History of the English Language - A Case Study

History of the English Language - story of the film

Click on the images below to download a range of fascinating documents relating to the production of History of the English Language.

  • History of the English Language, 1943

History of the English Language, 1943

In 1941, the British Council commissioned Professor Harold Orton from the University of Sheffield to write an initial treatment for a film on “The Origins of English”, as it was to be called.  Much to the film department’s surprise, he turned in an extremely detailed 37-page treatment.

Click to view Orton's Treatment

Mary Field, working for G.B. Instructional was then tasked with turning Orton’s veritable tome into a digestible, workable shooting script.

Initially, the Ministry of Information (MOI) were worried by the film’s frequent mention of invasion - something that was vital to the development of our language. EL Mercier wondered if  "a reminder that our language has been enriched by INVASION is not rather unsuitable at the moment.”

In April 1942, the MOI lifted their embargo restricting the British Council from mentioning the war in their films. This allowed for a more interesting and patriotic ending which would now include Churchill's speech. It also allowed for one of the more explicit moments of propaganda to be found in the collection: the word "Plunder" was to be used as an example of a word derived from the Germanic as it might "suit the views of the foreign office". In addition to this, a scene of a man opening a treasure chest would also morph in a diagram of an army suit - complete with Nazi Swastika.

With production finished in May 1942 - over a year and half from its inception - the film was initially earmarked for distribution in India, Sweden, South Africa and New Zealand; as well as for forces in the Allied Troops. When shown to US troops, its reception was so high that it was eventually approved for theatrical distribution abroad. In fact, the British Council's film department received so many requests from inside the UK itself for viewing copies, that many of the prints became worn and damaged with use. As was unusual for a British Council film at the time, many more prints were ordered as late as 1945 - over 3 years from its completion.

What was intended as a small, education film about the origins of the English language turned out to be one of the Council's most successful films.

Watch History Of the English Language here