Based on a series that Bragg made for television, this book is a history of the English language over the past 1500 years. It starts in Friesland in north Holland, where the local language even now has many words that uncannily similar to their English equivalents. Around 500AD, the Frieslanders as the Angles, crossed the north sea and colonized what became East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Over the next few hundred years their language gradually became the dominant language of 'Engalond'. From about 800 onwards English faced challenges from the Danish and Viking invasions, but somehow the language survived, absorbing many new words in the process - a lot of northern dialect words date back to this time.
Then came the Norman invasion. I had not realized how much England was really just a French colony for the 300 years following 1066: all of the English ruling class and landowners were replaced by French speakers and English remained the language of the lower classes only re-emerging as a language fit for government after the Black death weakened the feudal system in 1349. And it wasn't until Henry V that you again get a king whose first language was English.
The story goes on through Chaucer, Tyndale (and his subversive English bible) to Shakespeare. Bragg paints a picture of Shakespeare and his contemporary writers competing with each other in inventing new words and phrases to express ideas: "mind's eye", "salad days", "dog them at the heels", "fast and loose". I found this angle on WS new and refreshing.
From the 17th Century onwards, English spreads out across the world to America, India, Australasia, the West Indies and splits into many dialects which then feed back new words and phrases into UK English. Sometimes words lasted longer in the colonies than they did at home: 'dinkum', apparently once Midlands dialect for 'work', survived in Australia as 'fair dinkum': a fair day's work.
This view of a language as a fantastically detailed patchwork quilt is quite inspiring. Bragg mentions that as a child he spoke with a heavy accent that was unintelligible to his teachers. In such cases it was, and still is, common for teachers to denigrate dialects and encourage the children to speak 'proper' English. Maybe knowledge of the history of the dialect would change the teachers' attitude. In Bragg's case his dialect contained words from Old Norse, the language spoken by viking settlers over a thousand years ago, and from Romany, the language of horse dealers who have held horse fairs in his home town for hundreds of years.