It was 50 years ago today

Posted by on October 04, 2012

In our corpus, the expression ‘the sixties’ occurs over twice as often as ‘the fifties’ or ‘the nineties’ (the seventies and eighties are somewhere in between, but still nowhere near as frequent as the sixties). Why do people talk about the 1960s more than any other decade? One reason is the phenomenon of the Beatles, whose first single was released exactly fifty years ago, on October 5th, 1962.

The Beatles’ influence on music and popular culture is well-known, but this is a good moment to reflect on their impact on the English language. Up to this point, pop music in Britain mostly copied the music coming out of the U.S., whose dominance of popular culture was taken for granted. British bands sang American songs, using American words, in an American accent. All this changed with the Beatles. As the linguist Harold Somers points out, the band gradually developed their own distinctively British idiom, and ‘embedded references to British locations and customs, or used language patterns that seem a little strange to Americans’. Somers has produced a fascinating guide to Briticisms in Beatles’ lyrics, which include both cultural references, such as the National Health Service (from ‘Dr Robert’) or the News of the World (‘Polythene Pam’), and British English vocabulary like ‘ring my friend’ (‘Dr Robert’ again: Americans would say call), ‘time for tea’ (‘Good Morning, Good Morning’: see sense 3 here), and dressing gown (‘She’s Leaving Home’ – it’s a bathrobe in American English). Not to mention those plasticine porters in ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ – the American equivalent Play-Doh doesn’t quite work here.

For the first time it became acceptable for pop music to have a British accent. And not just a British accent, but a Liverpudlian one. In the early sixties, it was still unusual to hear non-RP accents on British TV or radio, and one side-effect of the Beatles’ success was that regional and working-class accents suddenly became ‘cool’ – Michael Caine’s cockney is another example.  As Hanif Kureishi notes

By 1966 the Beatles behaved as if they spoke directly to the whole world. This was not a mistake: they were at the centre of life for millions of young people in the West.*

As evidence of this, when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, it was estimated that almost half the U.S. population was watching. It was the beginning of the so-called ‘British invasion‘.

This had consequences in the field of language learning: young people all over the world were listening to English songs, and when they started their own bands and wrote their own songs, they overwhelmingly used English too. Fortunately, you didn’t need a huge vocabulary to understand the Beatles’ early output: as the titles suggest, songs like Please Please Me, From Me To You, She Loves You, and the one that came out 50 years ago, Love Me Do, use incredibly simple language. In a (highly recommended) corpus analysis of nine Beatles albums released between 1964 and 1970**, Guy Cook and Neil Mercer demonstrate that ‘the later songs use a much wider range of vocabulary’. On A Hard Day’s Night, for example, the songs contain a total of 2004 words, but since many of these occur more than once, there are only 420 different words on the whole album. But just three years later Sgt Pepper, with an only slightly higher word count (2257), includes 743 distinct words. Taken together with the fact that words like ‘you’ and ‘love’ appear progressively less often, this ‘reflects the fact that the writers were dealing with more varied topics’ and writing fewer straightforward ‘boy meets girl’ love songs.

But although the band became more sophisticated over time, both musically and in their use of language, the lyrics on even the later albums aren’t too challenging. From a brilliant infographic entitled ‘The Language of the Beatles Abbey Road’, we learn that over 91% of the words on this late Beatles album appear in the General Service List. The GSL lists the 2000 commonest English words, roughly corresponding to the 3-star red words in the Macmillan Dictionary– in other words, the most basic vocabulary of the language.

Having said that, the commonest words tend to have multiple meanings, and this can lead to some clever wordplay. When John Lennon sings (on ‘Norwegian Wood’) ‘I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me’, there are several possible interpretations. Does he simply mean he once had a girlfriend (the basic sense of have), or that he had sex with her (sense 26 in Macmillan), or that she tricked or cheated him, by making him sleep in the bath?

I actually saw the Beatles play in London when I was 14. But ‘saw’ is the operative word because this was at the height of Beatlemania (around 1964): they were there on stage playing their instruments and singing, but you couldn’t hear a word (or a note) because of all the screaming. And you don’t need a dictionary to work out what that means.

