Tag Archives: Dialect

John Smith, Pocahontas, and the beginnings of American English

A detail of a window panel at St Helena's Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A detail of a window panel at St Helena’s Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Willoughby, Lincolnshire is a village a few miles inland from the North Sea.

It’s also the birthplace of adventurer John Smith. Smith was baptized in the village church, St Helena’s.

The church dates back to the 14th century. There have been several additions in the past few decades — gifts from various American organizations.

There are a series of stained glass windows as well as plaque and other items. Together they depict John Smith’s life: His arrival on American shores, the settlement in Jamestown that he governed, which began the expansion overseas of the English-speaking peoples; and his encounter with the native American, Pocahontas.

There are other scenes that are less known to Americans: Smith’s schooling days, his training as a soldier, his fighting days in Europe. Most of what we know comes from Smith himself, who wrote several books about his adventures.

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena's Church in Willougby, Britain  (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena’s Church in Willougby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

There was the time he was captured in what is today Turkey.

“He became a slave, and eventually he killed his slave-master, nicked his clothes, nicked his horse and rode back to England one way or another,” says Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St. Helena’s church in Willoughby.

But it wasn’t all breathless action. Smith was a great communicator too.

“He would have learned several languages along the way, going up into the Turks, going through France,” says Robinson. “And so when he got to America, to him it was important to learn the local language, and that saved him several times probably.”

The word “probably” is a useful one when it comes to Smith.

We can’t verify much of what he wrote. And most historians find his memoirs unreliable.

There is, for example, an episode in Turkey in which a girl saves Smith’s life by pleading with his captor, just as Pocahontas did a few years later.

All of which has given the likes of Disney a conveniently free hand. Their two animated films about Pocahontas are largely fiction. There is still plenty of debate about just about every aspect of Pocahontas’ life.

What is clear, is that the settlers and local met, traded and taught each other words from their languages.

British linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, says it took surprisingly little time before the settlers incorporated local words into their vocabulary.

“It only takes a few weeks before the first signs of this new dialect of English starts to emerge in the letters that these mariners sent home to their families, says Crystal. “Words like skunk, wigwam or moccasin.”

Words are one thing, but what about an accent? Surely, settlers born in England wouldn’t speak differently after just a few years in Jamestown?

“It does take longer for a community accent to evolve, but not that long,” says Crystal. “Already in the 1620s and 30s, American settlers coming back to England were being commented on for their accent — people were saying, ‘What a strange way of talking you’ve got.’ Within a generation, enough had changed for it to be a noticeably different way of talking.”

A few contemporary accounts tell us this. But we don’t know for sure what British accents sounded like then, and how American accents may have diverged from them.

Stained glass windows in St Helena's Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith's life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans.   (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Stained glass windows in St Helena’s Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith’s life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In St. Helena’s church in Willoughby, some of the most basic questions about John Smith are unanswered. Like, when he was baptized.

“If you look at the register, and you look at the window and you look at the plaque, that’s three different actual dates when he was baptised,” says the retired rector Robinson.

A good reminder, if one were needed, that we can be certain of very little when it comes to John Smith, and Pocahontas.

What we can say is that Smith’s arrival in America was a big moment for English. Not that anyone knew it then, but in leaping from a small island to a huge continent, English had gone global, or started to.

The language was in an early stage of reinventing itself with new words, phrases and spellings — something it repeated in places like Australia, India and Africa, creating not one, but many Englishes. Something it’s still doing today.


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No room for African or Indian languages in Disney’s multilingual version of ‘Let It Go’

Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

Disney has released a version of the Oscar-nominated song “Let it Go” from the animated movie Frozen that includes lyrics sung in 25 languages. It sounds global and inclusive, but most of the languages are European.

This is the Epcot World Showcase of songs: a trip around the linguistic world — or at least the one according to Disney.

The song opens with a line in English, followed by French, German and Dutch. That sets the tone.

