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The Adventure of English

The Biography of a Language
Narrated by: Robert Powell
Length: 12 hrs and 9 mins
Categories: History, British
4.5 out of 5 stars (560 ratings)

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This is the remarkable story of the English language; from its beginnings as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its position today as a truly established global language. The Adventure of English is not only an enthralling story of power, religion, and trade, but also the story of people, and how their lives continue to change the extraordinary language that is English.
©2003 Melvyn Bragg (P)2014 Audible, Inc.

Critic reviews

"Both entertaining and informative." ( Booklist)
"This 'biography' succeeds in its broad, sweeping narrative." ( Publishers Weekly)

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Francis
  • Liverpool, United Kingdom
  • 13-09-06

All the voices

This is not perhaps the most obvious choice for an audio book but it proves in fact to be an excellent work to listen to.Melvyn Bragg writes in a way that is a model of intelligent popularisation : without ever being either too technical or patronisingly simple he conveys much information about the history of the English language in a way that will entertain and instruct anyone with any degree of interest in the subject.Robert Powell -always a most competent and intelligent reader-copes superbly with what is often a difficult text.He manfully does his best to impart interest even to the long lists of words that occur in some chapters, but where he excels particularly is in the plausible rendition that he gives of the various dialects and languages related to English - his Frisian and Anglo-Saxon may or may not satisfy experts but they sound most convincing.He clearly enjoyed the challenge of conveying how differently English did and does sound. With such expert reading this is one of the occasions when an audio book has a distinct advantage over the silent printed text.If you have any interest in our language, you will enjoy this work and this reading.

153 of 153 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Outstandingly well-read and enjoyable journey

Melvyn Bragg writes in an accessible style well-suited to be read aloud. He has been well-served by the reader, Robert Powell, who has brought the book alive by his outstanding ability to pronounce all the variants of English that can only be depicted by phonetic symbols on the page. The use of the word 'Adventure' in the title is apposite as the book is as lively as a good historical novel.

46 of 48 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Anne
  • Sk?ndalSweden
  • 29-07-09

Fascinating language

I had a hard time learning English but when I came to the stage I was able to read and listen without using my dictionary and still understand it I became more and more interested in the history of the language; both the development and the paralels I see in my own language.

Now I have both read and listened to this book. It's worth it!

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Great book, great narration

I keep going back to listen to this book. It is so interesting and a product of lots of research that doesn't become tedious, although the lists of words probably work better on the page. But that aside, I love it.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Peter
  • Beulah, United Kingdom
  • 26-01-09

Very educational

Fascinating book, which captures a mass of interesting facts about the English language inside a well narrated and informative history. Highly recommend it to someone interested in the roots of the language from the 5th century onwards - this is a very accessible listen and I would go so far as to say it is indeed an adventure to listen to. It touches on the way English spans the globe in it's many forms and derivatives and why it is such an extensive, flexible language.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Great for language enthusiasts

Really enjoyable for anyone who likes history or languages. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it was very interesting to pick out all the influences and words from other languages that have made up English. Long may that continue!

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars


A really good listen for anyone interested in the English language. Some of the information presented I already knew but overall I realize how little I knew about my own language. As always the narration is as important as the book itself. Robert Powell can always be relied upon to keep me interested. I will certainly be listening to this book again.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • David
  • Bushey, Herts, United Kingdom
  • 02-03-08

A great accompaniment to any journey

I found the Bragg Powell combination very enjoyable. I thought Powell produced passable attempts at the European pronunciations, but my Caribbean wife and I had to laugh at some of the creole and pigeon he produced. Small criticism though and it even at times added to the listening experience. The news that we British communicated officially in French until Edward 1st was quite a surprise. Heartily recommended

19 of 22 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

It's all about the sound

If you could sum up The Adventure of English in three words, what would they be?

Logophile's anthropomorphic dream

What did you like best about this story?

This was a lesson in history as much as language. I had been unaware of the contributions of, say, Alfred (The Great) and Henry V to the preservation of the language.

What about Robert Powell’s performance did you like?

If anyone required convincing of the qualities of audio books vs. reading, this book would be my choice. Robert Powell is the ideal narrator to familiarise us with: Old-English; Middle-English; uses of English in America, Australia, India, Caribbean, Japan etc.

If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

You never knew it was in peril so many times...

Any additional comments?

This book prompted me to my first use of ‘Clips’ which can be shared with friends by email, txt, WhatsApp etc. Editing them is very straightforward, once you've experimented a little.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

In a word

I first bought this title because I thought it would teach me something about the reason why we talk the way we do. It did far more than that. Robert Powell is an excellent choice for the reader. After listening to the book I bought a copy and tried to work my way through some of the Old English sections. I found that Robert's mastery of the dialects and phrases helped me enjoy it more and make sense of it. Melvyn Bragg has written an extremely accessable account of our language that incorporates mystery, warfare,domination,robbery and the ability of our language to expand using other languages.
Of special interest are the chapters on American and Australian English.
Excellent title.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Leigh A
  • 21-10-05

Many Of Course monments

Highly recommend to anyone who loves our language, hates our language, or just wants to know where in the world did that come from. Be prepared for the book of lists as my wife called it, but it does not detract from the content. There are many times when you will hear the origin of the word or words and say of course, it makes sense now. This book shows that we speak a living history.

This book is the best example of an audiobook being better than the written word. The narrator does make the book.

