THOUGH PRONE TO complaining about it, observers have regularly found something to praise about the English language. In a publication of 1619, a London schoolmaster, Alexander Gill, celebrated “the purity of our tongue.” (Purity has meant a variety of things in talking about English, but it usually means that the language is relatively free of borrowed words.) The language would admit foreign words only “out of necessity,” Gill thought, and America brought new necessities. Native American languages had given such expressions as maiz and Kanoa, the latter ‘a boat hollowed out of a trunk of a tree by fire and flint-stones’ (Gill 1972, 1:108–9). Both these words had reached English through Spanish more than half a century earlier. Still, Gill knew where they ultimately came from and he saw them (and their like) as ornaments to English rather than as impurities.
America came to English before the English came to America. A century behind Spain and Portugal in exploration, English people had a deep curiosity about the New World, and much of what they knew came at second and third hand. Asked to compile what was known about these distant lands, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera gathered reports and published them in