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The Prodigal Tongue

The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English

by Lynne Murphy

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The Prodigal Tongue
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The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English
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Lynne Murphy

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Opinion: U.S. And U.K. Remain United, Not Divided, By Their Common Language

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Prodigal Tongue

1

The Queen's English, Corrupted

If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Baron Somers, in the House of Lords (1979)

Americans are ruining the English language. I know this because people go out of their way to tell me so. I am a magnet for such comments-an American who dares to teach English Language and Linguistics at a British university and who has the chutzpah to write about American and British language differences on the internet. But you don't need me to tell you about the wrecking ball that is American English-the talking heads of Britain have been pointing it out for years. English is under attack from American words that are "mindless" (the Mail on Sunday), "ugly and pointless" (BBC Magazine), "infectious, destructive and virulent" (the Daily Mail). American words "infect, invade, and pollute" (The Times). Even Prince Charles has assessed the situation, warning that American English is "very corrupting."

Perhaps you had thought someone or something else was causing English's demise. Maybe it's inarticulate young people, bent on creating a future English that consists of little more than strings of so like kinda this and stuff. Or is technology responsible? BBC journalist John Humphrys likens text-messagers to Genghis Khan; they are vandals who are "pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary." Business jargon is another likely suspect. Don Watson, in his book Gobbledygook, argues that management-speak expressions "sterilise the language and kill imagination and clarity." In fact, the plain-language promoters at Clarity International blame business jargon for the financial crisis of 2008-the language of banking had become so meaningless that customers could not understand the risks they were signing up for.

But look closer and you may decide that all these dangers to English are just symptoms of a linguistic malady whose ground zero is the United States. For instance, if young people are ruining the Queen's English, should we blame them, or blame America? The United States invented 20th-century childhood, which continues to shape culture worldwide in the 21st century. The seen-but-not-heard Victorian girls and boys of Britain have been replaced by the American inventions of the teenager and the tween. Children born in Essex or Edinburgh or Aberystwyth live part of their lives in a virtual America, home of hip-hop, Disney princesses, caped superheroes, and fast food. The situation is bad enough that in 2007 the British media regulator Ofcom (the equivalent of the US Federal Communications Commission) called for a national debate on the proliferation of American children's television on British screens. "We don't want our children growing up with American accents," proclaimed former BBC Play School presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin. It may be too late. British young people, like their American counterparts are, like, ending their statements as if they were, like, questions?

And the youthful English speakers are not all that young anymore. As Oscar Wilde observed: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years." More than a hundred years after Wilde's quip, the lines between childhood and adulthood have become blurred by adults' refusal to put away childish things, with the US leading the way. The American invention of the word kidult underscores the point. In kidulthood, grown-up speech becomes more casual: no one wants to be called Mister or ma'am. We feel free to mumble our gonnas and lemmes. And everything is awesome.

Technology and business are similar stealth American invasions into global English. American technology spills foreignisms throughout the anglophonic world. We talk of uploads, of microwaving food, of personal computers. The technologies crossed oceans and so did the words. Microsoft Word asks British users to set the font "color." Facebook teaches us to unfriend people and unlike things, then puts a grumpy red line under perfectly good English spellings like practise with an s and travelled with double l. This increasingly technologized, globalized world brings us business jargon, the language of optimism and obfuscation. Surely going forward, reaching out, and leveraging our real-time client synergy is the fault of go-getting, pop-psychologizing American suits.

We can actually quantify the horror that American English arouses. After using a thesaurus in order to find adjectives meaning 'good,' 'useful,' 'bad,' and 'useless,' I searched the internet for the phrase a(n) _____ Americanism, inserting the synonyms into the blank. I'm happy to report that on that particular day the worldwide web knew of 227 lovely Americanisms, 73 apt ones, and even 5 elegant ones. But the top six not-so-flattering adjectives are slightly more numerous. (I've lived in England long enough to have mastered the ironic understatement.)

The internet's top six adjectives modifying Americanism

Flattering Not-so-flattering

227 Lovely Ugly 7,780

231 Nice Horrible 4,780

100 Useful Vile 3,610

73 Apt Awful 1,700

25 Delightful Dreadful 963

5 Elegant Nasty 373

That's nearly thirty times as many not-so-flattering adjectives as flattering ones, just looking at the top six. After the top six, the flattering list stops, but the not-so-flattering one goes on. And on.

American English-the language of my childhood, my dear mom and dad, the teachers who introduced me to Shakespeare; the language of Sesame Street, Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, and Mark Twain-is Linguistic Public Enemy Number 1 in much of the English-speaking world. So far we've seen it described as a pollution, a disease, a destructive force, an aesthetic horror. The repetition of these refrains in my adopted country makes it difficult for me to maintain a stereotype that Americans hold dear: that the British are a polite and intelligent people.

Is American English really a disease that infects other languages, particularly the mother tongue of England? Or are we seeing the influence of linguistic hypochondriacs, diagnosing idiocy and destruction where there is none? Are Americanisms evil pollutants that disintegrate minds? Or do they inoculate English against a wasting atrophy? The answers to these questions are more complicated than the linguistic Chicken Littles ("The sky is falling! The language is imploding!") are willing to admit.

This book provides an arsenal of facts and an armful of interpretations that, I hope, might heighten our enjoyment of our common language and our pride in it. What if, instead of worrying about the "ruination" of English by young people, jargonistas, or Americans, we celebrated English for being robust enough to allow such growth and variety? What if instead of judging people (including ourselves) on the basis of pronunciation or grammar, we listened to what they had to say and enjoyed how they said it? What if instead of tutting, we marveled? Humor me with that for the length of this book. Then, if you must, you can go back to complaining.

Statements like "British is best" or "American is simpler" are just too glib to do our language justice. The ideas to be pilloried in the following chapters include:

One kind of English is more pure than another.

One kind of English is more precise than the other.

American and British English differences amount to just a few spellings and some funny words.

British English is older than American English.

American and British English will soon be indistinguishable.

English can be hurt by speaking it wrong.

Maybe you hold some of those beliefs. You certainly know people who do. They're harder beliefs to hold once you've looked closely at the full range of linguistic differences and similarities. These differences are superficial and deep, simple and complex, blatant and sneaky: the spelling of colo(u)r, the pronunciation of garage, the meaning of frown, whether you eat mashed potato or mashed potatoes. They touch on the language's relationships with time, with the landscape, with other languages, and especially with social class and self-image. They raise questions about what we value in our language. Is tradition more important than efficiency? Do we judge good English by what authorities say about it or by how people actually talk? Is it better to have many different ways to "English," or would we be better off with a more uniform language?

I'm not going to try to answer those questions for you. In fact, if I get my way, you may be more unsettled about these issues than when you picked up this book. Whether you value tradition or innovation, efficiency or poeticism, localness or universality, you may find that those things are harder to pin down once you dig deep into the mire that is English.

Anti-Americanism(-ism)

There is no such thing as American English. There is English. And there are mistakes.

@QueenUK (not Her Majesty)

When it became clear that American independence (on American terms) was inevitable, King George III vowed to "keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment [are] converted into penitence and remorse." But with other colonies to manage and Napoleon coming on the scene, the harassment did not last long. Today, with our bloody tax-and-governance dispute well behind us, the Anglo-American "special relationship" is one of the strongest allegiances in the world. David Cameron and Barack Obama took time in 2012 to write in the Washington Post:

The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by the history, traditions and values we share. But what makes our relationship special-a unique and essential asset-is that we join hands across so many endeavors. Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance.

