BW 4/32

History of the English Language

Film: History of the English Language


  • 20th January 1941
Letter from B. Ifor Evans to Dr Harold Orton (university of Sheffield). An “Origins of English” film discussed.
Orton to write draft.

  • Dr Orton handwrites all his letters, where every other correspondence is type-written.
Orton very enthusiastic about film.

  • Many letters from Evans requesting Orton’s coming to London to discuss script.
Orton appears slow to respond, states “end of term” arrive this weekend so he can commence work then. 2 months later, Evans still sending letters asking for script talk. Gives travel expenses in advance!

  • Script sent in 5 different pieces – all handwritten. A few handwritten notes express difficulty in understanding Orton’s handwriting.

  • Mr Bruce Woolf at GB Instructional asked to make film. He expresses concern it is “too non-filmic”.
Script is very long and written in prose, like an essay. Orton clearly has no working knowledge of film production.
There is confusion at GB over script being sent in different parts.

  • Film intended for British institutions abroad and education authorities in foreign countries, the Dominions and the Colonies.
To explain why English is so difficult to learn

  • Orton exhaustive list of “borrowed” words used in English language is cut down drastically.
A lot of these chosen are words borrowed through commerce and industry rather than culturally.

  • Mary Field drafts film script – it is very quickly accepted and is very similar to the finished film. (Orton starts his in May and Fields does her’s in October)
An alternative treatment is written (don’t know who by) and is much was war-based. No further mention of this. Assume it was rejected due to war content.
Field is overtly asked to take out the Invasion aspect of the enrichment of our language.

  • The Germanic aspect of our language is cut out. Claim it is due to GB trying to fit “too much in one reel, as they always do.” Clearly an excuse.

  • Professor Daniel Jones to read the Shakespeare and Chaucer extracts (Chaucer later to be cut)



  • Script criticised for having too much propaganda elements
Churchill and Roosevelt together at church cut out, alternative Shakespeare extract chosen to seem less patriotic – so it could be shown as a “purely cultural film” and not a piece of propaganda.

  • More of the Roman and Latin influence requested.

  • Film budget estimated at £1800 (Feb 1942)
Orton paid £50 for his involvement.

  • Certain loan words asked to be changed i.e. “Chintz” and “Quartz”, but these requests are evidently ignored as they all appear in the film.
“Plunder” being German and the Churchill speech are put back in to satisfy the Foreign Office, who have to approve the film (they had previously banned all reference to the war, but now is allowed)

  • The Council insist on British musicians, composers & conductors for the score.
BBC get upset over the filming of one of their transmitters for the film. Request copies of the negative for their own library. Council rather sternly reject this, saying they can have a viewing copy to look at.

  • During editing process, Orton spots an error in the script: as a result of the extreme whittling down of his text, “the Americas” has been incorrectly changed to “South America” only, implying that words like “potato” and “maize” and “tobacco” are S American NOT Central American.
This is fixed by splicing in new dialogue into the film, costing £163.

  • Is suggested for India, Sweden, South Africa and New Zealand.
Finished film is shown to US forces in the UK. Very successful.

  • Was intended for educational non-theatrical use but US soldiers positive response meant that it was shown in theatre abroad.
There were in fact many requests for viewing copies of the film.
Many of the show copies got well-used and in 1945 more prints were made.
Very popular film.