Can’t we all just get along?

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”

    We say to-MEY-to. (Image courtesy of DonkeyHotey via Flickr.)

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?

They say to-MAH-to. (Image courtesy of mcaretaker via Flickr.)

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?

23 thoughts on “Can’t we all just get along?

  1. Excellent, balanced post on the matter. The geopolitics of pet linguistic peeves are tired and often predictable: what’s interesting is the personal side of it, the motivations underlying our reactions to particular sounds and idioms. But that’s the part many people ignore in their rush to censure.

    By the way, did you know chuffed was an auto-antonym? Admittedly, its “displeased” sense is not common, but still.

    • Thank you very much. I was impressed with your own evenness in handling the issue as well (thus the link!) I absolutely agree that these attitudes – both positive and negative – say more about the speaker than about the speech itself. And like you, I tend to just pick up phrases that I like, no matter what dialect they came from. My Irish friend introduced me to minging and I instantly loved it (partly because of the word itself, but also because I loved the image of Bridin flying through the door of the teachers’ room after class, loudly declaring “The wee bastards are MINGIN’ today!”). I’ve been known to use that word in the same sentence as y’all (which I picked up from going to college in Florida) That’s the fun in embracing the differences in the dialects! :)

      I had no idea that chuffed also means ‘displeased.’ I’ve only heard it to mean ‘excited.’ Now I like the word even more!

    • You’re absolutely right. I remember when a friend of mine drove to Florida with some friends. They stopped at a gas station in Georgia and my friend, whose NY accent wasn’t even particularly strong, asked if there was a vending machine to get a soda. He was directed to it by some men who were looking at him all squinty-eyed, and as he walked away, he heard, “That boy talks funny!”

      And it certainly isn’t limited to English, either. The speakers of European French look down on the accent of French Canadian, too. I’m also fascinated by the way that Arabic speakers talk about the various varieties of their language.

      Can’t wait to watch the video. Thanks for the link and the comment!

  2. I just found your blog over the weekend, and I love it! I have some background in linguistics myself. :-)

    My favorite phrases are things like “chuck it,” “chuck him,” and the word “shoddy.”

    I always enjoy hearing from the different sides which version of English they think is better.

    No version is better than the other. They all have their problems and naturally change over time. New dialects are formed. Old dialects disappear. Accents change the way words are pronounced.

    It’s all extremely fascinating.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks, Teala! I’m glad you made your way over and commented, too. I agree that the discussion can be very enjoyable and informative, but I get annoyed when it turns into a discussion of why one version is so inferior to another.

      The ‘chuck it’ phrase reminds me of one of my new favorite commercials, the Geico “Do woodchucks chuck wood?” one:
      “Hey you dang woodchucks! Quit chuckin’ my wood!” I giggle like a fool every time :)

  3. I’m a little embarrassed for the BBC journalist who wrote the original article. He couldn’t find half an hour to flip through the OED?

    What’s interesting to me about Americanisms creeping into British English is that most Americans, including those who probably wouldn’t consider themselves Anglophiles, genuinely enjoy the differences, e.g., “They say pants and we say underwear! We say pants and they say trousers!” Americans adore that stuff; one LL commenter suggests that Britishisms are working their way into American English via “Dr. Who,” but I think it’s a phenomenon with an older (but still mostly television-related) pedigree.

    I’ll admit, I’m sorry to see the English of the British media losing some of its distinctiveness. The Economist, for example, seems very Americanized lately; I long for the days when they’d write something like “Mr. Bush certainly whuffed his wimpole into a chumley.” That’s the sort of thing (when I’m not totally making it up) from which Anglophilia, and better transatlantic relations in general, are born.

    • It’s so true – Americans are so enamored of the British accent and expressions, and in return we get “Hospitalize is just a really vile word.” Um…why? Now, I do understand that there are mixed attitudes among British people. I’ve gotten the sneers but I’ve also gotten the opposite. Mostly, there has been simple curiosity, but then again, most of my experience has been with fellow language teachers who are, by definition, interested in language, so it’s hard to say how curious the average British person would be about Americanism.

      Heh heh…you said wimpole…;)

  4. Ha, my all-time favorite phrase in English is ‘pissed off’, or getting ‘pissed off’, or being…., well you get it. I learned it many years ago (obviously I’m not a native English speaker, I grew up speaking German), and when I first heard that, I had a visual, that sticks with me to this day.

    • To make things ever more complicated, ‘pissed’ (without any prepositions) is another variation of saying ‘angry’ in the US, but in British slang, it means ‘drunk’. I had a few moments of confusion at the phrase “I got so pissed last night!” because it was usually said with a big smile. I wondered why it was such a fun thing to have gotten really angry the night before. Then I figured it out :)

      Good one! Thanks for the comment!

