By Jim Tyson
"Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?" (Henry Sweet)
The French never care what they do, actually,
as long as they pronounce it properly.
What’s my problem? [ T]he Brits are, more and more, speaking a foreign (or semi-foreign) language. I refer, of course, to American English.
What is one to say? A friend of the English language expresses eloquently albeit with occasionally wild diction his concern that it’s going to hell in a handcart because of Americanization. (Note to our French friends, we capitalize differently). Well, it’s rather like those gifts one gets at Christmas: one appreciates the sentiment but the generosity is undermined by absolute lack of use. You see, not a single example offered is demonstrably a case of Americanization and if it were, one would be forced to ask "So what?" British people just don’t suffer linguistic anxieties like this. Our patriotism not to mention our blaggardly jingoism simply isn’t focussed on fears of being swamped by American culture.
[ ]people would lose some – or a lot – of their individual character, of their identity. And the Americans aren’t rushing to adopt British English. The traffic is overwhelmingly one-way.
Well, Xavier, the Americans that is those North Americans who are Anglophone rather than Francophone or Hispanophone hardly have to rush to adopt British English. They bought the whole language, lock, stock and barrel from us several centuries ago. If now the ex-colonies influence the English of the old mother country, we shan’t worry simply because we’ve already won the language war: the United States is an Anglophone country.
Let’s look at Xavier’s first examples:
1) First, three monsters that are now so firmly settled that they’re probably impossible to get rid of:
Now the objection, one assumes, is to the use of these words as sentence adverbials. I can’t think of any other objection. But what evidence is there that this usage objectionable or not is an example of Americanization? Certainly, Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage points out that not only is this locution found in the work of some of our best writers but that it is firmly established by the 17th century when only a few straggling pioneers were speaking English in North America. How can it plausibly be an Americanisation then?
Xavier moves on to words which he feels have squeezed out British English terms for not good reason. His examples are very good:
movie (what was wrong with "film"?)
Truck (is "lorry" on the way out?)
Now, I’m happy for the sake of argument to accept nolo contendere movie and truck and guy as loans from American English. But the complaint is worth investigating. What is wrong with these loans? After all, this is a pervasive fact about language. Like most languages (the exceptions being truly exceptional), English borrows promiscuously. What interests me and needs explaining, if Xavier’s hypothesis is to make headway, is why this is nonetheless relatively rare. Why borrow movie but retain trousers? Why borrow truck but not elevator? Why borrow guy but not mac oh no wait, it was the French who ended up with mec for guy! Sorry, wrong Americanized culture I was thinking of
Finding loans from US to British English isn’t evidence of any overwhelming Americanization of British English after all, I could probably find plenty of loans from Hindi if I tried and not a few from Australian English. Alone and unsupported by other evidence, they don’t demonstrate anything. After all, the plural of anecdote isn’t data.
On then to the Superfluous Additions. Well superfluous they may be (rather, as I always think, the à is superfluous in boîte à outils we manage perfectly well with just toolbox) but are they Americanizations?
meet with ("Yesterday, Tony Blair met with president Bush")
visit with ("come and visit with us one day")
OK. This one could be Americanization if Ruskin (1850), George Eliot (1872) and Frank Norris (1903) are supposed to have got it from American usage.
consult with ("we will be consulting with our allies")
Not a chance. This usage consult with is far from an Americanism. It’s attested in English since at least 1618.
join with ("he joined with his friend")
Attested since at least 1548. Sorry.
Well. I’m afraid that one out of four is below par. The case, I submit, is far from proven for this little lot.
What of the foot and a half long words? Are these transmitted to perfidious Albion from America? Let us see.
at this moment in time : 6 syllables when one ( "now" ) would suffice.
in excess of: ("win prizes totalling in excess of 7 thousand pounds!"
"I owed in excess of £ 25,000" (what’s wrong with "more than"?).
Well, maybe Xavier is on to something here. This nasty little phrase is first attested in 1860 (that I can find) and by John Tyndall. I always knew scientists couldn’t write and isn’t science itself just more damnable American modernism?
On to the ominous "Verbs that become transitive, when they shouldn’t be":
to protest a decision
Transitive uses of protest including this one date back at least until the 16th century.
to appeal a sentence
Good lord man! Do you mean it? This usage is so ancient and venerable that your calling it into question might well provoke apoplexy at the inns of court! Anyway, Caxton, again, has this in 1481. Of course, the date 1492 isn’t set in stone. Maybe Xavier knows something about the "discovery" of America that the poor English don’t?
to debate someone ("the president debated his opponent in the race to the White house")
One that I must chalk up to Xavier again! This could be an Americanism since I can’t think of any obviously antique examples and Google only throws up very recent ones.
I don’t want to flog a dead horse but I’ll take the other examples briefly.
Verbs that lose their transitive status:
There are attested intransitive uses of hurt since at least 1225. I wonder hear whether it’s not just that this particular locution "I’m hurting" has the odour not only of American English but of therapy speak and thus causes the bile to rise. I confess, I don’t like this one either but I know that it’s just plain prejudice on my part. There’s nothing to compel the conclusion that this is an Americanism.
to access ("he was unable to access his own front door")
Entirely modern and I am willing to bet money that its first use was in America. I have no proof alas.
to impact ("how will the decision impact people’s lives?")
As far as I can tell this is modern. There are early verbal uses of impact but not with this sense. This doesn’t reek of Americanism to me but I can find no evidence either way.
Another modern use of an old noun. The references I can find are equally divided between American and British examples. Case not proven.
Only attested late 20th century but I can’t find any evidence of its origin. I do wonder though what the alternative would be?
societal (what’s wrong with "social"?)
Nineteenth century and the first uses I can find are American! We have at last, I think, an undisputed Americanism! It is an ugly word – as most agree – but there are reasons to think it serves a purpose. Social means just being the result of happening in a social setting. Societal, as far as I can see, means the result of taking place in one particular society (that is to say one organised in just this way) rather than in some other. So, maybe we need a neologism here but not this ugly and plausibly American one?
Nope. This is attested since the 14th century and couldn’t possibly be an Americanism.
I shan’t deal with the suspicion of further insidious American influence and the horror of moving stress patterns in British English: it’s all too awful to contemplate.
What do we have at the end of the day? Just a list of examples most of which upon examination are not plausibly Americanisms. They were presented by Xavier as exemplars of linguistic imperialism without any evidence but it only took a moment with a few good reference books to sort most of them out. But why did the question arise in the first place? I submit that a shadow is falling across Europe: the shadow of anti-Americanism. I’m as much a left-leaning, pinko, commie, liberal as the next man but I have observed over the last few years how America has come to be scapegoated sorry, I mean blamed for all the ills that we Europeans perceive around us. Now, some of those ills undoubtedly originate in America more specifically in the United States – but do they all? Am I alone in thinking that as we Europeans lose our cultural confidence, those of a right wing persuasion seem inclined to look with alarm at the Muslim world and Africa while those of us who still in our hearts are singing that l’internationale sera le genre humain are apt to look west for our anti-heroes?
Until we have some evidence the fear of Americanisation remains just one fear among many and while many people might find the examples that Xavier put forward ugly and reprehensible, I think we can show for most of them that America just isn’t to blame.