I had a wonderful time visiting England for a usage guide conference and touring with an eye on the history of English.
Then we headed downstairs to see the Rosetta Stone, which seems to be one of the museum’s most famous items. It’s a big piece of granite—bigger than I expected, it’s 112 centimeters, so almost 4 feet tall—that contains the same text in Greek, demotic, and most important, hieroglyphics. Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, modern people couldn’t understand hieroglyphics. It was mobbed, and the variety of Rosetta Stone items you can buy in the museum gift store is amazing. I think they even had a squeezy stress ball shaped like the Rosetta Stone. Before we saw the real thing, I wondered whether it would be cool or if I’d just think, “Yeah, it’s a big stone.” It was cool. (British Museum Rosetta Stone page)
The next day we headed to Westminster Abbey, and Poets’ Corner where you can see graves and tributes to an overwhelming number of famous writers. Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, Edmund Spencer, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson (of dictionary fame),and John Dryden (who is often credited with making up the rule that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition), the list goes on and on, and I confess that it was actually a bit numbing, but there was one interesting nugget from the audio tour: Geoffrey Chaucer is also buried there, but he wasn’t buried there because of his literary fame, he was originally buried in the abbey because he was Clerk of Works to the palace of Westminster. More than 150 years later, when he was more famous, they upgraded his tomb.
One of the things on the abbey grounds that you’d miss if you hadn’t read the Crystals’ book is a stained glass window in St. Margaret’s Church, a much smaller church you pass as you walk up to the abbey. The window, about halfway up the left side of the church, honors William Caxton. He was the first person to bring the printing press to England and therefore made decisions while publishing that helped begin the process of standardizing English. Caxton operated near the abbey, probably because he was likely to get printing business from the government offices and courts in the area, and the marker says that he worshipped at St. Margaret’s. Caxton may not be as well-known as the writers in Poets’ Corner, but his contribution to English was significant. It was also Caxton who mass produced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (at least in a way that qualified as mass production back then). It was one of the first books he printed.
Tower of London: The White Tower
My final story is about the Tower of London, which for me was the highlight of the trip because the small castle at the center of the Tower of London called the White Tower was built by William the Duke of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror after he defeated King Harold II in the Battle of Hastings during the Norman Invasion in 1066. I never learned about the Norman Invasion in school, but it was one of the most important events in the history of English.
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