The Adventure of English (2003) ITV

Episode 5: English in America

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Video Description

Upon landing in North America, settlers encountered Squanto, a native man who had been captured and brought to England to learn English and become a guide. After escaping, Squanto returned to his tribe, which happened to live near the place that the English settlers had created their small village. Among shockingly few other words, the settlers adopted "skunk" and "squash" into their vocabulary from the local language, making clear that they meant to impose their own culture, rather than adopt any other.

English began to change, not only in meaning, with "shops" becoming "stores," but also with the variety of accents becoming considerably less in number than in England. In the last 18th and early 19th centuries, Noah Webster wrote what was known as the American Spelling Book, or the Blue Backed Speller, which would become one of the most influential books in the history of the English language, Webster's Dictionary. This dictionary created simpler spellings, eliminating the "u" in words like "colour" and "honour," reducing "axe" to "ax" and reducing double letters to single ones, like in the word "traveller," now spelt "traveler" in the United States. Words with "re" endings became "er," and other spellings changed include "defence," which became "defense." Interestingly, some words that England had dropped were kept in by Americans, such as "deft," "scant," "talented," "likely" and "fall" instead of the newer "autumn."

Two-thousand words were created in journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition toward the West, including "rapids," which came from the adjective "rapid." New words to the English language, such as "hickory," "moose," "pecan" and "toboggan" are derived from Indigenous languages. "There are hundreds of names made by combining existing English words," states Bragg, such as "black bear," "bullfrog," "blue jay" and "rednecks," who got their name from the sunburned necks they got from working in the fields. Rednecks couldn't afford steamboat fare, they travelled the water on rafts, using paddles called riffs, and they became known as the "riffraff."

Alcohol also added a great deal of words to the English language, "bootlegging" referred to hiding a flat bottle of alcohol in the leg of a boot. "And there were literally hundreds of terms from drunk," says Bragg. "Benjamin Franklin listed 229 of them minted in America, including... 'He's wamble-cropped,' 'He's halfway to concord,' 'He's ate a toad and a half for breakfast,' 'He's groatable,' 'He's globular,' [and] 'He's loose in the hilts.'"

Irish settlers brought words like "smithereens," "speakeasy," "Yes, indeedy" and "No, sirree."

Joseph McCoy had the idea to drive his cattle to trains and sell them to the Eastern states, creating a new meaning for the word "cowboy," and he made a lot of money in the process. Because of this, travellers would sometimes introduce themselves with his name, and in turn, he began to introduce himself as "the real McCoy."
The Gullah language is a mixture of English and other languages that is thought to be the closest to the one that slaves, brought over from various countries in West Africa and the Caribbean, spoke in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Words like "banana," "zebra," "gorilla," "samba" and "banjo" were incorporated into English from the slaves living on plantations. The stripped-down grammar used in variations of English, like Gullah, is common when different languages come together. However, slave-owners took this to mean that they had lesser intelligence, when in reality their slaves were ultimately contributing words to the English language.

Documentary Description

The Adventure of English is a British television series (ITV) on the history of the English language presented by Melvyn Bragg as well as a companion book, also written by Bragg. The series ran in 2003.

The series and the book are cast as an adventure story, or the biography of English as if it were a living being, covering the history of the language from its modest beginnings around 500 AD as a minor Germanic dialect to its rise as a truly established global language.

In the television series, Bragg explains the origins and spelling of many words based on the times in which they were introduced into the growing language that would eventually become modern English.

Melvyn Bragg travels through Britain to tell the story of how an insignificant German dialect, which only arrived in the country in the fifth century, evolved into a language which is now spoken and understood by more people than any other around the world. We trace English from its humble roots to its flowering in the writing of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

English is a global language. Every day, in cities all around the world, English is used in encounters between people of different countries. It is estimated that well over a thousand million people around the world speak, or have a working understanding of, English.

This is its story. It's a story that really reads like an adventure of extraordinary survival, invasion, near extinction on more than one occasion, and astonishing flexibility.

Episode Listing

1. Birth of a Language
2. English Goes Underground
3. The Battle for the Language of the Bible
4. This Earth, This Realm, This England
5. English in America
6. Speaking Proper
7. The Language of Empire
8. Many Tongues Called English, One World Language

Rated: PG
Duration: 416 mins.
Released: 2007


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