Sunday, July 24, 2011

Just Blame the Americans

A recent article on the BBC web site bemoans the "lengthy stream of Americanisms" entering the British language.  We look at what's really at the bottom of this. According to the Oxford Guide to World English, "American English has a global role at the beginning of the 21st Century comparable to that of British English at the start of the 20th". Is that what's really pissing the Brits off?

Toni:

When I first moved to the States, I arrogantly assumed that British English was correct every time. When telephone customer services messages promised to be with you "momentarily" I would sarcastically wonder how such a fleeting amount of time would serve my needs. And then I looked up the word - to find that in both British and American dictionaries, it did indeed include the meaning of "in a moment", even though at the time that wasn't widely used in England. Ah. Well then.

When I see denouncements like this BBC piece, proclaiming "Ugly and pointless new usages appear in the media and drift into everyday conversation", quite frankly, it really annoys me. OK, ugly is subjective, so I refuse to argue with the author,  - but pointless?? They're not pointless in the States, and no one is forcing Brits to adopt these phrases. What and with whom is his beef? Surely he can't be blaming Americans for the adoption of their phrases in Britain? Given that 80% of American don't even own a passport, it's not like they're crossing the Pond and physically forcing Brits to use their terminology.

On the one hand he acknowledges that technological terms, such as "cell phone" versus "mobile" have grown up on their own, but he derides "elevator". Excuse me? I'm pretty sure the first Brits in America didn't have multi-storey buildings which required a mechanical means of getting from one floor to the other. Like technology today, Brits and Americans came up with their own words - and both are correct. The contraptions elevate people to the next floor, and they also lift said people.

As for poo-pooing American spelling, just go back to Shakespeare's time and you'll see no "u" in words like color and honor. As most linguists will attest, language moves and develops more at its root than anywhere else, so it's often British English that adapts and morphs. Americans say "closet" instead of "wardrobe" because that was the English word more commonly used by Brits until the beginning of the last century.

To be fair to the author, he ends by stating that Brits are letting British English wither. So instead of the withering ridicule of American English, which serves its own country very well thank you, perhaps more criticism of Brits? Surely in this case, that's where the real problem lies.


Mike:

Like nearly everyone with a broadband connection, I have seen the articles about those annoying Americanisms insinuating their way into British English.  I liked the first one, and my wife and I laughed over every one, and agreed with most.  The rest of the articles—the commentaries, rebuttals, additions—I ignored, until I had to do some research for this post.  Seems a lot of people are pretty upset about this, and I see slings and arrows going back and forth across the pond claiming first dibs on certain words, or accusing one person or the other of being the equivalent of an etymological racist.

I find it all faintly amusing, and beside the point.

What these people are complaining about is no different than what I went through while I was living in New York and my kids came home from school saying stupid shit like, “My Bad!” and, "Awesome, dude!"  (We blamed California.)  Likewise, I cringe when I hear people using business-speak in real conversation, the likes of “24/7,” or “deliverables” or “FYI.”  Other words on the list were simply colloquialisms; I use some, I don’t use others, and I use some sayings--which are not on any of the lists--simply to annoy anyone who didn't grow up in Stuyvesant Falls.. (e.g. "Crick" is how we pronounced "Creek," and if you went into a bar you might be asked, “Ya want a dub-ya?” because “W” was the term for beer, but no one could tell you why.)

So I have no problem with the Brits being irritated at the apparent take-over of British English by American English; I feel the same way.  But words are not the issue here; they are just an unambiguous line in the sand, palpable evidence of a larger phenomenon that plays on their underlying fear of change.

Linguistic rage springs from the same root as  the uneasy feeling you get (but often don’t admit to) when you see the pastureland outside of town being bulldozed to make way for a warehouse-sized ASDA, or when that new-age hippy family moves in next door, or when you notice an increase of foreign accents on the high street.  The core question is not, “What is happening to my language?” or even, “What is happening to my country/county/village/home?”  It is “What is happening to the things I find familiar?”

In my own universe, being different was my familiar thing, but now a lot of people talk like I do and I find that sad; it's like Britain is disappearing one idiom at a time.  Watching something you found comforting and reliable slip away forever is bound to make you feel confused and frightened, but if you feel yourself getting angry about it, and blaming it on "them" (at the moment, it's the Americans) then, as Toni points out, stop letting it happen.  In this instance, it's simple:  keep using your own language.  We're not forcing you to use ours, honest.


