The earliest known example of English literature is the epic poem Beowulf. We can tell by its complexity and execution that it’s not written by a beginner. We know by its structure that it harks back to a long oral tradition of tale spinning. Strangely enough, there is much in common with Beowulf and the tall tales produced in the USA in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The stories associated with Davy Crockett are a great example of this sort of thing. Certainly poems and stories produced by Australian author Banjo Paterson in the 19th Century have a powerful Beowulf like feel to them.
It was through Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century that English as a written language made its first big step. Even at this stage it was far from being a pure language. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales he used words that had their origins in Ancient Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and what was then regarded as Modern French. If he wanted to say something in a blunt, straightforward way most Englishmen would understand he would use Anglo-Saxon. If he wanted to be eloquent then he would use either Norman French or Modern French. French in those days was very much a language of nobility and the European courts. Latin was a more universal language and was tied in with English grammar. Ancient Greek had a lot to do with the natural sciences as well as its connections to great writers of a past age.
Geoffrey, in his writing, brought new words into the English language and revived words that had been around for some time but had fallen into disuse. He was playful with language but also a great craftsman with it. He had his cast of characters on a holy pilgrimage to Canterbury. They were a good social mix of high and low. Possibly the most famous or infamous was the wife of Bath. Sometime after Geoffrey’s death this feisty fictional female was still alive in song. There’s a ballad in which she goes to the pearly gates and St. Peter refuses to let her in. She of course kicks up such a stir that he has to eventually open the gates for her just to keep the peace. Did Geoffrey in his life time actually know someone like the wife of Bath? I would say so but we’ll never know for sure.
Understandably, Geoffrey feared that his writing, being in English, would not survive the test of time. He knew that the pronunciation of English differed greatly throughout the kingdom as did the spelling. To this day there are still variants in dialect but perhaps not as pronounced as in his day. For example, a place of worship near the Scottish border was known as a Kirk. In London, however, the same place of worship went by the more French influenced name of Church. Chances were good that a person living on the border would not know what a Church was and a person living in London wouldn’t have a clue about a Kirk. So there wasn’t really a common English language in Geoffrey’s day and, as far as The Canterbury Tales were concerned, he could only hope that it would be understood by enough people throughout the land for it to keep on keeping on.
Before The Canterbury Tales there was The Decameron. It was written by Giovanni Boccaccio. This was the first great epic poem written in the growing language of Italian rather than in the then more conventional Latin. It dealt with a group of well off young people who had gone into the country to escape the plague. To pass the time until they could return to their city they told each other stories. Like The Canterbury Tales, these stories were not confined to the author’s place of origin. They roamed with the writer’s imagination which makes them quite readable even in translation today. By the end of the 14th Century, between The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, literature was flourishing in England and Italy in ways it had never flourished before. For a start, it was doing so in the common languages of the people and not just the languages of scholarship such as Latin and Ancient Greek.
The next great step forward for the English language took place during the reign of Elizabeth the first. She was, among other things, the first really good ruling queen the English had ever had. What’s more, England had a fleet of war ships capable of excellent defense against aggressive neighbors. The queen also understood good P.R. She commissioned playwrights such as William Shakespeare to not only entertain and inform but also to create excellent propaganda for her. When Britain was threatened by the Spanish Armada, she spoke personally to some of those tasked with defending her realm. What comes down to us as her speech on this occasion may not be verbatim but it is still quite stirring. She understood how we can be moved by words, especially words in our own language.
At the time William Shakespeare was writing, the world was in transition. Old superstitions were beginning to die away to be replaced by a new emphasis on the various sciences. This was made clear in his play, The Tempest. In his writing, Shakespeare sometimes turned what were traditional nouns into adverbs. He also invented new words and put old words to new use with new meanings.
(On a side note, there is a wonderful moment or two in an episode of Star Trek: The next Generation between the android Data and Captain Picard over lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)
England, in becoming more a seafaring nation than ever before, was taking a great many words into its own language. The French, in doing business with Arab people, adopted Arab words for the new spices such as pepper coming into common use in Europe. They of course gave the Arab words a French slant. The English, in doing business with the French, also came to adopt both these new words and goods. With new, improved commercial vessels able to travel further than ever before the language expanded greatly. It was also becoming more international though it would be a long while before it could compete successfully with French and Latin.
There still wasn’t a dictionary for English that everyone could agree on. Even the name Shakespeare wasn’t always spelt the same way so spelling was also problematical. Even with the printing press coming into use in England in the 15th Century, the issue of how to spell the most common of English words had not been resolved and was still to be resolved centuries later in Shakespeare’s day. From the 15th Century to well into the 17th Century a word in print might be spelt several ways in the same document and retain the same meaning. This, of course, was confusing to anyone attempting to read English.
