American vs English? Don’t have a cow, man!

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If there is anything that the fearless defenders of the English Language hate more than misplaced apostrophes, it’s Americanisms. We live in fear of an invasion, a sudden outpour of American culture that will undoubtedly swarm our lives and homes if, god forbid, we should on occasion let slip the term “trash”. We are, of course, morally obligated as Britons to try to the best of our abilities to waylay the usurping Americanisms, or all hell will inevitably break loose.

Why though? Why are Americanisms such a problem? Prescriptivists – people who believe in a strict set of rules for language – argue that there is a right and a wrong for language, and that American English (AmE), falls into the category of wrong. But even so, is that enough incentive to justify getting quite as angry as some people do?

This kind of attitude reeks of almost an apocalyptic fear of decline. The idea of language being linked inextricably with society as a whole has led to generations of intolerance towards even the slightest changes. If you were to approach somebody who held these kinds of views, however, and asked them why simple words like “sidewalk” bother them so much, they would have no better response than, “but it’s not right!” “It’s not English!” Oh? But it’s a vocabulary that is being used by English people all the time. Does that not make it, by default, English? The origin of a word hasn’t always affected our attitudes towards it. Any vendettas the British may have towards the French is completely forgotten when borrowing terms like “Déjà vu,” and let’s not forget, plenty of our words stem from German, such as “doppelgänger” or even “angst.”

My favourite part, however, of debating with linguistic purists about Americanisms is this:  have you ever used the term “battery” or “radio”? How about “talented” or “reliable”? All Americanisms which, though you or I may now accept them as a perfectly normal part of our vocabulary, were once detested just as “elevator” and “rookie” are now. Similarly, words that we may consider abhorrently foreign now, “candy,” “diaper” or using the term “fall” to describe autumn, were all originally Britishisms: words that once invaded America, and that we Britons abandoned and never reclaimed.

My point here is that language and attitudes towards it are constantly changing, and to say that English Language was once at a peak of perfection, and has been declining ever since, is to have a shockingly narrow and self-centred view of the world. Between feverishly correcting apostrophes, reprimanding people for their spelling and grammar, we forget that the use of apostrophes in plurals, which prescriptivists so detest now, was once the standard, and printed in the dictionary. The Apostrophe Protection Society (yes, it’s a real thing) devotes its work towards “saving” the apostrophe from decline, and their website (which is well worth a visit, if only for a good laugh) makes a point of detailing the ‘correct’ use of “less” vs. “fewer”, or “who” vs. “whom.” Grammar nuances like these however, are in most senses, completely obsolete. If I were to tell somebody that there are “less (as opposed to fewer) English speaking people living in England than there are in America” regardless of whether my misuse of the word “less” rattled them, they would still understand my meaning. So what’s the problem?

It’s clear here that our attitudes to things like Americanisms go deeper than just finding them annoying – they reflect our attitudes to society as a whole. Language is a beautiful thing, constantly changing and contradicting itself, not just over our lifetime, but over centuries. To suggest that the English Language as we know it is right, and that every other variation – from Chaucer to American English, to different kinds of patois – is both wrong and incredibly arrogant.

Last modified: 2nd November 2015

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