For more on this topic, pop over to the excellent post from Not From Around Here, another American in the UK. 


And please tell us what you think about it all.

21 comments:

  1. I suppose thats what it is...... people are scared of anything different from what to them is normal.
    However, how about the word *gotten*? I think that just about bugs me more than anything else!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

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  2. Maggie, it bugs you that in the US we've retained the past participle form of "to get" when you guys have dropped it?

    Do you object to "forgotten" and "begotten" and "ill-gotten gains" as well? (Well, we all object to ill-gotten gains, but that's not the point.)

    Some people expend energy being bugged about the strangest, strangest things!

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  3. I don't like the word 'gotten', but I'd forgotten (see what I did there?) about it until Maggie mentioned it. I think there are a few American words/phrases I dislike, but I can't think what they are now. But likewise there are several British words/phrases I don't like either.

    I dislike badly pronounced or spelt English - I particularly hate 'somefink' and 'nuffink' and Estuary English generally,come to think of it. And especially 'your' when the writer means 'you're' - ie you are. It's so often seen these days that I even have to think twice to check I'm using the correct one, yet as a child it would have been automatic.

    Oh, and 'should of, could of' etc when it should be 'should have', though I'm afraid that one is now so common that I think it's one of those that will eventually be accepted as correct English.

    I agree with one of last paragraphs of that BBC article:

    "But what I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic - even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither."

    It's our own fault, we Brits. Our education system doesn't teach good English any more, and poor standards are everywhere. As someone who is fussy about grammar (though not necessarily in blog comments, so don't bother to note my errors please!), it grates on me far more than any Americanisms might.

    Apart from "good job!", which I hate with a vengeance!

    If I am ever single again, any potential boyfriends will have to sit a grammar test I think, and anyone who can't pronounce 'th' (as in 'something' will be given short shrift!

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  4. "But what I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic - even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither."

    It's our own fault, we Brits. Our education system doesn't teach good English any more, and poor standards are everywhere. As someone who is fussy about grammar (though not necessarily in blog comments, so don't bother to note my errors please!), it grates on me far more than any Americanisms might.


    That's a little hypocritical, isn't it? When language in your country changes and people use it in dialectical or non-standard ways, you don't like it - but then you complain about the reduction of distinctiveness and diversity?

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  5. In my view, the 'dislike' -- for want of a better word -- of certain phrases, be they of our own making or recent interlopers, comes simply from the fact that they are unusual and grate on the ear. Like when Brits say "Herb" with the "H" -- I was taught that was wrong, so it sounds very odd to me. So "gotten" to British ears is, as my wife notes, "quaint," a sort of anachronism that isn't used by Brits (though if we have our way, that will soon change ;) )

    It's seeing (or hearing) something we are not used to, which is why I make a point of saying "gotten" and "'erb" as often as I can; I love to rile up the natives ;)

    Anon: I can't see disliking incorrect usage while championing the continuation of a specific dialect as anything near hypocritical.

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  6. Last time I looked this was still a free country. I don't have to feel apologetic about my dislike for American usages such as 'good job' instead of 'well done', 'bangs' instead of fringe, 'Happy Holidays' (shudder), 'bathroom' instead of loo - the list is nearly endless - and frankly, so what? My likes and dislikes are my business.

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  7. Exactly Anon - people who write lengthy articles about words that they don't like (especially when the article isn[t even funny) IMO have far too much time on their hands and too much of a curmudgeonly character. It's their view and if they want to get all "bent out of shape" about a language that has developed for use in another country, then please do it quietly. Or at least aim the criticism in the right place.
    How come it's OK to say "Oh, you didn't do a very good job of that did you?" in the UK, but when the same word is used in the phrase "Good Job", it's terrible? Double standard or just poorly disguised dislike of Americans?

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  8. It isn't compulsory to like Americans either.

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  9. But who decides what is "correct" or not?

    People decide!

    To say that some forms of difference are correct while other, equally consistent and widely-spread forms are not is... well, it's strange. And then to do that while touting regional variation and how you'd like your area to have its own "distinctive phraseology" - who makes you the judge of which distinctive phraseology should be preserved and which should be tossed out?

    (Sorry I came out as anon before, sometimes blogspot doesn't like working with openID. Like just now, actually!)

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  10. Anonymous, it seems unreasonable to dislike a whole nation!

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  11. Quite frankly anyone who complains about the usage of "Train station" as opposed to "Railway Station" must have a real problem.