When Englishmen first set sail to colonize parts of America there wasn’t a dictionary that encompassed the entire English speaking population so the style of English that went with the colonizers was the style the colonizers had grown up with. By the time there was a definitive English dictionary celebrated in England, time and distance meant that it could no longer be definitive for the people of English descent living in America. Then there was the War of Independence and the United States of America became a separate entity from the British Empire. Even so, the Constitution of the United States is written in concise and precise English that every Englishman and American to this day can understand. In this regard, it is a testimony to the strengths of the language and its general robust nature.
In places like Boston there were attempts to keep the emerging American version of the English language pure. As in England, such attempts were doomed to failure.
The USA expanded and, with every new territory and then state added to the union, came new ideas and new words. How, for example, can you keep Spanish out of the language when California and New Mexico are part of the USA? How can you lock the door on further French influence when cities such as New Orleans are in the country and you have some French influence floating down the Hudson from Canada, your northern neighbour? Was the adoption of foreign words into the language democracy in action? There were those who would make this argument. It was certainly made in England in the 19th Century when English scholars were examining their language.
Some of the words that came from Spanish into English from the cattle trade are rodeo, lasso and hacienda. I believe Mustang is also Spanish. The guitar has its origins in Spain. San Francisco is a city named after a Spanish saint. Los Angeles is Spanish and has the meaning of city of Angels. Did the Spanish language add a certain type of richness to the American version of English? I would say so.
There had to be a definitive dictionary for the USA. It came out of a small blue book written by Webster in the 19th Century that could be purchased cheaply by anyone in the USA. Earlier attempts had been made but it was Webster who had the right handle on what the USA was about and what would work best in the USA. As the work expanded, certain areas of English were modernized to make the written language more palatable for everyone. Colour, for example, became color. Defence became defense. Centre became center. Gaol became jail. It was very much a case of making the written language more phonetic. This of course was not always easy or even possible. For example, in Davy Crockett’s part of the USA, thanks to Scottish and perhaps German influence, the word bear is actually pronounced bar. Compromises then had to be made.
Also words used by Americans could have a different meaning to the way they were used in England. Store, for example, was similar in meaning to warehouse to the English. In the USA store came to mean shop. Today, in Australia, you can use either the word shop or store to mean basically the same thing.
The gold rush and the push west in the 19th Century added lots of words to American English. Red-neck, for example, originally meant the migrants who could not afford passage on riverboats and so traveled by raft. They got red necks because they didn’t have much protection from the sun and, when they turned to farming, they got red necks in the fields they ploughed as well. ‘Slap leather’ was a call to fight a duel with guns. ‘Honest Injun’ as well as ‘you speak with forked tongue’ either came directly out of the west or the eastern chap books connected with the west. ‘Get along little doggie’ came from the cattle trade. Cowboys were once nothing more than common workers but all that was changed with eastern publications and then Hollywood cinematography. Stories about gunfighters like Billie the Kid and Wyatt Earp also had their influence on the language. Slowly but surely Native American words also made it into American English. There were words such as wampum and wigwam.
By the end of the 19th Century, new ways of working with steel were developed in the USA. This led to buildings being constructed. first in Chicago and then in New York. that could literally scrape the sky. Yes, the skyscraper (an American term) was born. From the mid-19th Century onwards there was a great influx of migrants from Europe into the USA. There was the Irish escaping famine. There were European Jews fleeing persecution from countries such as Russia. There were also the Italians and the Chinese.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865) there were Irish migrants in American army uniforms. Some fought for the north and others for the south. At times a regiment made up of Irish in blue would be lined up against a regiment of Irish in gray. Regardless, the Irish whether protestant or Catholic (both came to the USA) have had a great influence on American life, on the American belief in liberty and justice and on the language.
In 1917 an American writer of Irish Catholic descent by the name of George M. Cohan wrote a song called ‘Over There’. It is an inspirational piece known the world over. It was sung in both World Wars and is why many people throughout the world still prefer to refer to Americans as Yanks.
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware –
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.
As for the Jewish migrants that settled in the USA, their influence on the language and those of their descendants has been most profound. Entertainers such as the Marx Brothers brought a form of craziness and also a form of sophistication in comedy to first the stage and then the screen. The actor who first played Spock in Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, is of a Jewish American background. The Vulcan salute that comes with the words ‘Live long and prosper’ comes out of his Jewish this background. When people think of peace they often think of that Vulcan salute with the thought that it is only logical to do so. Other Jewish Americas include Jerry Lewis, Barbara Streisand and Jack Benny (In his career he pretended to be a skinflint but in real life he was a very kind and generous fellow). Here perhaps I should note that skinflint is a purely American term.