References

*Hanif Kureishi, Collected Essays 2011: p89.

** Guy Cook and Neil Mercer ‘From me to you: austerity to profligacy in the language of the Beatles’ , in Ian Inglis (ed.) The Beatles, Popular Music and Society. 2000: p100.

Comments (12)
  • Were you disappointed to go to a Beatles concert and not be able to hear them, or did the experience in general make up for it? Interesting (though unsurprising) that references to ‘the sixties’ are so much more common than to other decades: it’s a real indication of their enduring cultural influence, I suppose.

    Posted by Stan on 8th October, 2012
  • Well, this was in the sixties, so of course I can’t remember! As you say, Stan, the cultural influence of that decade has been enormous, and it’s probably also something to do with demographics: this was the period when the baby-boomer generation were in their teens – and we’ve been going on about it ever since!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 8th October, 2012
  • ‘this was in the sixties, so of course I can’t remember!’ Ah yes.
    Cook and Mercer’s work looks very interesting. I can see it appealing greatly to Beatlephiles.

    Posted by Stan on 8th October, 2012
  • I’ve never thought of plasticine and play-doh as equivalent, because here in Australia we had both. In my childhood play-doh dominated, largely because you could make your own from household ingredients (one would probably call the home made stuff “playdough”, but it’s not as if there was any call to spell it). I think of plasticine as a higher quality (e.g. less prone to drying out), more firmly textured, and more expensive commercial product.

    I lived in the UK for part of my childhood, but don’t remember playing with any kind of modelling clay.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 9th October, 2012
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  • A Hard Day’s Night was actually a phrase coined by Ringo, who was always coming up with slightly odd idioms. The same with Tomorrow Never Knows

    I always liked Rubber Soul as one of their most interesting plays on words.

    Posted by Ideaswise Freelance Copywriter on 26th October, 2012
  • I, too, went to the first Beatles concert when they came to the Houston Coliseum. I was on the center aisle, 8th row from the front. The audience was warned to not stand on the seats. I was probably the only one who did not get to either hear or see the Beatles starting the instant they first appeared on stage. The ‘experience’ did not make up for it. I never went to another concert of any kind after that. I also don’t feel like I have missed anything since, either. It is easy to look back and see how much the 60s influenced culture change. Personally, I favor the 50s myself. Of course, every decade has it’s pluses and minuses. The biggest problem with this sort of introspection is not remembering the minuses and thinking that our 20-20 hindsight is perfect, which it isn’t.

    Posted by Ray on 4th January, 2013
  • One of my colleagues likes to refer to the Beatles as a great little American band from Liverpool… I think we should avoid the urge to overemphasize the British idiom. I think referring to Britishisms as seeming “strange” to most Americans is also a very inaccurate statement. Many people around the world lapped up everything they could from the Beatles and they learned from them along the way (this black-and-white, American-British division fetish comes up far too often in the study of English). The Beatles also preserved an interesting Americanness in their music throughout their career and well into their respective solo careers. Their work and their compilations were so diverse that I find it actually more interesting to look at the ways they were able to weave together aspects of life in Britain with those of other cultures. It is simply wonderful to find yourself learning a particular lexical bit heard most often in the UK laid down over the 12-bar blues that clearly says The South? Why do we so often choose to focus on something as trivial as “bathrobe vs. dressing gown” and think that we’re on to something incredibly important?

    Posted by Ted on 11th April, 2013
  • Thanks for your Comment, Ted. It’s true that musically the Beatles (like the Stones and many other British bands of the time) were drawing on American models. And I’d agree that, in 2013, most Briticisms wouldn’t seem odd to most Americans (though some still would – and vice-versa). But I wonder how true that was in the early 1960s? The cultural traffic was a lot more asymmetrical then: over here we were massively exposed to US culture, but i think a lot less British culture (and hence language) was familiar in the US – and of course the Beatles were a big part of changing that. Even in the UK, most people on radio and TV at that time were southern RP speakers, and part of the Beatles’ appeal to younger people (at least initially, circa 1962-3) was their outsider status

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 13th April, 2013
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