139 of 143 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Dorothea
  • 11-04-08

great listen

Already listened to this book twice and there will be more times to follow. It's a great listen. Especially enjoyed the chapters about the early and medieval history - fascinating.
The story is well written, witty, very informative and even thrilling (like history is). Since I am not English I am definitely not the one to criticise the reading - to my ears the narrator does a great job.
Could not have spent my monthly credit better!

33 of 34 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Tim
  • 18-04-06

Very Interesting!!

What would seem to be a very dull subject is made rather interesting by this book. There are parts where the book drags, but the chapters of Wycliffe, Tyndale, Shakespeare and the King James Bible are just a few of the intriguing highlights of this book.

As some have said, this is a book that is probably BETTER as an audiobook. The reader does a GREAT job with old english and many of the dialects. Hearing someone speak ancient versions of the language (rather than trying to figure out what they were supposed to have sounded like) is a BIG bonus with the audiobook version.

The author also did a great job with describing how dialects occur, even in modern times (such as "Pigeon" dialects). I also thought the discussion of attempts to create a modern "universal" language were quite interesting.

It was also fascinating to learn how many figures of speech originated with Shakespeare, as well as early versions of the English Bible.

Definitely well worth the read!

60 of 63 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • ezs
  • 09-11-05

Comprehensive, engaging and informative

Although this book has a running time of just over twelve hours; the listener is soon immersed and lost in this treasury by Melvyn Bragg. Covering the full span of time from the earliest European roots of English to the most current usage - this is a must listen.

Robert Powell is the perfect reader for this book; his natural style and easy meter really compliment the content.

58 of 61 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Hugh
  • 12-12-07

What a story!

I have listened to this twice now, and found it hilarious both times. Now, I must admit that the reader is not perfect. Obviously, he has no idea what "okra" is, much less how to pronounce it. But even that was funny. I know I could not begin to produce the variety of accents required to make this work. What is great is the story. I understand so much about my native language that I never knew before. This should be a High School textbook. It's no wonder that English is such a wierd language. This book explains much.

39 of 41 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Marius
  • 18-11-08

Hugely entertaining and informative

Of all of the books I downloaded, I least expected this one to be a gem, but such it is. Superbly narrated by the actor Robert Powell, it tells the fascinating story of the relentless growth of a polyglot mongrel language, never ashamed to borrow or steal words from every language it encountered. Essentially, that seems to have been its greatest strength, insulating it from attack, and allowing it to evolve into the marvellous tongue of Chaucer, Tindale, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickens, Twain, Wodehouse, Waugh and Tolkien, to say nothing of Hunter S Thompson. Melvyn Bragg has written a superb book. My only regret is that he mentioned so few words of South African origin, of which trek, veld, impi, assegaai, stoep and indaba are but a few. One of very few 5 star ratings I have made.

57 of 61 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Dean
  • 15-12-05

As Entertaining As Possible

Exceptionally well done, they really did make it as interesting as I think is humanly possible. The reader deserves full marks for his efforts, and as for the book itself, again, top marks. I did find a few mistakes (for example, attributing things of Canadian origin to America) and I also thought that it was a little misleading to talk of more modern influences when the words borrowed often also have more ancient roots, but those are small grievances at best.

I will say that I wouldn't recommend the book to a casual passer by, it was largely the fact that I had paid for it that forced me on in the beginning (it did, as I say, become interesting eventually). But for someone with a definite interest, this is a title worth a definite purchase.

22 of 23 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Thomas Allen
  • 22-05-08

A great way to relate the story of English

"Wow!" That's really all I can say after the last word of this book is spoken! Throughout the book, the author treats the language as a living, breathing, growing entity. And after experiencing this book, I'd say he's right! At times, English is facing persecution and extinction. At other times, English is rolling roughshod over whole nations. The author deals in details of history to make his personification of English stand on two feet. After this book, I have a new found pride to speak a language that has had such a magnificant journey.

21 of 22 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Shawn
  • 28-05-07

A Worthwhie Adventure

I very much enjoyed this lecture, it was more than I'd expected. Adventure is the correct word for this as we travel through time learning about about the perils English has and does face. I was especially fascinated by the later chapters covering some current languages that are derivatives of English. Suddenly Ebonics as a language made sense to me.

20 of 21 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • John
  • 08-08-08

TRUELY an Adventure in English and HISTORY.

Audio: Excellent. Clear, crisp, enunciation. Narrator has a British accent, (and why not, the author is English), and was VERY easily understood by this American. This book is a SPECIAL TREAT as it is actually BETTER TO LISTEN to it than to read it. This is because of the innumerable authentic-sounding pronunciations of English word derivations and origins throughout history. Even if the words are spelled phonetically in the book (and I don't know if they are), I say you cannot beat having them pronounced properly. This REALLY brings the book alive.

Content: Outstanding. The Adventure of English is an adventure in history also, as it necessarily must be. Celtic, Norse, Friesen (sp?), Norman French, Latin, French, Spanish, u-name-it. England, Normandy, U.S.A., the Carribean, Australia, et al. Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, Chaucer, Tyndale, Philip Sidney, Mark Twain, oh, and Shakespeare of course, to name a few. The subject matter is presented in a personal and personable manner. It is not technical or aloof. Tres facile a' comprendre. N'est-ce pas? I usually read philosophy, politics, current events, and fiction. This book was a very worthwhile departure from that. I highly recommend this book and I will be LISTENING to it again.

50 of 54 people found this review helpful