Our greatest export is the best cure for boredom we'll get
On Wednesday, I stroked the pages of a book that was 1,000 years old. (I probably shouldn't have, but I did.)
The pages were made of parchment, or perhaps of vellum – smooth as silk, but much, much heavier – and they were covered in script that was as inky black as if it had been written that day. It was in English, or a version of English, and you could, if you looked carefully, see references to Northumberland and dragons in the sky. It was, according to a little sign next to it, an 11th-century copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It's one of the first books ever to be written in English, and one of the oldest surviving copies in the world.
Next to it, in a kind of giant scrapbook, there was a letter written by Henry V. It was an early memo (from 1419, in fact) outlining how prisoners should be treated at Pontefract Castle. It took three centuries after the Norman Conquest, apparently, to oust French as the language of government. This was one of the first examples of an English monarch using English. And I could stroke it! I could have spat at it, actually, though obviously I didn't.
Next to it was a history of the Trojan wars, or Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, as Caxton called it, in his translation of it, printed in Flanders in 1474. It's the first book ever printed in English. Next to that was a first edition of Shakespeare's sonnets, and next to that a first edition of the King James Bible, and next to that a "hornbook" from the 17th century, designed to help a child to read and write. There was a pamphlet by Swift, suggesting ways of "Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue". There was a BBC booklet from 1928 with "recommendations for pronouncing doubtful words". And there was the handwritten manuscript of one of the novels which stretches the English language most: Finnegans Wake.
These priceless treasures were laid out on a table at a press briefing at the British Library for an exhibition opening this autumn: One Language, Many Voices. In the exhibition, the books will, presumably, be protected from twitching fingers, saliva and the buckets of coffee-flavoured milk now melded to most ambient human beings in London. But even with glass between you and the ink and parchment or vellum, the thrill is enormous. These are the real, historical, physical, and often very beautiful, landmarks of that enormous gift to the world, the English language.
In a (slightly embarrassing) game of "Street Countdown" (modelled on a TV programme I've never watched), we were given verbal conundrums garnered from historic examples of street slang. I disgraced myself by yelling out a word which had almost none of the letters of the word on the screen, but won a mug for "mollycoddle", which I thought was quite modern, and use all the time. But I loved "dandiprat","fustilugs","gongoozle" and "nightbird". How could you not?
How rich we are to live and breathe and conduct our lives in this endlessly fascinating system of shapes and sounds! And how lucky we are that we don't just have to grunt like gorillas or neigh like horses! It's possible, I suppose, when Robert Redford murmured into manes in that treacle-fest, The Horse Whisperer, that what he heard back was in iambic pentameter. But I suspect it was (though this isn't quite the word) rather more prosaic. Monkeys with paintbrushes might produce excellent modern art, but monkeys with typewriters don't produce Shakespeare. They don't even produce Dan Brown.
It's language, of course, that marks us out from the animals. (Or perhaps we should say, for the growing proportion of Brits who, according to a recent survey, are creationists, from the other animals.) If elephants somehow, over vast areas, convey the message "over here!" and buffalo "thataway, guys!", and ducks "all in a row, now!", they don't, as far as we can ascertain, write it down. And while they might be blissfully free from tax returns and party political broadcasts, that must only make their lives poorer.
When I asked the nice man from the British Library whether English was the richest language in the world, he muttered something about it being very hard to say, which I think might have meant "we're getting into scary territory here and none of us wants to be taken to tribunal". Clearly, none of us could boast about the colonial adventures which subjugated great swathes of the world's population, but which also added to the language's near-infinite variety, and none of us could boast about the Brits' woeful inadequacy with other tongues. But with the possible exception of Greek (which has a larger vocabulary than English, but hasn't evolved in similar ways), it's hard to think of another language that can compete.
In a recent survey, two-thirds of British women said they were "completely bored" with their lives. How is it possible to be bored with these incomparable riches at the tip of your tongue? How is it possible to be bored while there are books? Because speaking, and writing, aren't just about information, or opinions, or even stories. They're about the patterns and sounds and signs and symbols that human beings develop as they conduct the day-to-day business of their lives, patterns and sounds and signs and symbols that become part of the fabric of our history, and which show the curiosity, and ingenuity – and, thank God, humour – that it takes to be alive.