    Though I wonder if British terms were creeping over on this side of the Atlantic, would we see just as a hysterical reaction? I somehow doubt it.

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  12. Toni, I knew I could count on you to be the voice of reason here. As I said on Twitter, no one is forcing the British to adopt our so called Americanisms. If you don't like them, then don't use them! And, as you say, if they bothered to do their research they would find that many of these so-called Americanisms are British born. Another misconception that some Brits share is that they are the founders of the English language therefore, it's their way or the highway. (Oops, is that an Americanism?)

    No other article in recent memory had me steaming more than this one and you know how I feel about GB. But the second article was trite in my opinion. It felt like some readers seized the opportunity to bash America in a very public forum. Really, train station? What the hell is wrong with train station? Some of the complaints were clearly juvenile and the writer should be ashamed of himself for airing them as if they were any but.

    @Rob I also noted on Twitter that I AM hearing some Briticisms here in America within the last couple of years. I wonder if it has to do with more British celebs in our prime time television such as Piers Morgan, Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell. I'm also seeing more British made adverts. But saying that I'm seeing adverts on British television, Pringles for example, using Americanisms, calling them chips instead of crisps. So maybe Brits should be complaining to the marketers?

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  13. @MikeH Whomever taught you that herb pronounced with the H was wrong, was wrong. If you look it up in Webster's Dictionary, both pronunciations are listed. I had to prove this myself when someone criticized me for pronouncing the H. I think "'erb" sounds stupid. We don't call Herb Albert, "'erb Albert." What's the reasoning there?

    However, as you say, that's what we are taught here. We don't go around at six years old challenging our parents and teachers, "Are you sure that's right? Let me check the dictionary." We just take it at face value so that's why I think making such a big deal about language and use of pronunciation is silly. Language grows and changes like everything else in the world, whether we like it or not.

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  14. Skippy, I don't dislike all Americans, only the ones I've met.

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  15. I should probably explain that my dislike of the phrase "Good job" comes from not the phrase itself (which is, in fact, fine), but its overuse, or rather, the tendency to over-praise children, which is a different issue entirely.

    The one time I've been to the US, we seemed to constantly hear mothers telling their children "Good job! You did so great!" when they'd done something like got off a train or put their shoes on or picked up something they'd dropped. It all seemed a bit over the top, and I really hoped that not all Americans did that!

    My son and I started saying things like "Can you pass the salt please?...Good job! You did that so great!"

    PS - Anonymous - haven't you got other blogs to read, ones with no nasty Americans in? Seeing as how you don't like them...

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  16. Oh, and I haven't read the Twitter comments as I'm not signed up to it, but if anyone called me 'missus', 'bird' or 'babe', I'd punch them!

    There are some really really revolting British phrases too.

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  17. Smitten: According to what I read in a vocabulary book, the correct way to pronounce a word is however educated people in your area pronounce it. Therefore, your way is correct, and so is my way. What make's it sound odd is that it is unfamiliar. That said, I have great fun with words like aluminum and basil, but I can see why the Brits really bristle at 'erb because dropping an H is a sign of low breeding here. So I say that on a lot ;)

    I'd like to close with the speculation that the guy who wrote the original article probably do so in a moment of whimsy, expecting propel to have a good laugh and move on (like my wife and I did). While I'm sure he's glad for the attention his little article got, I doubt very much he is lying away at night, gritting his teeth and thinking, "Those Americans are call our chips FRECH FRIES!!"

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  18. Great post! I felt the need to put in my two cents (pence?) worth :)

    One of the things I love about Britain is its "funny" little colloquialisms, which Brits take for granted. I wish they wouldn't, though, I wish they would realize how unique and wonderful and lovely they are and protect them!

    But it's not really the language that worries me, it's everything else. Reading your book, Mike, I've become disturbed at the slow but steady "American-izing" of Britain, and feel the desperate need to get across the pond before it disappears altogether in a motley wash of hamburgers and supercenters.

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  19. I think I read recently that the American pronunciation of Herb without the "h" is from the French word "l'herbe" where the "h" isn't sounded. A bit like the American pronunciation of Fillet (fillay) as compared to the British habit of "fillette".
    Mrs Baum - yes, I agree that "Good job" is thrown around without a lot of thought in the States. You rarely ever hear a parent saying "Oh dear", "Try again" or "Bloody hell, what was that?"

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