is spoken by two billion people today, only 400 million of which are native speakers? In other words, its use is by far and away dominated by those adopting it as a second or third language.

That may change as the internet allows the ready use of other languages and non-roman scripts. It certainly creates a dichotomy between the written word of text message and emails and the spoken word of global commerce and entertainment.

Wisely, the British Library does not attempt an answer. How can it, as no one really knows while the future may well make irrelevant the evolution to date of English to which this exhibition is devoted. Even within its own confines, the British Library has to struggle hard to show in visual terms what it keeps having to explain in written words. The visitor spends far more time reading than looking.

Or hearing. For the story of any language is in the interplay between spoken and written. Not the least value of the King James Bible – to which the exhibition gives only the most cursory nod – was that it was written to be spoken, and tested out by the translation committees by being read aloud. In the history of the language it has a central role, not just because it is the most popular book ever published in English but because it was heard every week by almost every class in church. Now that the church audience is diminishing and evangelical Christianity has turned to the Bible in more modern and colloquial language, its effect must diminish – just as English as a global language may decline as the internet allows instant translation of the spoken and ready alternatives to the written.

This year will see a plethora of small exhibitions and talks on the King James in Cathedral libraries and university halls – many of them, one suspects, more attractive for the older bibles on display than the printed James. There is to be, so far as I can make out, no central British exhibition at Lambeth Palace or Oxford (there are many in North America) showing the key role of this book and its spread around the world. This is a pity, for it needs to be seen in all its manifestations as well as heard, while the concentration on its role in English diminishes its importance as a work of "translation" (a craft that deserves a fillip).

In the meantime, there is the British Library to put it in its place as a relatively small development in the big, chaotic and ever-developing story of a language.

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, British Library, London NW1 ( www.bl.uk) to 3 April, entry free

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