The Beatles and their impact on English

Posted by on April 09, 2013

The Beatles, with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John LennonThe annual IATEFL Conference is being held this week in Liverpool, a city forever associated with the Beatles. The conference opened with a lecture by David Crystal, entitled ‘The world in which we live in: Beatles, blends and blogs’ (the second ‘in’ is deliberate). So it seemed like a good idea to republish a post on the language of the Beatles’ songs which first appeared on this blog in October 2012.

In our corpus, the expression ‘the sixties’ occurs over twice as often as ‘the fifties’ or ‘the nineties’ (‘the seventies’ and ‘the 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, p. 89.

** 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, p. 100.

Comments (3)
  • Is anyone still interested in The Beatles’ song lyrics? Aren’t they a bit ‘Yesterday’?

    Posted by Boater on 17th April, 2013
  • I loved this article. Absolutely brilliant!!! I’m currently taking a Coursera class on History of Rock (led by John Covach from the University of Rochester) and I just posted parts of the text in the forum. The content certainly enriches what he has already pointed out in his lectures, and the hyperlinks and references are very useful if you want to go a little bit deeper on the topic too. Thank you for sharing!

    Posted by Alba Beatriz Pérez Romero on 20th June, 2013
  • I’m afraid, Boater, you’re wrong. The Beatles’ music AND lyrics are not and never will get outdated.

    Posted by Tomasz on 14th July, 2013
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