One of the disadvantages of not living in London for example, is that one doesn't learn immediately that such a thing as this exhibition exists and even more painfully, one cannot go see it. Or at least not easily.
The British Library is currently showing this exhibition called Evolving English that sounds pretty interesting by the description that their website offers:
In this ground-breaking exhibition, the roots of Old English, slang dictionaries, medieval manuscripts, advertisements and newspapers from around the world come together - alongside everyday texts and dialect sound recordings. Follow the social, cultural and historical influences on the English language... and see how it’s still evolving today.
Here are some of the items that are displayed on the exhibition, and for the record I'd love to take a much closer look at some of them:
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (11th c.)
In the reign of King Alfred, in about 890, Anglo-Saxon scribes compiled a record of events in Britain since 60 BC. Copies were distributed to monasteries, where they were updated for decades to come. Surviving copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle give us an insight into the changing nature of Old English. They also record Scandinavian influence, which began in 793 with the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. Vikings eventually settled in parts of England, and introduced many Scandinavian words into English, including ‘they’, ‘take’ and ‘dirt’.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. 11th century.
The Regiment of Princes (1412)
Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for the Canterbury Tales, is widely considered to be the greatest writer of the Middle English period (11th to 15th centuries). Thomas Hoccleve certainly thought so. The Regiment of Princes (1412) is Hoccleve’s poem written for the future king Henry V. he describes Chaucer as ‘The firste fyndere of our faire langage’. The implication is that the English language finally had a worthy literary standard. Hoccleve inserts a portrait of his ‘worthy maistir’ into the manuscript.
Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes. 1412.
A True Relation... (1608)
Through the establishment of trading posts and colonies, the English language travelled beyond Europe. The first permanent English colony in America was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 by Capt. John Smith. A True Relation (1608) is a description of coastal Virginia, its local peoples, and the colony. A map of Virginia, also by Smith, is often inserted into the book. It is noted for its place names of American Indian origin, (for example, ‘Patawomeck’ is the Potomac River). A feature of English is how easily it absorbs words from other languages.
John Smith, A True Relation... Virginia, 1608.
The Riot Act
Posters such as this from the 19th century would have been distributed in public places to notify people that the Riot Act had been officially invoked. The Act could be used to disperse gatherings of 12 or more people if a specific statement was read out to the gathering. The statement gave the crowd one hour to disperse after which it could be broken up by force. Though the Riot Act is no longer in force, the phrase has lived on in the language in a colloquial sense.
Riot Act poster. 19th century. [University of Reading]
Modern Flash Dictionary (1835)
This cheap pamphlet was aimed at young working men interested in sport, gambling and drinking. It aimed to cover criminal cant, sporting slang and ‘flash phrases now in vogue’. In the early 19th century, the word flash had several meanings. A fashionable man-about-town was commonly referred to as a flash cove and the meaning survives today in the phrase 'flash Harry'. The dictionary includes figures we would recognise, including fencers and shoplifters and unfamiliar terms, such as 'priggers' (pickpockets) and 'spicers' (highwaymen).
George Kent, Modern Flash Dictionary. London, 1835.
Punch provides numerous insights into language attitudes of the past 150 years, such as the British preoccupation with ‘h-dropping’ as a mark of social class. More than a century of desperately trying to avoid this social gaffe has had a profound effect on the general pronunciation of English words, as we now consider humble, humour, humility and hospital to require a 'h' sound. We now say herb with 'h' in the UK, but the older form (without 'h') survives in the United States.
Punch. 27 October 1855.
Old Nurse’s Book of Rhymes (1858)
By the middle of the 19th century, folk or nursery rhymes were a routine part of a child’s education. Old Nurse’s Book of Rhymes, Jingles and Ditties (1858) by Charles Henry Bennett uses rhyming verse, repetition and colour to capture and maintain the child’s attention. It also introduces an element of humour that would have been appreciated by all the family. Some popular nursery rhymes have changed over time, as can be seen in this version of ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’.
C. H. Bennett, Old Nurse's Book of Rhymes. 1858.
Broadcast English (1929)
The BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English was set up in 1926, soon after the arrival of nationwide radio broadcasting. Its purpose was to advise on pronunciation. The committee recommended that all presenters avoid regional accents and use Received Pronunciation (RP), the prestigious southern English accent heard in public schools and at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Through Broadcast English, guidance was also given on how to pronounce particular words. Some pronunciations have since been forgotten, such as ‘húzzifry’ for housewifery.
BBC Broadcast English. 1929.