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 The other week, I was having dinner with a Cambridge academic who was American but had spent more years living in Britain than the land of his birth. At one stage he used the word “entrée” to refer to the main course of our meal. This caused confusion around the table: surely he meant the starter? The phrase “lost in translation” doesn’t only apply to words and phrases between languages; it also applies within them. 

American English has, since the American Revolutionary period of the 18th century, been different from British English in terms of vocabulary, accent and spelling. They say “garbage”, we say “rubbish”. They go on “vacation”, we go on “holiday”. They emphasize, and we emphasise. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (probably apocryphally) described us as “two nations divided by a common language”.

I have yet to see an official British organ or institution come out and explicitly condemn Americanisms that creep into British English, but many people in the general public do speak out against it. Last year, someone from the Young Liberals, the youth and student wing of the Liberal Democrats, tweeted: “Bet y’all are wishing Jo Swinson had been the UK’s next prime minister right about now, huh?” – as though the author were a middle-aged person from Kentucky, rather than a young person from Surrey. It was swiftly condemned by almost everyone. One tweet in response captured the feeling: “Please never use the word ‘y’all’ ever again.” Over a decade ago, the broadcaster Martha Kearney used the phrase “fess up” in an interview on the The World at One radio programme; this triggered angry responses on the BBC message boards.

Yet the ire was, at one point, directed the other way. The American lexicographer and grammarian Noah Webster published his first dictionary in 1806, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. (It wasn’t the first American dictionary: that honour belongs to a 1798 volume by Samuel Johnson Jr, no relation to the great essayist.) In Webster’s American English, the British “-our” turns to “-or”, and the “-ence” to “-ense”. Webster once argued, in an essay titled “English Corruption of the American Language”, that “Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard, for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.” 

Oddly, for some, this is still an ongoing issue. In 2018, The New York Times published an essay on the subject of Anglo-creep: the tendency of British words and phrases such as “dodgy” and “gutted” to be adopted by American “coastal creative types”. Lynne Murphy, an American professor of linguistics, told the newspaper that “British words, even slang, can make Americans feel or sound more sophisticated or cosmopolitan because they’re marking themselves as people who see or know the world beyond the US.”

Beyond America’s borders, however, the reverse is more generally true. We watch more American “movies” and TV shows than British kinds; the same is true of music. From “Can I get …” to “reach out”, Americanisms have, since the dawn of the mass-media age, been affecting the way we speak. Murphy pointed out that “the fear of American English taking over the world has been a constant theme in British society since the late 19th century”.

This has great significance, because English is the world’s lingua franca (as it were). It’s an official language of 67 of the world’s 195 countries, as well as the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the International Criminal Court, Nato and Eurovision. It’s the international language of business, finance, technology and sport – in fact, anyone who needs to be widely understood. Volodymyr Zelensky tweets two versions of every statement he makes: the first in Ukrainian, the second in English. The latter are always shared far more widely. There are more non-native English speakers in the world than native: 20 per cent speak English, but only five per cent as a first language. Above all, an estimated 60 per cent of all internet content is in English. If you are born as a native English speaker, you have won a raffle ticket. 

Compare French, once the pre-eminent international tongue, the language of diplomacy and educated Europeans, spoken from Moscow to Marseille. These days, it seems under siege. In 1994, France introduced the Toubon Law, which made the use of French mandatory in the media, advertisements, sales of goods and services, and official documents. A report by six members of the Académie Francaise published last year complained about Anglicisms in public bodies and private firms: the popularity of English phrases such as “big data” and “drive-in”. They specifically described tech terms as “Californisms”. 

French opposition to Americanised English also has a political dimension. Some French politicians have complained about what they view as divisive theories around race, gender and sexuality that are imported to their country from America. Jean-Michel Blanquer, who was then French minister of education, argued in 2021 that “there’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities”. The French President Emmanuel Macron has likewise complained about “certain social-science theories entirely imported from the United States”.

Here in the Anglophone world, some intensely divisive words and concepts first used in America are now used in the UK. The first person to use the term “cisgender” was an American biologist called Dana Leland Defosse, who coined it in an online forum in 1994. Nearly 30 years later, it has become a ubiquitous term to describe people who do not identify as transgender. Many people, from Left-wing feminists to conservatives to moderates, dislike it, simply because they question the assumption that there is such a thing as a gender identity that supersedes biological sex. 

The term “woke”, meanwhile, was initially created by black American people to express their commitment to highlighting injustice. Today, it’s everywhere in the contemporary British culture wars, describing – according to your ideological persuasion – either a set of beliefs associated with equality, kindness and inclusivity, or an authoritarian, divisive and poisonous set of doctrines that undermines the West. 

And in the summer of 2020, after the murder of the black American George Floyd, some British activists claimed we should be campaigning against the oppression of BIPOC people, meaning “Black, indigenous [and] people of colour”. This makes sense in an American context if you want to highlight the mistreatment of ethnic minority groups – but in a British context, it carries a far-Right resonance as much as a progressive one. Defending the oppressed “indigenous” people of Britain sounds like something from BNP literature. 

I consume so much American culture. I love American films, music and novels – this is true of countless other British people. The fact that some American words and phrases have been internalised by us makes perfect sense. But we should be wary of too close a connection. As the British writer Matthew Engel put it in his 2017 book That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English: “The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted” – by which he means that by 2120, if we acquiesce to its influence, American English will have consumed the British form. The distinctive richness of British English – which is not a homogenous thing, but a wonderful mosaic of dialects and accents – will flatten under the influence of a globalised language experienced through mass culture and politics.

Language is how we make sense of ourselves. Lose it, and we risk being utterly estranged from ourselves. The miscommunication between the American professor and me and the other guests was a minor frustration – but it would be nothing, culturally and politically, compared to the absorption of British English into an American one.

Source : Telegraph


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