I must grudgingly acknowledge that American English is just about tolerable (sometimes)


As it is Fourth of July, an American themed post seems in order. And more specifically, one about American English.

Pride and prejudice

It has been the soundtrack to my life ever since I moved to Korea. If you learn English in this country you learn to say ‘soccer’ and spell ‘colour’ without the ‘u’. In addition, the bulk of Anglophone expats in Korea come from the US and Canada.

Like a lot of Brits (at least of the educated, RP speaking variety) my instinctive reaction to American English, might be charitably described as ‘combative’. I belligerently continue to say things like ‘my trousers got so muddy I had to change them, so I got the lift up to my flat’. [Though I must confess that I all too often catch myself slipping on that final one.]

I also delight in making sure Americans are fully aware of any logical deficiencies I can identify in their dialect. ‘You call the liquid you put in your car gas? And you describe a sport in which players generally hold the ball in their hands as football? No, wonder you guys elected Trump!’*

My more sensible angel

I feel that this kind of thing is justifiable as friendly banter, but is otherwise daft. In Accidence will Happen – essentially a grammar book for people who care more about communicating clearly than catching other people out – the Times journalist Oliver Kamm writes that:

Prince Charles … declared to a British Council audience in 1995 that the American way of speaking was ‘very corrupting’. How so? Well, ‘people tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be’. The Prince urged his audience: ‘We must act now to ensure that English – and that, to my way of thinking, means English English – maintains its position as the world language well into the next century.’

This is a very common view and is historically perverse. It identifies English with a particular country, and indeed with a particular region of a particular country, and assumes other influences are debased imitators against which barriers need to be arrayed.

But the way that the English language has developed in North America is not corrupting at all. Both American English and the dialect of English that Prince Charles speaks are descendants of a common ancestor. Neither of these dialects is the type of English spoken by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In some respects, as far as we know, American dialects are closer to that ancestor. The r sound in the name Shakespeare has been lost in the dialect of South-East England, but retained in American speech and many other accents and dialects of English (such as Scottish enunciation).

Of Reds and Greys

There are more subtle arguments than the Prince’s for finding American English threatening. For example, the journalist Matthew Engel wrote an essay for the BBC in which he lamented:

…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.

I see the logic of this point and it is part of why I am keen to retain the distinctively British character of my own language.

However, if we were concerned about the diversity of English, then protecting standard British English would be a perverse priority. Engel seems to think it is like the Red Squirrel, which is being driven to extinction by Grey Squirrels, an invasive species from North America. However, the reality is that the dialect I speak is a predator, not prey: It is steadily modifying or even absorbing the UK’s regional dialects.

And as Kamm notes:

It is particularly odd when pedants complain about the assimilation of Americanisms into the language, as Standard English has borrowed extensively from other languages and dialects over centuries.

And as Engel himself has to note, that includes American English:

The Americans imported English wholesale, forged it to meet their own needs, then exported their own words back across the Atlantic to be incorporated in the way we speak over here. Those seemingly innocuous words caused fury at the time.

The poet Coleridge denounced “talented” as a barbarous word in 1832, though a few years later it was being used by William Gladstone. A letter-writer to the Times, in 1857, described “reliable” as vile.

Engels suggests that the present situation is different because the pace of absorption is so much faster now. However, he provides only anecdotal evidence for this assertion, and also proffers counter-examples too:

When it comes to new technology, we often go our separate ways. They have cellphones – we have mobiles. We go to cash points or cash machines – they use ATMs. We have still never linked hands on motoring terminology – petrol, the boot, the bonnet, known in the US as gas, the trunk, the hood.

What’s right with American English

If you will permit me an uncharacteristic piece of generosity, I would actually commend certain aspects of American English as superior. The most obvious and important example is spelling. American spellings arose from a concerted effort to make the system more intuitive. It does that by placing more emphasis on correspondence with spoken English, and less on resembling French and Latin. That seems like an altogether sensible prioritisation.

Of the smaller examples, the one that stands out to me is saying ‘first floor’ to refer to the ground floor, rather than the floor above it. Given that generally the first floor one encounters on entering a building is the ground floor, describing another floor as such is counter-intuitive. Indeed, I was a teenager before I realised the UK didn’t have the American system! It just seemed so much more sensible!

One thought on “I must grudgingly acknowledge that American English is just about tolerable (sometimes)

  1. It does that by placing more emphasis on correspondence with spoken English, and less on resembling French and Latin. That seems like an altogether sensible prioritisation.

    Really? You don’t think it’s more important that the written form of a word give clues to its meaning? That seems especially important in a language which has borrowed form so many sources, over such a long period, that we have lots of homophones or near-homophones with very different meanings — and the differences in spelling, which generally correspond with etymology, assist greatly in figuring out that, say, ‘psychology’ has to do with the mind and has nothing to do with pain in the hip, for example.

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