  5. Since I am both a word nerd and a scifi nerd I was positively giddy watching this week’s episode of Torchwood which contained an ongoing conversation over several scenes about word differences between the US and UK. (There were a couple of differences as well; I had no idea that their lemonade is fizzy!) The scenes were great just as is, but it was also fun to imagine The Welsh head writer of the show having this conversation with his American writing team. I get so tired of this ongoing stroppiness about the different turns English has taken that it was a relief to see it portrayed in such a cheerful, friendly way.

    My favorite phrase is the southern New England response to Hi. How are you?: Goodnyou. In classic Boston tradition it is said quickly with no space for air between words. I’m assuming it’s regional mainly because in Boston everybody sees it as the normal polite response and the conversation moves on, but everywhere else people tend to have a little reaction because it doesn’t fit their programmed response to the question. It’s comfortable for me, the verbal equivalent of my Red Sox cap; it’s also a quick way to gauge if someone is from around here or moved here for school.

    • It is a lot of fun to see scenes like that. I’ve never seen Torchwood (my cable company doesn’t see fit to broadcast BBC America…grrrr…) but I remember thinking that there must have been some British writers working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That was definitely one of the appeals of that show to me.

      It’s funny that the Boston response really isn’t that much different from what you’d hear in other places, but it’s enough of a difference to make someone stand out. It didn’t sound strange to my ears, but when I thought of what people around me say, it’s not the same. You’ll hear the dreaded “I’m good” but just as often, you’ll hear “Fine and you?” (spoken very quickly, like the Boston example), or “Doing well, you?” Cool little shibboleth for Boston! Thanks!

  6. That last comment on Boston greetings caught my attention! It’s not the lack of a pause between the words that bugs me, it’s the “good”. I’m afraid that despite all my affection for the Americans, that is one Americanism that invariably makes me screech: the question “How are you” demands an adverb as an answer, NOT an adjective! Why oh why must they answer “good” instead of “well”??

    On a different note, I had to smile at the reference to the French attitude towards Canadian French. No, let me correct that: I didn’t smile, I sniggered. Because like 90 % of French people, the French Canadian accent causes me a greal deal of amusement. As do their outmoded idioms. And this despite knowing perfectly well that as far as purity is concerned (insofar as any language can ever be deemed “pure”), Canadian French is purer than the language we now speak in France, having evolved very little from the 17th century form the first settlers imported to Canada. But I simply cannot help my face muscles twitching whenever I hear it (which, admittedly, is not very often). I have a theory that this is a sub-conscious hangover from colonial days: after all, both Britain and France are former empires, and they both share the same tendency to consider their language superior to any and all variants that may exist elsewhere…

    • There are a lot of aspects in the dialects of the American South that are also throwbacks to a version of British English that hasn’t been spoken there in hundreds of years. British English has moved on, but Georgia or Alabama English hasn’t in some ways. I can’t find or remember a neat little example of something that is present in American English but no longer in English, but I have heard the word ‘reckon’ used regularly by both. I was surprised, actually, when I heard an English colleague use it, saying something like “I reckon we’ll be done in an hour.” It’s not really used outside of the South, and maybe there are restrictions to which dialects of British English still use it as well (though come to think of it, I also heard it from a various colleagues from places ranging from London all the way up to Northern Ireland).

      Yes, we colonials never seem to get much respect from our former overlords :) The Portuguese are really not fond of the Brazilian dialect either. I’m more familiar with the European Portuguese, so of course that’s what I prefer, but I don’t like the usual criticism that is usually lodged against the Brazilian dialect; “They only speak slang, not real Portuguese. I hate that because ALL languages and dialects have slang (or idioms or informal versions of certain expressions or grammatical constructions). It’s just different slang than they are used to.

      One snag about the ‘I’m good’ vs ‘I’m well’ issue is that the verb here is a copula, so it can take an adjective as well. Both constructions are grammatically correct. Now, if the question is “How are you doing?”, then perhaps a more proper answer would be “I’m doing well”, but otherwise, both answers are grammatically acceptable (if not necessarily socially accepted ;). From my own perspective, the two expressions actually mean different things. “I’m well” means “I’m not currently ill” or “I don’t have the cold anymore”. If I mean that “my general state of mind or being is good”, or “I’m satisfied with my life situation at the moment”, then I’ll say “I’m good.” And of course, if one wants to introduce an innuendo into the conversation, then you drag out the adjective, “I’m goooooood” ;)

      Copulas mess everything up! :)

  7. Pingback: Southern Twang | whystudylit
  8. I find many British expressions to be surprisingly vulgar, and distasteful. “Taking the piss,” for example. Not to mention the frequent use of the “c-word”–you know the one I’m talking about. As far as Americans go, I think their frequent derision of the Southern accent is quite annoying. My favorite phrase? Y’all. It fulfills a necessary function otherwise unavailable in the English language–the plural form of “you.” Despite the fact that I occasionally face prejudice from my use of the word (especially outside the South), I have embraced it because I like it and find it useful. So really, while the British may complain about the American use of the English language, that’s just one example of how every English speaker judges those who use the language differently.

