News | 23.08.2010

Evolving English: A new exhibition reveals how modern-day text language is not so modern after all. And how the internet could spell the end to the print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

In November 2010, the British Library will showcase an exhibition called Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, that charts the 1,500-year history of the English language. The exhibition has been a three-year work in progress and will offer such gems as the first English dictionary; received pronunciation guides from the BBC; and ‘listening stations’ demonstrating the development of regional accents along with the Stanley Unwin’s made-up language of ‘Unwinese’. It is this combination of old and new, text and audio, print and new media, which makes it so exciting. Also in the news were reports that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary may only be available as an online resource.

The Guardian reported on this new exhibition and starting with print formats, it explained the delights on offer: the oldest copy of the Old English poem ‘Beowulf’ recorded 1,000 years ago; the first printed book in English dating from the 15th Century (Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye); the first English dictionary published in the 17th century; lists of slang words and their etymology; and a letter written by Henry V in the 15th century – significant because it is the first example of the English language being used by an English king.

More recent developments in the languages’ history include a 1920s BBC received pronunciation guide ‘in which broadcasters are told to pronounce combat as cumbat and housewifery as huzzifry’*; a Victorian pronunciation guide entitled ‘Poor Letter H’ in which the readership is advised not to drop their h’s (e.g. “‘house not ‘ouse’”*); and posters and comics throughout the years.

A poem dating from 1867 proves how the language used in text messages today originated from the 19th century: ‘I wrote 2 U B 4’ being one salient example. Here past and present meet, and in the same way, the exhibition also takes advantage of modern technology to present other examples of English language developments. Visitors are invited to read sections from selected texts for inclusion in a ‘sound archive’ that chronicles how regional accents have developed over time; an audio track offers examples of Stanley Unwin’s invented language ‘Unwinese’: an automotakaty (automatic) hit; and interactive workshops for schools aimed at developing skills in ‘language analysis and interpretation’ (

The English language was also in the news in August 2010 when it was announced that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary may only be available online. According to an article published in the Independent, the decline in demand for printed dictionaries combined with the increased demand for e-books is the reason behind this possible development. However, all is not lost for those who prefer the printed versions, as it is thought that it will be over a decade until a decision is made as the third edition is less than 30% completed.

The exhibition is the first of its kind and as Victorians and 20th century texters alike would say, it looks set to be a G8 experience!

* The Guardian

Sources: The Guardian; The Independent; British Library; Wikipedia (Stanley Unwin)

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