Notably absent from their list of what binds us is language. We can only guess how much Cameron cringed when he saw a u-less endeavor in a piece he had coauthored. No one is really sure who first quipped that the two countries are "separated by a common language," but our linguistic differences have long been noted and stewed over. In 1756, just after the publication of his great dictionary (but before there was a United States), Samuel Johnson referred to "the trace of corruption" in the language of an American book he reviewed. That he enjoyed the book at all is a testament to its author's skill and elegance, for as a loyal subject of the monarchy Johnson was no fan of the uppity colonists: "Had we treated the Americans as we ought, and as they deserved, we should have at once razed all their towns and let them enjoy their forests."

All its life, the United States has had European naysayers. In the past century, distaste for America and its exports has been couched in terms of resistance to American cultural imperialism. Before that, it was America's radical rejection of the old inheritance-based roots of power that struck fear and disgust in the hearts of many. European anti-Americanism was born out of "astonishment over the new society [. . .] in which for the first time social stratification had no value," according to Dutch historian Jan Schulte Nordholt. Titles and family connections were much less important in the new country; what mattered was what an individual could achieve and accrue in their lifetime. "Soon one of the fixed stereotypes about America was that everything there was determined by money and everything could be had for a price."

It may be hard for us in individualistic, democratic, western societies of the 21st century to appreciate how unsettling American independence was. These days, we roll our eyes at the Declaration of Independence's contention that "all men are created equal" and point out that its authors kept slaves. But for many 18th-century Europeans, the complete rejection of monarchy, aristocracy, and state religion looked like something very dangerous indeed. How could authority come from the people, when the people might very well have parochial interests, uneven education, and different ideas about God? Many, like Samuel Johnson, thought it ungrateful and unseemly that American colonists protested British laws and taxes, considering that they had benefited from the British crown's protection in disputes with other colonial powers and Native Americans in the New World.

Feelings against America were (and are) in no way limited to British monarchists. Even those who admired the United States' democratic project came to doubt the value of its people and their products. Charles Dickens had hoped to find in America less social stratification than he knew in London. Instead, he found nitwits. "I do not believe there are, on the whole earth besides, so many intensified bores as in these United States." Many have suspected that the immigrants who populated the new country were not the best and the brightest that Europe had to offer, but were instead, as American journalist H. L. Mencken described them, "incompetents who could not get on at home." The immigrant mŽlange of America could not be trusted to bring refined manners, learned culture, or the best English (among other languages) to the New World.

But those who worry about the dŽclassŽ Americans tend to be those who have the most invested in (and the most to gain from) the traditions and language that are associated with the British upper classes. The anti-British-establishment United States, its products, and its ideas were more popular with the commoners-cum-working classes of Europe than with those further up the social ladder. That hasn't really changed. At the close of the 20th century, journalist Alexander Chancellor observed that the British upper class has been "generally more anti-American than the working class because it felt more directly affronted by America's assumption of Britain's former role as a world power."

European distaste for all things American often has an air of befuddled paternalism to it: How can a culture exist without a history? Those from more ancient cultures might look upon the United States as a parent might judge a toddler. The tot might be adorable and precocious in saying his ABCs, but he's still just a child. We're not going to hang his finger paintings alongside the Mona Lisa. His ideas and language are limited by the extent of his tiny experience, and so we don't have to take them too seriously. But then reality kicks in: that New World upstart is actually an influential player. And those words he spouts: Are they some kind of stealth weapon against all that is good and true in English?

From anti-Americanism-ism to amerilexicophobia

For shame, Mr Jefferson! [. . .] we will forgive all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character; but for the future, spare-O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!

European Magazine and London Review (1797)

What crime against English had Thomas Jefferson committed that raised such ire in London literary circles? How did he "perpetually trample upon the very grammar of our language"? He had (it seems) invented the word belittle. Jefferson had been incensed by the Count de Buffon's theory that the wildlife and people of the New World (including the transplanted Europeans) could only ever be inferior in size to those of Eurasia, and so he wrote:

So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side of the Atlantic.