English had a bit of a hard time in its infancy. Nobody took much notice of it at first. It was ignored and rather like Cinderella never got invited to the ball. People tended to pooh-pooh it, look down on it and generally laugh at it behind its back. It became the language of the disgruntled and was particularly good at grumbling and complaining while its superiors carried on conversing in their sophisticated languages. No one would dare suggest it could ever reach the dizzy heights of culture and literature. The very idea of it was too shocking to think of. Write a book, a poem, an epic in English, they would say whatever next? It was round about then it started to turn into what you might call a word magpie. The magpie is the bird that has a reputation for being a scavenger, picking up what others have left behind. It is attracted to shiny, sparkling objects and has even had an opera named after it. It was Rossini who wrote "The thieving Magpie" that tells the story starting with a gentle romance that leads to a young servant girl being condemned to death when she is accused of stealing silver, whereas it is the evil magpie which has appropriated it to line its nest.
Around the 9th century the Danes just couldn't stop invading England. The average Danish warrior feeling at a loose end with nothing particular to do one day would gather his fellow warriors together and they'd all put on their favourite head gear the famous horned helmets. These served a dual purpose. They would protect your head and if your enemy proved to be a bit obstinate and wouldn't lie down and call it a day, then the sight of the horns would invariably convince him to surrender. So there they all are not knowing what to do when one of them calls out: "Let's invade England!" Off they went and did just that. They stayed various lengths of time, conquered different areas and in the course of their sojourn not infrequently dropped a few Danish words here and there. Now English has always been a bit sniffy (particularly fussy) about foreign words and has tended to reject some of the words and only choose those having a certain charm and allure. It then, as English still does in the 21century, proceeded to anglicise these words trying to give the impression it was English anyway. But all that was going to change thanks to King Alfred who ruled from 871 899. He defeated the Danes and set about restoring the English language, encouraged education for the majority and even had time to dash off a few poems and translations himself. English now seemed set fair to go from strength to strength and Harold, who followed, continued the good work. But in 1066 William of Normandy from France defeated Harold and our poor exhausted magpie found itself bombarded by a host of French words. True to form it refused to be overwhelmed and set about anglicising as many French words as possible while at the same time keeping a low profile so as not to upset the Norman French... But we must move on as English starts a new adventure in the New World of North America.
Let me now introduce you to one of the most colourful figures in English history, Walter Raleigh (1582-1618), a favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1st. He was well connected socially, well educated and above all else a charmer. The story goes that once when he saw the Queen approaching a puddle on her path, he whipped off his cloak for her to walk on so that the royal toes should not get wet. But apart from all the charm, he was also a great traveller and it was he who sponsored the first English colony on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina) in 1585. Unfortunately this failed and so did a further attempt at colonisation in 1587. By now of course English was on the move gaining new words and expanding its outlook since many additional words were being absorbed to describe the animals, the terrain and the instruments used in agriculture in distant parts of the world. Although Walter was the Queen's number one boy, her successor, James 6th of Scotland was not so favourably disposed towards him and sentenced him to death in 1618 because he had become too greedy and was attacking the Spanish against the king's wishes while he was searching for El-Dorado, the mythical "Golden Land" in what is now Venezuela.
In 1607 the colony of Virginia is eventually founded as the first permanent English settlement in North America. And it is Virginia that becomes one of the main areas for the arrival of enslaved Africans. English was now having a field day absorbing new words from all parts of the world. It is well said that travel broadens the mind. But it is religion that then became the spur for more English to leave for the New World. A group calling themselves Puritans because they could not worship as they wished believing indeed that England was un-Godly and daily becoming worse, wanted to escape. Some other Europeans who felt the same had fled to Holland and that contingent wanted to join the English dissidents, the Puritans with a view to setting sail together for North America. The Dutch party used a boat called Speedwell (an unfortunate name as it turned out) to come to England and join with our Puritan lot who intended to travel in a boat called the Mayflower. The two ships left Southampton on the south coast of England. A few days into the journey the Speedwell started to leak. Both captains turned back for repairs. Two weeks later off they go again and guess what the poor old Speedwell acquires a few more holes and this time they both stop at Plymouth, a port in the southwest of England. I hope you're keeping up with the geography of all this! Clearly the Speedwell was for the scrap head and was abandoned. At long last on September 16th 1620 the Mayflower set out for America from Plymouth with the famous group now known as the Pilgrim Fathers. Not all the passengers from the Speedwell could be accommodated on the Mayflower and about 20 were abandoned in Plymouth. Thanks to all the delays winter was on its way and the ship ran into bad storms but eventually it reached Cape Cod and the new arrivals then made their way to what was to be called Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts on December 21st, 1620. No doubt during that long uncomfortable voyage our magpie picked up a few Dutch words and horded them in its treasure box. There was no stopping English now. As the years sped by, it made its way to Australia, New Zealand and India, enriching itself as it travelled.
After the time of the Pilgrim Fathers the two forms of British and American English began to take different routes not only in the use of words but above all in the spelling. Two lexicographers stand out as representatives of their two countries: Samuel Johnson (1709-1804) and Noah Webster (1758-1843). Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 (40,000 definitions) and Webster the American Dictionary of the English Language (70,000 definitions) in 1828. Johnson was accused by Webster of concentrating too much on what he called "low level language" which he considered "unfit for human company" but it was Webster who simplified the spelling while even today children in the UK still struggle at school to come to terms with the vagaries of the spelling of British English. At the same time, despite the divergences it really cannot be denied that a speaker of Standard British English can easily understand what a speaker of General American is saying and vice versa, the other way round.
And finally, a statistic: throughout this world of ours some 400 million people use English as their first language. And when you come to think about it, by any standards that's not a bad achievement for one small magpie, is it?
I'm sure you liked Alan's essay and as usual we look forward to hearing your feedback regarding the newsletter here on the forum