English is a funny language. Take American and British English. Totally different spellings, word choices, phrasing and styles.
Yet we can all understand each other perfectly. Everybody knows what the word ‘twerk’ means, for instance, especially this week (I had to look it up, but hey…)
Here in New Zealand we use British English, but American English is creeping in, partly through teenagers who seem to absorb it off TV, partly through the way Microsoft Office default installs and auto-corrects to the US dictionary.
Well, when I say ‘creeping in’, I should say ‘creeping back in’. In the mid-nineteenth century, frontier Americanisms were all the rage. When Samuel Butler spilled off the ship into Lyttleton in the 1850s he discovered local settlers spoke in an American-infused patois very different from what he was used to at Oxford.
The form of the language, he decided, was British English, but the words and spellings were not. Frontier New Zealand had its druggists – not chemists – people went to the ‘store’ – not the shop – and spellings followed – ‘honor’, ‘clamor’ and so on. All of which have been frozen for historians into documents and photographs.
As far as I can tell, it came from American whalers who had been working the New Zealand coasts for a generation by then. But the US frontier inspired in more ways than just language; the look and feel of any New Zealand settler towns with their clap-board fronted buildings and limed streets was exactly that of the US frontier, and businessmen looked across the Pacific for inspiration.
It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century, when New Zealand began a renewed love-affair with the mother country, that things began to change, and spellings became British English. Until recently, anyway. It’s interesting how times change.
Veering into mildly shameless plug territory, if you’re interested in more about New Zealand’s colonial age, my latest book, the Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, is available in good New Zealand bookstores and internationally from the publisher’s web-shop.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Note: My regular weekend ‘Sixty second writing tips’ and ‘Write It Now’ series return in a few weeks – all new, all shiny (etc). Watch this space.