In praise of American English

Stop being sniffy about this language that uses words like diaper and can’t pronounce aluminium; it's the new Latin.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics

If you consider that the English and the French spent a good part of 800 years at war with each other, it’s not surprising that relations between the two peoples and their cultures remain awkward. The latest manifestation of this came last week. We learned that many people in France have been up in arms about plans to allow English to be used to teach science courses in its universities. The British, in turn, have found such fury and indignation hilarious.

‘Hold le front page: French want English invasion’, ran a Times headline on Wednesday. The report explained how the French are seething at this legislation, designed to attract Anglophone Asians students to the country: ‘An already feverish row reached new heights of hysteria when Libération, the leftish daily, produced its front page in English to highlight its support for the legislation. The newspaper had traditionalists choking over their croissants with a banner headline that it did not even bother to translate: “Teaching in English, let’s do it”… So keen are the French to protect their mother tongue that there is even a body dedicated to the preservation of the language of Racine and Voltaire.’

‘French man the barricades to save the language of Molière from extinction’, added the conservative Daily Telegraph, joining in the mockery. We read that Courriel, a French language defence association, branded the move as ‘linguistic assassination’. Bernard Pivot, a journalist and leading figure in French cultural circles, portended that ‘if we allow English to be introduced into our universities and for teaching science and the modern world, French will become vandalised and become poorer… It will turn into a commonplace language, or worse, a dead language.’

The French and their language, eh? So precious. So petty. And yet so quaint. Consider the Académie Française, the language protection society that most British regard as fairly ridiculous, with its uniform of long black coat, feathered hat, skirt and ceremonial sword – pedantic freemasons embroiled in a hopeless war against ‘hashtag’, ’email’ and other such Anglicisms. Hell, hardly anyone even bothers to use French in the Eurovision Song Contest anymore. Why can’t the cheese-eating surrender monkeys live up to their name and do just that: admit that they’ve lost the linguistic war to the English?

This, alas, isn’t the true state of affairs. France is losing a linguistic war not to the language spoken in its native country, but to American English. We Brits can be just as touchy about our mother tongue when it comes to American English, so it’s a bit rich to take such a superior, sarcastic tone here. If you don’t believe me, here’s a test: write an email to a British friend spelling ‘colour’ without the ‘u’, or ‘maths’ without the ‘s’; say ‘the lootenant is good’ to describe an officer who is feeling well, or add to your speech – for decoration – ‘fag’, ‘bum’ and ‘fanny’.

‘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.’ So said a member of the House of Lords in 1978, and today there remains no better way to irritate a Brit than by using inappropriate American English, as a recent television advert for Enterprise Rent-A-Car demonstrates. Look: the American fellow says ‘stick shift’ not ‘gear stick’! He can’t say ‘aluminium’ properly! Ha ha!

‘Unstoppable rise of American English: Study shows young Britons copying US writing style’, ran a Daily Mail story last year. The analysis of 74,000 children’s entries to a short story competition found that the written work was littered with such Americanisms as garbage (rubbish), trash can (dustbin), sidewalk (pavement), candy (sweets), sneakers (trainers), soda (fizzy drink), smart (clever), cranky (moody), and flashlight (torch). The Mail prognosticated ominously that the ‘future of written English will owe more to Hollywood films than Dickens or Shakespeare, if the findings of a study into children’s writing are anything to go by’.

Does this actually matter? No. On the contrary, we should welcome American English, as it bequeaths to British English more synonyms. English is such a brilliant language for the very reason it has so many different words for similar things, a result of its dual Germanic/Latinate parentage. In the language of Shakespeare, Dickens and Hollywood you can describe someone as hungry or famished, fast or rapid, good or benevolent, bad or malevolent. It’s no coincidence that the first modern thesaurus was in English – Roget’s, in 1805.

In any case, many alleged ‘Americanisms’ are merely old English words that fell into disuse, notably ‘fall’ for autumn, ‘diaper’, ‘faucet’, ‘candy’ and ‘gotten’. The latter is especially useful, as in British English ‘got’ has to double up as a present tense verb for ‘possess’ and a past participle for ‘attain’ and ‘become’. The prohibition on ‘gotten’ is both chauvinistic and illogical when you consider the uncontroversial ‘forgotten’. Instead of complaining about American English, it would be more interesting to explore why Americans speak the way they do. For instance, New England was settled by people from south-east England, which is why Bostonians also don’t pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘car’ (think Cliff from Cheers propping up the baa). Much of the rest of America was settled by Irish and Scots, which is why they also articulate a strong ‘r’ in ‘Iron Maiden’. And Americans say ‘I’m good’, not to boast of their moral worth but to indicate their state of being, because Germans – another emigrant people – use gut as an adverb as well as an adjective.

Everyone in the world – except Dutch and Scandinavian footballers – learns American English because it is today’s lingua franca. It’s the principal means for disseminating ideas and getting work, as Latin used to be. As Luc Ferry of Le Figaro, writing approvingly of the new French legislation, noted last week: ‘Si Descartes n’avait pas écrit en latin, come le feront encore après lui Leibniz ou Spinoza, il n’aurait jamais été lu dans le monde entier.’ People stopped using French when that country went into decline and lost influence in the nineteenth century, and it was the same story for British English in the twentieth. But neither language has disappeared, and neither is ‘threatened’ by American English. It’s also worth remembering that as America declines, so will its influence and the importance of its language. No empire lasts for ever.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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