I recently mentioned I was working my way through all the Agatha Christie novels. I don’t read a lot of books set in the 1910s and 1920s. It was an important era, but just not one of my favorites. I read classics much older and newer pop novels, those are where my reading interests lean. I haven’t been physically reading them, but listening to the audiobooks. And the audiobooks make me more aware of the linguistics of the era.
For example, a common phrase at the time was “my girl,” but the stress on that phrase makes it sound very unlike “my girl” from the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t know that I can verbally explain it, but essentially the stress is not on “my” as it is in for example the song by the Temptations. As a matter of fact, after much pondering on it, I’m not sure there is any stress within the short two word phrase, which may explain why it sounds so odd to my ears every time it is said. Also, it is said as if it were one word, another factor in the sound
After all the Miss Marple books, 4 Hercule Poirot books, and 2 stand alone novels by Agatha Christie, I have decided I really like the phrase and it should make a comeback. This means my best friend may have to suffer a bit with me calling her “my girl.”
Anyway, the point is literature is an amazing look at linguistics for a time period. Modern pop novels (which is essentially what Christie wrote) will no doubt provide words like “sick” – meaning awesome or terrible – and “bae.”
It isn’t just dependent on the words and phrases, but how they are said, like the example I started this post with. And it’s about regional differences, while “my girl” was popular in the 1910s and 1920s in England it was not common in the US, Canada, or Australia among English speakers. But was common in France, spoken in both English and French among a predominantly French speaking population.
Before you give yourself a headache considering why it was popular in France but not in other English speaking countries, it’s about location. Despite the existence of a water barrier between England and France, the two countries are only separated by 23 miles. It was much easier for Brits to holiday in northern France after WWI than in any of the English speaking countries mentioned. And so French speakers picked up English slang, just as Brits picked up French slang. We see this happen in more modern times as well. I was surprised when I learned that Germans swear in English more than German because it is considered less rude. But historically speaking, it makes sense. With the occupation of Germany by the Allied Powers after WWII, Germans were in contact with numerous English speakers (Brits, Canadians, Americans, even Australians to a lesser degree) all resided within the borders of Germany. BAOR and Ramstein Air Force Base still bring thousands of English speakers into Germany. As a matter of Fact BAOR (which is an acronym not a name) is the largest British military base outside of UK borders and Ramstein is still strategically important to the US Air Force.