By Sarah Pridgeon
I have reached the stage of my cultural evolution at which I can no longer tell whether the words that come out of my mouth were always a part of my lexicon or have ear wormed their way into my brain since the plane landed. I cannot translate back and forth between British and American English because the two languages have merged to become one and the same.
Though it does lead to the occasional moment of confusion, usually for my long-suffering colleagues, this didn’t much bother me until recently. As far as I was concerned, it was proof of my adaptive skills and something to be celebrated. After all, if you can speak like the natives, you can speak with the natives, and an old-fashioned conversation is how most good things in life begin.
However, a respected journalist back in Britain, whose career spans four decades and includes such notable publications as The Guardian and The Financial Times, has published a cantankerous tome indicating that the death of British English may soon be upon us – and it’s all your fault.
According to Matthew Engel, American English may have entirely absorbed its parent language within the next century. It will happen, he says, because we Brits are merrily predisposed to enjoy all things foreign (that’s what happens to an imperialistic people without an empire, I suppose) and hoover up every piece of Americana that Hollywood deigns to send our way.
The end result of our unfailing joy in finding new ways to say old things? “The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted,” says Engel.
These days, you’ll find that Britain is split neatly in two according to a person’s views on the slow creep of Americanisms. Personally, I have always been of the opinion that all words should be enjoyed – mulled over, considered, tried out and turned over in the mouth like a succulent morsel – and thus have embraced the majority of the new ones I’ve been given. To “visit with” still being my favorite of the local brand, of course.
But Engel is on the other side of the divide, from whence he has pledged to defend the honor of the mother tongue until his dying breath. In his new book, That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English, he has tracked down the origins of hundreds of Americanisms in what he describes as a “feeble” attempt to prevent his prediction from coming true.
It began as a trickle, all the way back in 1533, when New World residents understandably began to name things they hadn’t ever seen before. The very first Americanism was apparently “guaiacum”, for the bark of a Haitian tree, and was followed by such words as tomato, chocolate and mosquito.
This hardly seems problematic; if we didn’t have a word for something, what harm could there be in inventing one? It’s only when we reach the reign of Noah Webster that we run into issues.
None other than Benjamin Franklin himself asked Webster to prevent the spread of Americanisms and stay close to the mother tongue, but the grammarian had other ideas. He felt that independence should be underpinned by the language itself and wanted the two versions of English to drift in entirely opposite directions.
It’s thanks to Webster that I spell it “theatre” while you prefer “theater”, that words such as color and labor are missing the letter “u” and that so many American words end in “ize” instead of “ise”. On that count, he won his battle, but I doubt he could have predicted the British capacity for acting as sponges.
Since that time, we’ve been absorbing Americanisms like it was going out of style. Nowadays, new housing structures in London are calling themselves “apartment blocks”, an upsetting number of people are referring to biscuits as “cookies” and we’ve adopted the sometimes unpleasant habit of using nouns as verbs (although you’ll never catch me saying I plan to “elevator to the top of the building” as a thriller writer apparently did in the first chapter of his latest release. I also refuse to ever, no matter the circumstances, “deplane”).
The problem is, these days we can’t actually tell which phrases belong to the Old World and which are newly invented. It’s obvious that a phrase like, “touch base” has roots in American sport, but what about “rookie”? Nope, that one was coined by Rudyard Kipling.
What about “gotten”, which is hardly ever heard in Britain but is employed all the time on this side of the ocean? Nope, that one belongs to Shakespeare. And we should be particularly careful in complaining about Americanisms when you consider that “stiff upper lip”, the phrase that defines my nation, actually originated over here.
So, while I must join Mr. Engel in hoping that the mother tongue holds its own, largely because I am a big fan of tradition, I can’t find it within myself to get too worked up about all this absorbing of words.
The more the merrier, surely? Can I not enjoy sharing scuttlebutt with a curtain-twitcher or feel ornery when faced with an embuggerance?
English is a rich language made up of stolen pieces of other people’s vocabularies, from Greek and Roman and Old Germanic to Celtic, French and even Japanese and Hindi. We’ve created a way of speaking that already ties together a world’s worth of cultures – so what’s one more between friends?