British Library (Immediately next to St Pancras Station)
Entry is free to all the exhibitions mentioned
This is an exhibition I can wholeheartedly recommend. The show takes the visitor from the beginnings of English following the Germanic colonisation of England from the fifth (or even possibly the end of the fourth century onwards ) to the development of Old English through time and its Norse additions to the transformation of Old to Middle English by the 13th century , substantially but not wholly as a consequence of the Norman Conquest and its aftermath , which not only added many Norman-French words to the vocabulary but also altered the syntax to something like that which we know today. From there the story moves into ever more familiar ground as England becomes first the dominant language of English public life, then the language of the only world empire ever worthy of the name, before evolving to its present dominance of the Internet and as arguably the nearest there is to a world language with more than 400 million speaking it as a first language and 1.6 billion as a second language. Because of its world significance the exhibition is not parochial and provides ample space for the development of varieties of English outside of England. However, the amount of politically correct preaching is mercifully small.
With the British Library’s magnificent literary resources, the exhibition is able to illustrate every aspect of English over the centuries with original documents rather than reproductions. Works of great craftsmanship as well as literary value jostle with dictionaries, newspapers, children’s books street ballads, posters and eventually the Web. There is everything from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle to the Sun newspaper.
Thankfully, the modern vogue for chaotic thematic presentation is kept under restraint, with the story of English being largely told in chronological sequence . The written commentary is lucid and the visual display of material attractive and clear. The video commentaries are instructional rather than intrusive, with commentary by bona fide academics not celebrities , all of whom to judge from their speech are, wonder of wonders in this pc age, white, middle class and English.
The exhibition is substantial without being overwhelmingly large. Two hours will allow you to do it full justice. Those with more time to spend will find a visit to the Sir John Ritblat gallery on the first floor provides further reward. This is a permanent display which contains a dazzling kaleidoscope of outstanding manuscripts drawn from around the world , many gorgeously illuminated, and important books and documents from the age of printing. Important English manuscripts in in languages other than English such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta and the Sherborne Missal are on display together with many English language documents, printed and manuscript , from later times. The exhibition is not confined to the religious, constitutional and literary, containing documents of scientific, technological, historical, political and musical interest.
There is also a temporary exhibition ()ends 27 2 2011) opposite the Ritblat gallery centred on Coleridge’ s “The rime of the Ancient Mariner” which is worth a look. All in all, the British Library has a very English look to it at present.