For the past week and a half, there has been a lot of fuss over the idea that the British don’t like the way Americans speak. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s a horse that has been well and truly flogged. The latest round of this game started on 13 July when the BBC posted an article about Americanisms that annoy speakers of British English. The author asked readers to send in their own examples.
While that was happening, plenty of others were weighing in on the issue. On the same day as the original BBC article, Dan at “The Blog Formerly Known as @SFX” posted a reply. Then, on 16 July, Mark Liberman wrote a post over at Language Log about how 4 out of 5 of the examples in the article were actually of British origin, not American.
On 19 July, the BBC published the 50 most emailed examples of hated Americanisms. The very next day, the Economist’s language blog, Johnson, posted responses to some of the examples that appeared on that Top 50 list. The author pointed out something that many of the examples have in common:
- “selective hyper-literalism: refusal to understand idioms as such
- amnesia, or else the “recency illusion“: A belief that something quite old is new
- simple anti-Americanism: the belief that if something is ugly, it must have come from the States”
He makes a good point. There’s often no particular reason for the linguistic antagonism other than personal preferences or an overdeveloped sense of proprietary rights over English. I can recognize this in my own attitudes at times; there is nothing rational behind my hatred of the words munch and copasetic. Similarly, I have an irrational love of certain regionalisms like Not for nothing, but… or Whaddya know from funny? or even the vilified could care less.
It didn’t end there. On 22 July, Dominic of the blog Home-Brewed Edition posted some more support for our colonial argot, asking readers to send in their “favo[u]rite Americanisms.” And finally, on 25 July, the Macmillian Dictionary blog author Stan Carey wrote a thoughtful, objective perspective on the original article, the “unsavoury peeve-fests” of the Top 50 list, and the subsequent backlash.
I admire certain aspects of British English and I’m the first one to admit that most of the accents over there are pretty damn sexy. I love words like git, knackered, chuffed, dodgy, wobbly, and phrases like gone pear-shaped or be in a strop. I get a kick out of thinking of my weight in stone, and I generally both understand and appreciate the unique, self-deprecating, silly British humor.
You all know there was a ‘but’ coming, right? Here it is: the attitude is getting old. Our American version of English is not any more vulgar, inferior, incorrect, or obnoxious than any other version of the language, including that of old Dame Britannia. I imagine their exposure to our English is much more pervasive than our exposure to theirs is, and perhaps familiarity really does breed contempt. But can’t we be more civil about this?
I spent five years working with people from just about every English-speaking country and for the most part, it was fun and enlightening. Nothing sets off a two-hour conversation about dialect differences than the question, “Hey, how would you say X in [insert English-speaking country here]?” to a table full of ESL teachers abroad. These conversations were generally conducted with open minds and as a result, were always lively as well as informative.
It wasn’t always that way. A Scottish woman laughed at me – not with me, mind you – for a full minute when she realized that Americans said orégano (or-E-ga-no) instead of oregáno (or-e-GA-no). She couldn’t believe the American accent could be so ‘grating’ and ‘unrefined.’ My students constantly told me that I spelled color wrong. A Welsh woman yelled at me for telling our Turkish secretary that it was okay to say, “He just left” when it clearly should be “He has just left.” An English woman even took issue with how we refer to school levels; it is apparently ‘quite stupid’ to refer to ‘tenth grade’ instead of ’6th form’.
Here’s what: (How’s that for an Americanism?) One version of English is no better than another version; they are just different. It doesn’t matter that Americans prefer to orient instead of to orientate – they are both valid, no matter whose craw they are sticking in. I happen to hate how the British say they go to the toilet instead of to the bathroom/restroom/washroom. It feels too graphic to me. Does that mean that British English is inferior or wrong in some way? Absolutely not! It just means that there’s something in me that reacts negatively to their phrase.
People are often not rational about their language. It’s an intuitive, emotional thing for us because this is the behavior that is largely responsible for representing our thoughts and personalities, our values and beliefs. Change in language is normal, but for many, it may feel less like a tool being tweaked and adapted to different purposes, but an affront to our very selves. Our emotional attachment to language is strong, and even though we may rationally recognize the fact and necessity of change, we don’t always deal with it so easily.
What’s your favorite expression in any version of English?