11 Places to Visit on a Tour of the English Language


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Battle sites, architectural landmarks, birthplaces of the famous—there are many ways to get in touch with history through travel. What if linguistic history is your thing? The prolific linguist David Crystal (author of over 100 interesting books on language) and his wife Hilary have created a guidebook specifically for the tourist of the English language called Wordsmiths & Warriors. They traveled thousands of miles around Britain, tracing the history of English and collecting anecdotes and photographs along the way. The resulting book is presented as a list of 57 stops (detailed directions and parking information included) where you too can soak up a bit of linguistic lore. If you can’t get there this year, you can at least use the guide to visit from your desk. Here are some can’t-miss stops on a tour of the history of English.

1. Pegwell Bay: Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

The Germanic tribes that developed early English settled in the eastern part of England after a pair of brothers named Hengist and Horsa conquered it in the 5th century. They arrived at Pegwell Bay in Kent, where you can see a replica of their ship.

2. Caistor St. Edmund: Earliest Recorded English Word

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This village in Norfolk was the site of an archaeological dig that yielded a cremation urn in which a bone engraved with runes was found. It says “raihan” and probably means “roe-deer,” the animal that the bone comes from.

3. Undley Common: Earliest Recorded English Sentence

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A small disc of gold found by a farmer in these Suffolk fields is decorated with the head of a bearded warrior, a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, and a three word sentence written in Anglo-Frisian runes. It is read as “gægogæ mægæ medu,” and it may mean “this howling she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman,” though scholars are looking for more evidence to confirm this.

4. Cerne Abbas: First Recorded English Conversation

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A monk who later came to be known as Ælfric the Grammarian taught in a monastery in this Dorset village at the end of the 10th century. One of the works he wrote for Latin instruction was a dialogue between a teacher and his students, and in the manuscript, someone wrote above the text, in tiny script, an English translation, making it the first example of written dialogue in English.

5. Battle and Normans Bay: Where French Got Mixed In

The 1066 Norman Conquest brought French with it and fundamentally changed English. You can ponder the consequences while roaming the tourist area known as 1066 country.

6. Canterbury: Chaucer

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However you want to refer to Geoffrey Chaucer—the father of English literature, England’s greatest medieval poet, champion of the vernacular—he’s got to figure into any proper tour of the history of English. Since his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, heads toward Canterbury, you should too.

7. Tothill Street, London: England’s First Printing Press

William Caxton set up the first printing press in England near Westminster Abbey—a smart business move, considering the number of texts (records, indulgences, etc.) that the Abbey needed to produce. There is a statue of him and a memorial tablet you can visit.

8. St. Albans: The First Collection of Collective Nouns

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An exalting of larks, a charm of goldfinches, a muster of peacocks: The Book of St. Albans, printed in St. Albans in 1486, is where we find the first list of these delightful terms for collections of things. It was probably written by a nun named Juliana Berners, and a wildlife site near the site of her nunnery is a good place to spot some of those groups of animals she was talking about.

9. North Nibley: The First English Bible

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William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible in 1525 introduced expressions like “powers that be,” “stumbling block,” and “my brother’s keeper.” He had to publish it abroad, and English authorities condemned his translation, burning any copies they got their hands on. There is a tower in North Nibley erected as a monument to Tyndale in which you can climb 121 steps to reach the top and take in a view of the surrounding countryside.

10. Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare

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You can’t talk about the history of English without talking about Shakespeare, and you can’t do a tour of the history of English without visiting his birthplace.

11. Lichfield, Staffordshire: Samuel Johnson

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Johnson’s dictionary was a major achievement in lexicography and helped shape standards for English and for dictionary-making in general. He was born in Lichfield, where there is a museum with many of his personal items and papers.

Check out Wordsmiths & Warriors to learn about 46 other stops you can make on your tour.