The Italians that settled in the USA certainly did their bit to transform the language. They possibly began with the American diet. The introduced the word pizza and also the food. I don’t know why but New Yorkers have this tendency to call a piazza a piazza pie. Throughout Australia, where there has also been Italian influence, we just call a piazza a piazza. Where does pie come into the equation? I have no idea. In any event, there were forms of Italian coffee such as espresso and cappuccino that became popular and whose names were added to the American dictionary. Famous Italian Americans include Liza Minnelli and Jimmy Durante who is better known as Shnozzles Durante because of his big shnozzola (nose). Possibly his most famous line was: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It was the Chinese migrants that often did the dirty and dangerous jobs in the building of the American railway system in the 19th Century. Chinese style food came with the Chinese and so did Chinese names such as Chow Mein for it. Chinese fireworks came to be used for America’s Fourth of July celebrations.
In the 20th Century, thanks to radio and movies then television, both American and British style English have expanded their influence and, as a consequence, been influenced by the rest of the world. New technical terms have also arisen for new technical devices. Meanwhile, old terms have been put to new use. The term computer was around before the 20th Century but our ideas of what a computer is and what it is capable of doing have grown enormously. Laptop is very much a late 20th Century and early 21st Century term referring to something that didn’t exist in previous centuries. The space race with the Russians in the 20th Century brought about a revolution is thought and in word usage. Many people use aluminium or what the Americans call aluminum cookware. Non-stick pans came out of NASA experimentation.
In Australia there has been continual influence, both English and American, upon the Australian version of the English language. As with the USA, the separation in time and space from England also meant that Australians would and, indeed, did develop their own style of English.
Back in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, London cockney could be heard in the streets of Sydney along with the rhyming slang familiar to Londoners. Example: Apple and pears, stairs, trouble and strife, wife. A man might say that he’s going up the apples and pears and those in the know would take it he was about to go up the stairs. A man might say I’m having lunch with my trouble and strife and those in the know would take it he was going to have lunch with his wife. By the 1920s, however, cockney and rhyming slang was considered old fashioned and was on the way out. Hence when you have an American playing the role of an Australian in a show like MASH, which is set in the 1950s,it is somewhat laughable when the fellow comes out with this very English but no longer very Australian cockney accent.
Terms common in Australia but perhaps not common elsewhere are Bloke (man), Sheila (woman), Mate (friend), Cobber (friend you work with) and Bludger (someone who relies on other people to do the work ). Words that had to be added to describe animals not found elsewhere in the world include emu, koala and platypus. These words come from the Aborigines, the Native Australians. In Australia a ranch is a station and a cowboy is a jackaroo. A cowgirl, incidentally, is a jillaroo. Someone from England is still often referred to as a Pommy. Australia has its own dictionary, the Macquarie dictionary.
My grandfather was born in England and as a young man came to Queensland, Australia. He got a job on a cattle station as a jackaroo. He may in fact have been the Pommy Jackaroo of legend. In any event, when the First World War broke out, he had the choice of going back home to join up or going with his mates. He ended up joining the Australian light horse. It should be noted that the only successful cavalry charge I know of during the First World War was made by the Australian light horse at Bathsheba.
The term Pommy I believe is an old cricket term and in my mind has always been connected with the Ashes. The Ashes has quite a history. It was once theorized by an English critic that if ever an Australian team of cricketers beat a British team it would spell the death of cricket. When this did happen there was an obituary for Cricket in an English newspaper and the leader of the British team burnt part of the equipment used in the game and put the ashes in a little funeral urn. We’re been playing against the British ever since for these ashes.
The idea of fair play is very much entrenched in the game of cricket to the extent where one can say ‘it’s not cricket’ to mean that something is unfair.
There is the theory that, because of television and computers, English throughout the world will become more and more standardized. This may happen and indeed it could be happening but I can’t see such a thing being completed in the near future.
The term Cook’s tour came about in the 19th Century but works today in referring to travel that is somewhat short and limited. Obviously, I could go into a lot more detail about the English language and how it has developed and is developing in various countries. I could write several books and not tell the complete story because, truth to tell, such a project will never be complete until the language dies and I can’t see that happening in the near future. No doubt there will be future efforts to purify to language which will inevitably fail. I hope you have enjoyed the read.