How America Saved the English Language

Dr Lynne Murphy at Ealing Skeptics in the Pub (The Rose and Crown) on 2 September 2013

Lynne Murphy takes you on a grammatical tour of transatlantic prejudices and challenges what you think you know about Americanisms — and their effect on the Mother Tongue.

We hear a lot about the degradation of the English language. Whose fault might that be? The Americans of course! The Prince of Wales, betraying his title, thinks we need to protect English English, whatever that is. The metaphors writers use to describe the insidious encroachment of American English into British English are often extreme: tidal waves of mindless Americanisms wash over us and are like toxins that permeate our very being.

Murphy specializes in adjectives, and so she compared the positive to the negative qualifiers used to describe Americanisms: the ugly column was an order of magnitude more numerous than the nice column.

There is, we might say, a rampant anti-Americanismism and an Americolexicophobia. The BBC was criticized by the Telegraph for creeping Americanization, although few of their points stood up to closer analysis. For example, they complained that “might have” was being replaced by “might of” — a mishearing over the radio of the contraction “might’ve”.

Lesson No. 1

Disliking a bit of English is not enough to make it American. Consider math vs maths (see Is It Math or Maths?). It turns out that math came before maths – by several decades.  Just because a word ends in s does not mean it’s necessarily plural. The real test is whether or not we can count it. Mathematics is hard.

It’s worth remembering that when people are trying to solve a language problem, they never check and they never call a linguist — they just make stuff up (British-American linguist, Geoffrey Pullum).

Lesson No. 2

American English (AmE) is no less logical than British English (BrE).

Lesson No. 2′

There is no logic in vocabulary.

Lesson No. 3

Americans have saved the English language, including:

  • syllables: secretary, literary
  • the subjunctive mood: I suggested that he write to you (in contrast to, he should write to you)
  • transportation: there was a connotation problem in BrE, which is why the British took off some syllables to erase the association with sending convicts abroad
  • diapers (originated in the 14th century, much earlier than nappy)
  • making verbs out of nouns, like carpet and deposit and seat

She’s sceptical about David Mitchell’s soapboxes about the Queen’s English. She analysed tidbit, which is not spelled that way because tit is intrinsically rude. According to the OED, tyd is special, small thing.

The word herb was originally spelled without an h, which was only pronounced in the 19th century when h dropping became a huge marker of social class. Pronouncing it ‘erb is not a French affectation.

Lesson No. 4

BrE is wannabe French: Br Frenglish. We had the perfectly good English word egg-plant, which we’ve chucked in favour of aubergine; schedule was originally sedule; colour came from French, and then the u was removed to make it more Latin; ize vs ise is her favourite: in 1800 z was far more prominent, through the Victorian period s began its rise, until in the 20th century z made a comeback, in part due to the publication in 1929 of the ODE, which put z spellings first.

Lesson No. 5

BrE doesn’t need saving.

For some of the damage, e.g. corporate jargon, we need to blame capitalism. Many Americanism, however, have no BrE equivalent and so these are bringing nuances to language. There is also sometimes a failure to recognize language play, e.g. ridiculosity, the whole point of the word being that it itself is ridiculous.

Is AmE taking over? There’s no conclusive evidence that UK grammar has been affected by the US. There’s plenty of evidence that there is diverging pronunciation (e.g. posh girls vowels, which are pushed forward in the mouth). There is evidence of word borrowing between dialects.

Lesson No. 6

It goes both ways. There are Britishisms and a Britishization of AmE, e.g. one-off, snog.

Lesson No. 7

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Americans love English accents, and attach a higher social status to the speaker. However, these accents are less intelligible and caused more discomfort, which is perhaps by Hollywood villains are played by English actors.

The simple conclusion is that a living language thrives on borrowing, and we should celebrate the exchanges between BrE and AmE.

Q&A

I asked about c vs k in sceptic vs skeptic. Skeptics in the Pub goes for k (except Eastbourne, apparently, a rebel enclave favouring c). One reason behind the choice of skeptic is to create unity across the movement, and with American skepticism.

Different spellings can give rise to distinct meanings. Language abhors synonymy, and for any two words that seem similar we are very good at finding a difference. Even different pronunciations acquire subtle shifts meaning: vase (English varz) is something in a museum, vase (American vaiz) is something on a table; theater is where you go to see a show, theatre is where you have an operation.

When words move they change: in the UK a hot dog means the bun is included, while it’s just a frankfurter in the US. It’s very hard to control language, which is about our identity and core values as much as it is about communication. I-raq and I-ran, for example, are politicized pronunciations. We learn our native language before the age of five, so a lot is a done deal.

See her blog: separated by a common language.

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