Seventeen of the languages are European, including some that are not exactly widely spoken — Catalan, for example, and the dialect of Dutch spoken by the Flemish of Belgium. Regular Dutch is also included, as well as Serbian (but not Croatian), Bulgarian and many more.

Danish is represented too — appropriately enough, given that “Frozen” is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

From Asia, there’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai. And from the Americas, Latin American Spanish and Canadian French. (Interestingly, there is no Brazilian Portuguese, or for that matter, British English.)

From Africa there’s … nothing. Not one language. The same goes for South Asia. Between them, these two regions acccount for for more than 3,000 of the world’s languages.

I contacted Disney to ask why they ignored such a huge part of the world. But no one returned my calls and emails. (One Disney representative did say to me as she connected me to a colleague’s voicemail, “Thank you, Sir. And you have a magical day.”)

Disney, of course, has long been criticized for its preference for white-skinned heroines. Before the release of “Frozen,” a Tumblr called This Could Have Been Frozen re-imagined Elsa the Snow Queen as black, Tibetan, Mongolan, Iniut and other ethnicities.

Given that dissatisfaction, the release of this song seems like a missed opportunity. It wouldn’t have taken much to have had “Let it Go” recorded in say, Zulu or Yoruba, and included in the multilingual mash-up.

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    Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the ‘common tongue’

    At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island's bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

    At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island’s bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

    Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

    It has four tones, strange ‘measure words’ and thousands of characters to memorize. So for English-speakers, Mandarin can be an especially difficult language to tackle.

    But here’s some more bad news. Even if you become fluent, you may not be able to communicate with nearly a third of the people living in China.

    State media recently reported that more than 400 million Chinese are unable to speak Mandarin—the national language—while millions more speak it poorly.

    Instead, they rely on regional dialects—some call them separate languages—that are so far apart, they’re mutually unintelligible. Even Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, spoke with such a pronounced regional accent that many Chinese had a hard time understanding him.

    A long trip, linguistically

    Today, non-Mandarin speakers tend to be older Chinese from rural areas, like the island of Chongming. It’s just 45 minutes by bus from the center of Shanghai, but linguistically it’s a much longer trip.

    “Like eating, eating the dinner. In Mandarin we call it ‘chi fan,’ but in Chongming language we call it ‘chibie’,” said Gu Hangyu, a student from Chongming.

    Gu’s grandmother, Wang Yufang, is one of the millions of Chinese who doesn’t speak Mandarin. As a farmer, her life has been hard. Corncobs fuel her stove, and handpicked cotton fills her comforter. In winter, she heats her home with the energy from a car battery.

    With her grandson translating, Wang said she doesn’t speak Mandarin, and has no need to. All her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, and so do the vegetable vendors in the market.

    But Gu is less matter-of-fact. He’s worried his native dialect might fade. He also noted that some city dwellers look down on new arrivals if they speak with thick regional accents.

    “I have a special feeling towards my native language,” he said. “I’m proud of Chongming. It’s a beautiful town. The people are friendly… the air is fresh, the water is clean.”

    Dialects or Languages?

    You Ruijie, a linguist at Fudan University, said dialects spoken widely in commercial hubs like Shanghai will likely survive for generations. Others are on their way out.

    “I think some dialects, especially the small dialects, could disappear in the near future,” he said.

    It’s a testament to today’s mobility and migration in China that You’s family speaks four dialects. Yet his son and his parents don’t have a single dialect in common. It’s a linguistic leap that’s not uncommon here.

    You says for all intents and purposes, China’s 10 or so dialect groups should be treated as completely separate languages. He says: think of the difference between Italian and Spanish. At the same time, many Chinese minorities have their own languages, like Uyghur, Mongolian and Tibetan.

    This adds another degree of complexity, especially for visitors. If you want to buy a necklace in Xinjiang in the west, or a cellphone in parts of Southern China, you might get further in English than in Mandarin.

    Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

    Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

    Wang Yufang and her grandson, Gu Hangyu, at her home on Chongming Island, near Shanghai. Gu says when he has a family, he'd like his son or daughter to speak his native Chongming dialect. Many young Chinese do not speak their grandparents' dialects.

    On Chongming Island, Gu’s grandmother says she has no plans to take up Mandarin herself.

    “She says it’s hard for older people like her to study Mandarin. It’s useless for them. But it’s useful for young people like me,” Gu said.

    At 68, she added, she’s confident the Chongming dialect will outlast her. And if it is lost and she’s still alive, at that time, she said, “I will leave the world.”

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    UK English Blown to US Shores, ‘Like Some Exotic Seed’

    Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)

    Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)


    For decades, Brits have complained about American contamination of British English. More recently, the reverse has been taking place: British expressions are elbowing their way into American speech. So far, Americans don’t seem to mind.

    Listen above for a conversation with two people who closely follow these lexical exchanges: Lynne Murphy at the University of Sussex and author of the Separated by a Common Language blog; and Ben Yagoda at the University of Delaware and author of the Not One-Off Britishisms blog.

    Other posts:



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    Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

    Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

    There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

    Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

    Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

    Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

    We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

    Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

    Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

    Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

    Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

    They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

    Listen via iTunes or here.


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    Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist

    A conversation with University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy. An American in Britain, Murphy maintains the Separated by a Common Language blog, where she goes by the moniker Lynneguist.

    Murphy’s accent is soft, but that doesn’t stop Brits from mocking it and labeling it twangy. If she has a twang, then the guitarist in the painting is Dolly Parton.

    Among the many observations noted in her blog, Murphy has seen British English lose some of its status among Americans. We talk about that, along with the changing accent patterns in Britain surrounding social class, and pronunciation of the word water.

    Listen via iTunes or here.

    Photos: Wikicommons


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    Dictators with dialects, finger spelling, and universal Inuit

    Dialects are beautiful, ugly, inevitable, unhelpful, and of course, languages without armies.

    Dialects are widespread– they exist in most languages. Millions, perhaps billions of people speak them. Some, like many Chinese, speak a regional dialect at home, and a standard form of the language in public settings.  And then there all those dictators who grew up speaking dialects. As a boy, Napoleon spoke Italian and Corsu — the home language/Italian dialect of the island of Corsica. The future Emperor of the French didn’t learn French until later. Hitler spoke an Austrian-inflected German. For his part, Gaddafi speaks a version of Arabic that isn’t widely understood, even within Libya. He comes from a Bedouin minority, which is reflected in his language.  This may amplify his otherworldlyness. More on all of that here.

    Many languages began life as a series of dialects, which over time– and with the encouragement of a nation state– morphed in something with standardized vocabulary and grammar (Robert Lane Greene writes about this in his new book, You Are What You Speak).

    In Arctic Canada, there’s an effort underway to standardize Inuit languages (or dialects if you prefer). It’s being organized by the Inuit language authority in Nunavut, the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit. Unlike the United States, Canada is chock-full of the institutions that make up a national language policy:  a bilingual federal government, provincial and territorial language commissioners and any number of panels that try to push the country’s languages in certain set directions.

    In this case, the hope is to unite the Inuit people, spread out over thousands of miles, through a standardized language.  Inuits have had writing systems imposed on their languages, mainly by missionaries. According to this article, which cites Statistics Canada, the more popular writing system today is a syllabic one. A lesser-used alternative is the roman system. Many hours, days and years of debate will now ensue, as to which writing system to favor.

    Carol and I discuss these questions of dialect and language in the podcast. We also take a stab at the following questions (with much help from the linked sources): Does Japanese have a word for looting? Is finger spelling a language, or perhaps a dialect of sorts of British sign language? Is the language of cartoons necessarily harsh? The cartoon discussion was brought on by an exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum. It’s about depictions of marriage over the years, to coincide with Britain’s royal wedding. There’s a nice slideshow here.

    Listen here or below via iTunes.


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