BBC enquires “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?”

Jul 21, 2011 by

Recently a student of mine forwarded to me this article from the BBC website. BBC has long been the stronghold of “proper English”, so I am not completely surprised to see such a strong rhetoric coming out of a BBC writer. Still, the piece is based more on “epistemological populism” than on real understanding of language. And so it is full of fallacies, myths and errors. Here are some of them.

Fallacy #1: passing aesthetic judgments about a language/dialect. There is no objective way to measure “goodness” or “beauty” of a language or a dialect. Just as the author of this article, Matthew Engel rightly claims, “Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different”. The same can (and should) be said about the language: British English is very distinct from American English. “Not better, not worse, different”. Hear? Not better! Just different. Enough with the “propah English” snobbery.

Fallacy #2: British English is “the original version of the English language”. The proponents of this view assume that British English is closer to the way English was in “the good old days”, before the establishment of the United States. In other words, they believe that Shakespeare spoke “propah” BBC English. As we’ve already discussed, Standard American English is in many respects closer to Elizabethan English than BBC English is. Shakespeare himself probably sounded more like a Midwesterner than a posh Londoner today. And it’s not just the pronunciation. Vocabularies and grammars too have changed on both sides of the Atlantic. For the great bard, both the hood and the bonnet referred to articles of clothing, not parts of a motorcar.

Fallacy #3: The importation of Americanisms opens the door to the importation of American culture (which in due course would lead to the disintegration of the British culture). The second, parenthesized part of this fallacy I won’t even address here. But when it comes to the connection between importation of words and importation of culture, Matthew Engel got it all backwards. Rather than being the opening act in the drama of foreign cultural invasion, vocabulary migration is a mere symptom or side-effect of that invasion. Americanisms penetrating British English is a result — not a cause of — cultural penetration. As Matthew Engel rightly notes, “American culture is ubiquitous in Britain on TV and the web”. American movies, newspapers and magazines, TV shows are all “manifestations of American cultural power”. Technological innovation is not far behind. The reason that Brits use e-mail rather than e-post is because they didn’t invent it. It’s the same reason Americans have sputniks and Russians don’t have satellity (from satellite).

Fallacy #4: (American) English is the language of global communication because of some inherent properties it has. According to Matthew Engel,

The French have always hated this process with a very Gallic passion, and their most august body L’Academie Francaise issues regular rulings on the avoidance of imported words. English isn’t like that. It is a far more flexible language. Anarchic even. That’s part of the secret of its success. It has triumphed where Latin, French and the artificial language of Esperanto all ultimately failed, and become the natural medium of global communication.

The truth of the matter is quite the opposite: it is not some inherent property of English, such as its flexibility in admitting “immigrant words” (i.e., loanwords) or ease of grammatical structure, that allowed it to become the language of global communication. Quite in reverse: the fact that it has been imposed on a lot of adult foreigners has caused it to become both flexible in borrowing words and simpler in its grammatical structure. You can read more about this here.

So next time you wonder “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?”, just remember that the answer is all about culture and politics, not language per se. English on both sides of the Atlantic is “gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple” in its own distinct ways.


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