Beyond Words - Language Blog

The Colonization of the English Language

In a BBC News Magazine article published several months ago, Matthew Engel discusses and laments Americanisms. The article, “Viewpoint: Why Do Some Americanisms Irritate People?,” explores the increasing presence of Americanisms in the British vernacular, and how some Americanisms should be a cause for alarm. As an American, I found Engel’s opinions humorous and a bit trite, but I’d like to offer a brief commentary.

Engel writes, “American culture is ubiquitous in Britain on TV and the web. As our computers talk to us in American, I keep having to agree to a license spelt with an s. I am invited to print something in color without the u. I am told ‘you ghat mail.’ It is, of course, always e-mail – never our own more natural usage, e-post.” Although Engel pointedly attacks the evolution of the English language in the United States, the responses to his article (posted in “Americanisms: 50 of Your Most Noted Examples“) truly made me question the scope of all the language hostility coming from across the pond. Below are a few of my favo(u)rite reader responses:

15. What kind of word is ‘gotten‘? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington

22. Train station. My teeth are on edge every time I hear it. Who started it? Have they been punished? Chris Capewell, Queens Park, London

31. ‘Hike‘ a price. Does that mean people who do that are hikers? No, hikers are ramblers! M Holloway, Accrington

39. My favourite one was where Americans claimed their family were ‘Scotch-Irish‘. This of course it totally inaccurate, as even if it were possible, it would be ‘Scots’ not ‘Scotch’, which as I pointed out is a drink. James, Somerset

42. Period instead of full stop. Stuart Oliver, Sunderland

Personally, I don’t take issue with the hatred of American English. However, I think it is important to examine the accuracy of these complaints. Mark Liberman over at Language Log posted a great response to Engle’s article. Liberman’s rebuttal, “Peeve of the Week: 20% Correct,” notes that only 20% of Engle’s Americanisms actually stem from American English. In hunting down the etymology of “hospitalize”—a word Engle deems “vile” and “ugly and pointless”, Liberman found that the OED’s “first two citations are from the Daily Chronicle (London) in 1901 and 1904, and hospitalized was used in the British scientific publication Nature as early as 1946.”

The elephant in Engle’s room is the question of language identity and authenticity—an argument much debated between British and American linguists. In the end, Engle and other BBC readers’ pet peeves should just give American English users something to chuckle about. As Geoffry Pullum points out in another Language Log entry, American English speakers have nothing to fear when traveling or living in Britain—”I mistakenly ordered a bagel to go yesterday (I should have said ‘to take away’), and nobody snarled.”

Have any Beyond Words‘ readers outside of the United States experienced any hostility toward American English usage? Is this a global (maybe even globish) phenomenon, or is it simply the complaint of a small minority in the UK? Let us know your thoughts!


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