    • Yeah, they do seem to bandy about the c-word quite a bit, and it was especially disconcerting to hear Scottish men using it with other Scottish men!

      Americans certainly do make fun of the Southern accent, although we also tend to look down on any strong regional accent. The Southern one is probably the easiest target because it’s easier to recognize compared to, say, a strong Maine accent. It’s also just as often considered charming or romantic (I think it conjures up images of sultry southern weather). Standard English doesn’t have any single word to express you-plural, but regional dialects make their own forms to compensate. Y’all is, again, the most recognizable and ironically – given how much derision the Southern accent gets – it’s probably one of the more accepted shortened forms (meaning it would be ‘better’ to say ‘you all’ or ‘all of you’ in Standard English). But NY has ‘youse’ and Pittsburgh has ‘yunz’ (and there are probably others but I don’t know what they are. The problem is that the use of these forms marks someone as having a strong non-standard accent and that is looked down on by a lot of people from that region who don’t have the strong accent. In Pittsburgh, people are actually called ‘yunzers’ if they use that word.

      ‘Y’all’ is one of the things I picked up from my college years in Florida. I kind of love it, even if it does occasionally get me funny looks when I say it in the Northeast :)

  9. I’m always amused and take seriously the following question asked by many students in my introductory Spanish courses. Are we going to learn “the” Castilian or Mexican form of Spanish? I guess my eyes could roll to the back of my head after teaching for 37 years when Mexican is even considered to be a language. In the question I usually hear the preference for peninsular Spanish over Latin American Spanish. I try to point out carefully throughout the course the many differences among the many dialects of English, and teach what is spoken “en otras partes”, other parts of the Spanish speaking world. Usually I hear this question in the beginning courses and am glad students become more aware of the differences, not that Castilian is superior to Latin American Spanish. (As I write this, I’m wondering why the wp spell check alerts on the word Castilian.)

    • I’m impressed that your students were even aware of the difference! :) I never took Spanish, but my friend, who ultimately majored in it in college, told me that the Mexican dialect is the one most taught in schools. I suppose that makes sense for those in the United States. In Europe, I imagine Castilian is more common. (Huh…you’re right. The spell check wants to change Castilian into Castigation or Castration! D’oh!) Your students are lucky to have a teacher that can explain and expose them to dialectal differences.

  10. Pardon the late comment, Leo. Once again I have saved one of your delectable posts to enjoy on the weekend when I can take the time to savor it. Having lived with my British husband for over a decade now, I’ve been in the firing line for some of his irritation with American English (apparently “gotten” is not a word), debated the merits of “orient” vs. “orientate” (which simply sounds internally redundant to me), and sometimes even gotten (ha!) mixed up about which version of the language I speak. Witness a conversation:

    Me: What do you call cling film?
    Him: Cling film.
    Me: Oh. (puzzled pause) What do I call cling film?
    Him: Plastic wrap.

    (I’m pretty sure there was a silent “duh” at the end of his last statement.)

    Vive la différence! It certainly is a fun topic to examine and always worth “a good natter.”

    • D’oh! I managed to lose my reply to your comment by accidentally hitting something other than the “post comment” button. Yeesh.

      The conversations I had with co-workers were usually a lot of fun, but it just took a few rotten apples to spoil the vibe. And I definitely worked with some really rotten apples! They only complained about American English, though, and not the dialects from other English-speaking countries. Occasionally they’d get into little spats over which British accent was better. Once, a few people were discussing the pronunciation of the word ‘bastard’. At one point, a man from Manchester who pronounced it very similar to the American pronunciation (with an initial /æ/, like in ‘cat’), argued that there are more people with northern accents that use that pronunciation, so it should be the correct one. I then said, “Well, there’s 300 million Americans who say it that way too, so by your argument, the American pronunciation should always be more correct.” Most of them laughed (because for them it was a light-hearted argument) but a couple of those rotten apples had their panties all up in a bunch (so fun to rile them up ;).

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