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Home | 2016

Language Lab

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2016-01-23 17:05.


A few decades ago speakers of British English were fairly well insulated from the language of their colonial cousins, the speakers of American English. True, there were plenty of Hollywood 'films' – as we called them then – some TV series and some pop music, in which even British artists frequently sang with an American accent. But although considerable, the barrage of American English did not have much effect on the language of normal British life. The language of films and TV and pop stayed within those fields: this language was almost entirely oral and so any British person trying to speak as Americans did would be loudly mocked by their peers for affectation.

The growth in use of the internet and social media has changed this situation dramatically. We are now much more exposed to the written idioms of American English. The oral flow of American English has also increased with the immense growth of globalised media. British people can now watch TV channels in American English all day, every day. But the most dramatic change is the degree of exposure to written American English, particularly with strict character limits, which encourage the slicing and dicing of grammatical structures.

Should we care? I cannot work up any sense of outrage at a British English speaker substituting an American English word or phrase for a native British English one. I personally wouldn't say 'sidewalk' instead of 'pavement', but the word is clearly comprehensible and there are so many worse things to fuss about that I really don't care if a speaker of British English uses it.

Let's leave the issue of assymetric adoption to one side: sufficient to say that I believe that British English speakers are more likely to say 'sidewalk' than American English speakers are to say 'pavement'. 'Sidewalk' is culturally a much more dominant word.

However, we have to draw the line at the mangled grammar and syntax of a lot of American English. This is not intended as an anti-American sentiment: we have plenty of home-grown syntax manglers in Britain. It just doesn't help importing even more of it.

Here are just a few of the American English expressions now going native in British English. Some are lexical, some are grammatical, one is phonetic. All are probably lost causes.

Lost causes

Likes/loves/hates that: As in 'She hates that her husband is doing Dry January'. 'Hate', 'like' and 'love' etc. have to be followed by a word denoting the THING that is hated, liked or loved. 'She hates Gorgonzola cheese'. If it is a process or action that is disliked then sometimes we use a gerund (verbal noun): 'She hates being kept waiting', which can also be rendered as 'She hates to be kept waiting'. You cannot 'hate/love/like' a 'that' – it's not a thing. Traditional perfection here therefore requires either 'She hates the fact that her husband is doing Dry January' or, the even more elegant 'She hates her husband's doing Dry January' – which would probably be a step too far towards perfection for most of us, but which would bring on a warm rumble in the gizzards of grammarians.

I suspect that the usual suspects for language mangling, the former German speakers in the US, are also responsible for this barbarism. In German one can say: 'Sie hasst es, dass ihr Mann bei Dry-January mitmacht', which avoids the unloved gerund construction in German. English might also use an impersonal pronoun 'She hates it that her husband is doing Dry January'. This also strikes me as an Americanism, but at least it is more grammatical. It is not playing to the strengths of the language, however.

Need to do something: As in 'You need to wait for three weeks' or 'You need to fill in the form on both sides'. The subtleties of modal verbs in English are being levelled under the great American language steamroller. The use of 'to need to do something' is part of that equipment. In traditional English we express nuances of compulsion using different modal verbs: 'You must wait for three weeks', 'You have to wait for three weeks', 'You ought to wait for three weeks', 'You should wait for three weeks', 'You are to wait for three weeks'. I don't think I need to explain these nuances, all of which are now being flattened under the steamroller of 'need to do something'. By using 'need to' the speaker or writer no longer has to think what they really mean, but it's up to the listener or reader to work it out for themselves from the context.

Way (adverb) + almost any other word: As in 'way beyond me', 'way above my paygrade', 'way past my bedtime', 'way too hard', 'way too long', 'way longer' etc. There are so many other words we already have, why does it always have to be 'way'?

Whole lot: As in 'costs a whole lot more than it should' or 'There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on'. Why do we need a double comparative? What's wrong with 'much more', 'a great deal more' etc.?

Step up to the plate: As in 'It is time for him to step up to the plate on this'. I gather that this expression comes from some team game played in the USA. Its meaning is completely lost on me. Does it mean this person should take over responsibility for something? take control of something? admit responsibility for something? take a turn doing something? No idea.

Spider web: For me it was always a 'spider's web', but genitives like this are being rolled over by the language steamroller.

The get-go: As in 'The project was ill-thought out right from the get-go'. Just a lazy barbarism, pure and simple. What's wrong with 'from the start'?

Ice cream: 'Ice-cream'? you say - what's wrong with 'ice-cream'? There is nothing wrong with the word, just the way more and more of us are pronouncing it and many, many other polysyllabic and compound words. In traditional British English we say 'ice-cream' with a light stress on the second, long syllable. More and more now we hear 'ice-cream', with the stress on the first syllable and the second syllable much reduced in length. 'Olive oil' is another compound word to which this has happened. There are many more. I have even heard the stress moving forwards in words such as immigration (former) / immigration (new). I suspect this is another Germanism to come out of the USA, since German words tend to be given the stress on the first syllable. The French roots of our language are getting pulled up, one by one.

It's interesting listening to these changes of stress and pronunciation taking place during one's lifetime, finally to join the long list of pronunciation shifts in the history of the language. In the Victorian era, for example, one would say 'balcony', with a stress on the long 'o'. This would sound very odd to today's speakers, for whom 'balcony' is now normal.

The over-extended long vowels and precise consonants of educated speakers of 'received pronunciation' only fifty years ago now sound affected to most modern listeners, as our drawly speech would seem to our ancestors. If today there are actors who can still speak like that they would be criticised for mannered speaking by modern audiences of period dramas.