History


I’ve got more to say about Spain, but I still need to put some photos on the computer from my camera so I’ll save that for another day.  Meanwhile, I thought I’d write about one of the books I read whilst away; it also links in quite nicely with what my friend is talking about over here.

I first read The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg a couple of years ago when I was first getting interested in Old English and applying for university; a friend gave it to me for my 18th birthday.  So it was nice to reread it now with a bit more knowledge.  It is, as the tag-line says, the biography of a language.  The companion book to one of his TV series, it charts the history of the English Language from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons to the year 2000.  It is not an academic book and does not claim to be(which is not to say it is not well researched; it is, and a useful bibliography is provided); it is an enjoyable and easy to read exploration of the development of our language.  He doesn’t go into the complexities of philology, sound changes and grammar, and concentrates mainly on the origins of different words and the influences of other languages on English.  He charts the development of the use of English for different purposes, particularly as a literary language, through focusing on the contributions of such figures as King Alfred, Chaucer, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and many less well known characters such as Captain Meriweather Lewis and William Clark.

He is particularly interested in English’s ability to absorb other languages and to adapt to any circumstances, and the book is a celebration of the many dialects, pidgin and creole versions of English that exist all over the world, from Geordie and Cockney to the black African-American dialect of Gullah in South Carolina and Australian English.  Attempts by dictionary writers to freeze and fix the language are shown to be futile, as the people who use the language at every level of society find new ways to express themselves, finding new uses and meanings for old words, inventing new words to describe and explain new inventions and ideas, and adapting and modernising grammar.

Language development is fascinating and this book is a must for anyone who is even vaguely interested in this topic.  It is very easy to read and, if nothing else, will enrich your vocabulary with strange dialect words!  For me, it has made me even more keen to study Germanic Philology properly; luckily that’s one of the courses I can take next year!

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The AlhambraI’m back after a week away in Spain soaking up some culture in Granada and Cordoba and walking in the Alpujarra region of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was really enjoyable and beautiful and I saw some very interesting sites.

First of all there was the Alhambra in Granada; the name derives from the Arabic Al Qal’a al-Hamra meaning ‘The Red Fort’. It’s a palace complex situated on an outcrop overlooking Granada and was absolutely fascinating to look around. There are three main sections to it: the Alcazaba fortress built in the eleventh century; the Nasrid Palaces, which date from the fourteenth century; and the Generalife Gardens, also of the fourteenth century. I don’t know that much about medieval Spainish history, but basically Andalucia was Muslim-ruled from the eighth to the thirteenth century, and the last foothold of the Islamic rulers of the Nasrid dynasty until Isabel and Ferdinand conquered it in 1492 was Granada. It was during the rule of the Nasrid dynasty that Granada was at its peak as a thriving, bustling and rich city, and the Alhambra complex eloquently reflects the city’s glory days.

The Alcazaba is imposing and impressive because of its size and location with incredible views over Granada. It is a very functional military building which might seem architecturally uninteresting but in context vividly evokes the power and skill of its eleventh century builders.

However, it is the Nasrid Palaces which are the main attraction.Decoration Every room is covered with elaborate and beautiful carved plaster panels, intricate mosaics and colourful geometric tiles. The rooms are all arranged around courtyards, most of which have still pools or bubbling fountains at their centre.Courtyard Garden The overall effect is one of tranquillity and luxury. You get the sense, rather like at Versailles, that the rulers, tucked away in their inpenetrable and ornate palace, must have been a little out of touch with the realities of the busy city below them.

Repeated over and over in the carvings is the phrase (in Arabic) Wala galiba illa Allah (‘there is no conqueror but Allah’). Plaster CarvingWhilst the context of the Crusades and the fifteenth century between Muslims and Christians for control of Spain means this could be taken as a defiant statement, I prefer to think of it as a testament to the quiet power of the private faith of those who lived there. The Palaces as a whole are witness to the breathtaking beauty and complexity of Islamic art, culture and history, something which I think needs to be remembered, studied and emphasised today.

Yesterday I finally got to go to the British Museum’s exhibition on The First Emperor, having booked the tickets back in November.  The exhibition was good, if a little small and crowded, but the things they had on display were beautiful and if you bothered to have the audio guide (which I did) and to read all the information you could find out a great deal.

I have to say, what impresses me the most about the Terracotta Army is the scale and its context.  In 221BC Ying Zheng had conquered a pretty large chunk of modern China and declared himself the First Emperor of China.  He’d already started building his tomb twenty years before when he became King of Qin, his father’s kingdom, aged only 13.  The tomb complex itself, with at least 7000 Terracotta soldiers, horses, chariots, birds, acrobats, state officials, musicians and more, covers 56 km sq.  To create such a thing required a huge amount of organisation and unprecedented control of resources.  The First Emperor is known to have introduced reforms such as standardising weights and measures, the currency and the written script in order to rule his empire more effectively.  Seeing the world he created for himself to rule in the afterlife makes these acheivements more believable, and more awe-inspiring.  In Western Europe we are used to hearing about the Roman Empire as the great civilisation of the past, but this Eastern Empire surely must have rivalled Rome.

The statues are mass-produced, which in itself is impressive because I think many people think of mass-produced art as a modern phenomena, yet every figure and animal was finished by hand and is distinct.  It is a completely different technique from the marble carvings of Rome, yet just as beautiful and realistic.

I think it is extremely interesting to think about history from a global perspective, to think about the rise and fall of civilizations and to compare the progress of human societies in different parts of the world at the same time.  The length and scale of human history and achievement should be hugely inspirational.

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