Viewpoint: American English is getting on well, thanks

 
British and American flags hang in London in a May file photo American and British English are siblings from the same parentage. Neither is the parent of the other

There's been much debate on these pages in recent days about the spread of Americanisms - outside the US. Here, American lexicographer and broadcaster Grant Barrett offers a riposte.

When Matthew Engel wrote here earlier this month about the impact of American English on British English, he restarted a debate about the changing nature of language which ended in dozens of suggestions from readers of their own loathed Americanisms.

Most of those submitted were neither particularly American nor original to American English.

But the point that Americans are ruining English is enough to puff a Yank up with pride.

We Americans lead at least two staggeringly expensive wars elsewhere in the world, but with a few cost-free changes to the lexis we apparently have the British running in fear in the High Street.

Soon we'll have Sainsbury's to ourselves! Our victory over English and the English is almost complete.

"The original version" is what Engel calls British English, which is like calling one's firstborn "the original child".

English is, in truth, a family: American English and British English are siblings from the same parentage, neither is the parent of the other. They are two siblings among many modern-day varieties.

But the larger point, as Engel puts it, is the "sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe". He writes, "We are letting British English wither."

The "we", in my opinion, is best thought of as the scribbling class that includes Engel.

Point of enquiry

Somewhere along the way the writing and thinking folks (on both sides of the Atlantic) have ceded most of the public conversation about language to the carpers, whiners and peevers. Worse, many of the scribbling class have become whingers themselves.

A sign at Geno's in Philadelphia advises customers to speak English Many Americans are proud - some defiantly so - of the English language the British imparted them

I know the complainers well, as they are among the listeners who direct more than 10,000 telephone calls and emails a year to the national show about language I co-host here in the US.

We treat the complainers, a small but keyboard-happy minority, with tenderness and some concern.

They're afflicted, but there's a remedy - it uses gut feelings about language as a point of enquiry rather than as an end.

"I hate this word" is not productive but "Why do I hate this word?" is extraordinarily so.

Elite complainers should be asking "Why?" and then explaining what they discover.

Why does it seem like someone's language is wrong? Why does the other person think it is right? Why does it seem it's being used more?

What do the real linguists and lexicographers say about it?

What do the aggregate data show?

In other words, they should be explaining what is happening in language rather than complaining about it.

Language fieldwork

On the radio show, we encourage this tactic in our listeners.

Some now do what amounts to basic fieldwork when they are annoyed by language.

A protest More than 16% of the US claims Hispanic origin, and American English resounds with Spanish words

They ask themselves, can I find more data about this? Are there patterns? Can I draw conclusions about the data and patterns?

Some even keep a journal of their linguistic enquiries, much like one might keep a word list when reading.

Instead of peeving about supposed incorrect usage, they find themselves using better dictionaries, consulting better usage guides, and looking at cost-free high-quality online materials - such as language corpora - to figure it out.

'A mongrel bitch'

If people submitting Americanisms had done this, they would have found that in some cases the terms they warned against predated Americans and American influence. In others the history is so muddled that it can only be said that both Englishes conspired.

In closing, Dear Britain:

The mongrel bitch you gave us as a parting gift is getting along quite well.

She seems to be fond of bringing every kind of critter home with her, raising them up as if they belonged and turning them into the sort of good company that'll keep your feet warm on cold nights.

Motley bunch, though!

You wouldn't think a bulldog-husky-poodle mutt could train up a brood of raccoon kits and opossum joeys, but she's such a one.

She's now gravid to the point of collapse, so we'll likely have a few more pups to set aside for you soon. We think the daddy's a Chihuahua.

Sorry that last litter didn't work out to your liking. You can always refuse delivery on the next bunch. We'll be glad to take them back.

Best wishes,

Grant Barrett

Grant Barrett is a radio announcer, editor and lexicographer. He co-hosts an American public radio show about language, A Way with Words.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 338.

    I have loads of fun with this discussion, but I get annoyed when Latin Americans bring up the term "American" and say it's an example of US arrogance. The nerve of those people is astounding. Shall we change our name because they don't like what we've called ourselves since the 1770s? It also shows an ignorance of history and linguistics. United Statesian is not proper English it's Spanglish!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 337.

    How many here have missed the point of the article: that instead of sitting around complaining, we should ask ourselves why we are bothered.

    If we insist on judging everyone's speech, great: let's judge. I'll give a prize to the Canadians for speaking the best English on the planet. Second place, why not New Zealand? England belongs somewhere in the top ten, maybe just below Holland.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 336.

    I am an "American" and I lament the destruction of the English language. I am not concerned with "aeroplane" being spelled as "airplane," but I am frightened by the most basic of words being abbreviated. "U" instead of "you," for instance. What's so hard about adding two more letters? Even our advertisements cater to the progressively illiterate. The beauty of language is disappearing quickly.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 335.

    Faz 281 (from the former postmoderna, now MH),
    Your gentle note compels me to admit that you've busted me. I lived for 2 years in England & by a shame-faced process of moving my beans ever nearer to my morning toast, came to LOVE beans on toast. For the rest, I adjusted my vocabulary to the foreign tongue but didn't supress my American accent--that's when I realized that I'm a patriot. Take care!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 334.

    As an Indian (from India) in the US, I have often been asked, with great astonishment from the questioner, where I learned English. Annoying but you learn to ignore the ignorant. My first language lesson in the US was on "for here or to go?". I explained that I did not understand the question but wanted to eat my food at home. Didn't help. To the stereotypical waiter, I wasn't speaking "English"!

 

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