Evolution is natural, so get with the programme
- Credit: Archant
Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country
A mum I know told me she would not let her kids celebrate Halloween because “it’s just another American import”. She’s wrong, actually. It originated in Ireland and became big in America only in the mid-19th Century, when the potato famine drove more than one million Irish immigrants across the water.
But her comments did get me thinking.
Many Brits have an ingrained patriotic belief that the British are superior to the Americans in every possible way. The Yanks are brash and vulgar, they say. They have an unhealthy diet of fried food and fizzy pop. They invented gun-crime. They are responsible for a vast proportion of world pollution. Their politicians are dim.
And, worst of all, their language is a corruption of our own eloquent tongue.
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Yes, America and Britain are famously said to be two nations divided by a common language. They have gas, we have petrol. They put out the garbage, us the rubbish. They call a full stop a period.
Rest rooms, zip codes, soccer, the movie theatre, the elevator and the apartment are the equivalents of our bathrooms, postcodes, football, cinema, lift and flat.
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And there are other, more subtle, Americanisms that have seeped into our vocabulary, with the same ease that McDonald’s and Starbucks have found space in our high street.
If I ask one of my children how they are, they reply: “I’m good”. I’ve heard them talk about candy and cookies instead of sweets and biscuits.
They use words like “dude” and “cool”.
According to a study, young Britons have not just picked up US slang, either. More and more are copying the writing style, too.
The research, an analysis of 74,000 short stories written by pupils aged seven to 13, found that written English now owes more to Hollywood films than it does to the likes of Charles Dickens.
Oxford University Press, which carried out the assessment, found that the majority of children stumbled over simple spellings, overused exclamation marks and got tenses muddled up.
But, most interestingly, the linguists discovered fears were unfounded that texting was corrupting children’s written work. Instead, the youngsters were adopting a vast number of American words, most of which were picked up from films.
Now I can’t pretend I don’t use a large number of Americanisms myself.
I refer to my children as “the kids”. I say: “listen up”, “no brainer” and am also rather fond of “24/7”.
It would be easy to feel guilty for jumping on the bandwagon – another US phrase coined by an American circus showman in the 19th century – but actually I think this is just how language develops.
And rather than be all “stiff upper lip” about it, I think we would be far better to embrace such fluidity.
After all, the British have been borrowing words from America for at least two centuries.
In 1832, the poet Samuel Coleridge was apoplectic about a “vile and barbarous” new adjective that had just arrived in London. The word was “talented”.
It sounds innocuous enough to our ears now, doesn’t it? But joining “talented” are “reliable”, “influential” and “lengthy”, all of which inspired loathing when they first crossed the Atlantic.
These days people actually have very little idea where American ends and English begins. And, dare I say it, I actually think language improves with imports. great number of words of French origin have entered the English language, for example.
In fact, believe it or not, nearly 30% of all English words have a French origin, including important ones such as Parliament, finance, inherit, medal, soldier and treaty.
The linguistic traffic is by no means entirely one way either, although the French like to get on their high horse about protecting their native tongue from invasion.
Just last week a French philosopher complained there were more examples of the English language in Toulouse than there were German during occupation.
In the latest salvo of a rearguard action against the slew of British expressions, leading academic Michel Serres went as far as to call for a boycott of all products whose advertising slogans use English and of films whose titles are not translated.
I say latest because it’s not the first time the French have led a revolution on this issue.
Former president Jacques Chirac famously led a French walkout from an EU summit when a fellow Frenchman committed the offence of speaking English.
And the culture ministry recently listed English words – such as “email”, “blog”, “supermodel”, “takeaway”, “chewing gum” and “weekend” – on its website. They had become commonplace and should be banned and replaced with French equivalents.
Funnily enough, although we moan about Americanisms in the same way the French moan about franglais, the Americans actively welcome any new English phrases they can incorporate into their own everyday conversation.
For example, the word “ginger”, previously seldom used in America to denote hair-colour, is fast taking over from “redhead” – a development which has been put down to the popularity of the Harry Potter books, in which Ron Weasley is always so described.
“One-off” is also catching on, to denote a unique event or person, while the verb “to go missing” – never heard in the US until 12 years ago – is increasingly used in preference to “disappear”.
Now, I do think the English language is a marvellous thing. A vast mechanism built from 220,000 words that work together like cogs.
It has been shaped and honed by the greatest poets who ever spoke in any tongue, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Jane Austen and Dylan Thomas.
But it has been evolving for more than 1,500 years, so are we so desperate to prevent it continuing to do so?
To those who want to interfere with such an interesting process, I really have only one thing left to say: Butt out.
n Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup