From the first settlers to the New World, English speakers have absorbed myriad influences modern anxieties say a lot about our times, says historian and author Rebecca Rideal
Thats what this nation has been built on, proud men. Proud fucking warriors! shouts Combo in one of the most well-known scenes from This Is England. What Combo would have thought of the recent report that the language of his beloved nation was becoming increasingly Americanised we can only imagine. But very few things have engendered as much debate as the language we speak from Jonathan Swifts concerns in 1712 that English would fall from use like Latin, and Samuel Johnsons attempt in the mid-18th century to preserve the purity of the English language, to fresh claims that the state of innocence in which British English once existed has been corrupted by Americanisms. Perhaps we need to ask two questions: 1) What do modern anxieties about the English language say about us? 2) What does it mean to be English today?
The linguist David Crystal has argued that any pride taken in a native language may be tinged with concern when you realise that other countries may not want to use the language in the same way. The truth is, the English language is not fixed and has undergone myriad changes over the centuries; absorbing words, phrases and spellings from all over the globe. Numerous dialects and regional peculiarities mean a linear view of its history is imperfect. Nevertheless, roughly speaking, there have been four key linguistic shifts: old English from the 5th century (Beowulf); Norman-influenced middle English from the 11th century (Chaucer); early modern English from the 15th century (King James bible/Shakespeare); and the emergence of modern English towards the end of the 17th century.
It was early modern English that the first English settlers to the New World carried with them a language on a course to uniformity thanks the print revolution, but still containing words written in multiple ways, often phonetic and idiosyncratic (there are plenty of examples of theater and favorite in the archive). Some of these words and phrases seem distinctly American to us today. Fall is perhaps the most obvious example; a word that was originally used in England in addition to autumn.
Obviously, over the centuries new words have emerged and American English has become a distinct branch of the language (like Australian, South African and Jamaican). Vocabulary aside, the linguist Gretchen McCulloch has argued that, in 1776, both Patriots and the Redcoats spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queens English. This is because, during the mid-to-late 18th century, the middle and upper classes in London and the south-east of England began to speak in a non-rhotic manner (not pronouncing the letter R). The result was a way of speaking which was distinct from American and grew to be known as received pronunciation. While many areas in England held on to their rhotic origins, received pronunciation came to be seen as the ideal English accent; even spreading into Wales and Scotland. Today, its estimated that only 3% of the population use it, but the influence of TV, radio, film and our fading class system means it still looms large.
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