Viewpoint: American English is getting on well, thanks
- 26 July 2011
- From the section US & Canada
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grant Barrett is a radio announcer, editor and lexicographer. He co-hosts an American public radio show about language, A Way with Words.