Guest blogger: The americanisation of British English

By Xavier Kreiss

"Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?" I used to think that professor Higgins’ desperation was funny. That was a long time ago. Today, I’m not sure.
What’s my problem? Not the evolution of British English. Not the slang, the lazy shortcuts, the torture inflicted on grammar and syntax. Not the way it often denotes an appalling ignorance. After all, similar horrors can be found in other languages too. They’re a (regrettable?) part of the natural life and evolution of any language. And of course, quite a few of the changes are to be welcomed. A very subjective subject, no doubt. But what I find bizarre, even rather worrying, is the way the Brits are, more and more, speaking a foreign (or semi-foreign) language. I refer, of course, to American English.
This form of the language is rich, inventive, constantly evolving, and fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, and I’m all in favour of British English speakers adopting some of its words. But there is a difference between that and the wholesale swallowing of a foreign vernacular. Languages change constantly, and are enriched by the adoption of foreign terms. But when a vast mass of these all come from the same source, it has the opposite effect: the original language becomes poorer.
Instead of coining new words and phrases, UK English now tends to pick up the "ready made" variety from the United States. Not unlike buying pre-cooked meals from supermarkets (I plead guilty here) rather than go through the drudgery of cooking… Fine, from time to time. But imagine eating nothing but that, no home cooking any more. Or a language which innovates less and less, because the people who speak it prefer to adopt these ready-made words and expressions. These 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.
Does it matter? It depends on whether people want to keep their native language or are happy to "migrate" to another, however closely related the two may be. Kids fed an unending diet of American films and television series can be forgiven for using the words they hear. But it becomes more worrying when you hear the mainstream media spouting American terms, usually without knowing it.
Here is a partial list of americanisms I have heard (in many cases more than once) on the BBC, mostly Radio 4, from the mouths of presenters and journalists.
1) First, three monsters that are now so firmly settled that they’re probably impossible to get rid of:
hopefully
thankfully
regretfully
2) Words that have been adopted as they are, displacing perfectly adequate British ones (a bit like those American grey squirrels squeezing out the British red ones…)
movie (what was wrong with "film"?)
truck (is "lorry" on the way out?)
guy
3) Superfluous additions:
meet with ("Yesterday, Tony Blair met with president Bush")
visit with ("come and visit with us one day")
consult with ("we will be consulting with our allies")
join with ("he joined with his friend")
4) Sesquipedalian, or pretentious (like the term "sesquipedalian", come to think of it!) speech:
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"?).
5) Verbs that become transitive, when they shouldn’t be:
to protest a decision
to appeal a sentence
to debate someone ("the president debated his opponent in the race to the White house")
6) Verbs that lose their transitive status:
"I’m hurting"
7) Nouns that become verbs:
to access ("he was unable to access his own front door")
to impact ("how will the decision impact people’s lives?")
to scapegoat

8) Ugly and unnecessary neologisms:

judgemental
societal (what’s wrong with "social"?)
9) Mutilated words:
specialty
10) Cod science: ie the use of scientific terms without knowing what they mean. One that irritates me is "claustrophobic". It’s impeccably English, but I suspect that its misuse is of American origin. It sounds clever to use a word that has four syllables – however, a room, or instance, cannot be claustrophobic. For that, you need a being capable of feeling a horror of small, enclosed spaces.
11) Pronunciation: do you remember the good old days when, for instance, the stress in the word "adult" was on the first syllable?
The list above is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg (a useful cliché, that).
I could also, for instance, mention the English novelist who (still on Radio 4) read a few lines from her latest book on a cultural programme. The text (remember: this was in a contemporary novel) included "like" used instead of "as though" or "as if". Even the Beatles avoided that. Think of it…"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks like they’re here to stay"?
Am I making a narrow-minded judgemen… sorry, being "judgemental"? Well, perhaps. And again, languages evolve. No harm in that. But I wish the people who happily use these foreign expressions would refrain from laughing at us French for having adopted terms such as "le weekend". As it happens, this was quite a justified adoption, as there was no single equivalent term in French. There are far worse horrors : apparently, in a recent article in Elle about exercise and "keep fit" matters, the author asked rhetorically : "connaissez-vous le running?" (NB: Céline points out that this is all the sillier when you bear in mind that we already have a perfectly good French word: "le jogging").
After the first wave of nausea, one can take comfort in the fact that in such cases, the foreign influence is, at least, very visible. Whereas the two forms of English are similar, enabling the invader to approach in "camouflage". One could, of course, argue that it isn’t a problem. True. It’s a free society, people can speak any way they wish. Besides, they no longer have any problems in the United Kingdom.
They now have ishoos.
______________________________________
Further food for thought:
The subject of americanisms is covered at length in a fascinating web page from the Economist’s style guide for its journalists, but which it kindly makes available to the wider public.
The style guide in its entirety is a refreshing read.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:04+00:00 February 6th, 2007|Guests|22 Comments

About the Author:

Celine
I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

22 Comments

  1. Bela February 6, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    I agree totally.
    Because I’ve lived in the UK for a very long time and because the changes have crept upon us rather surreptitiously, I’m less shocked by what’s happening to British English than by the current sorry state of the French language. Over ten years ago, I heard someone say, on France-Inter, ‘C’est un peu too much.’ I knew the end of French as she had been spoken until then was nigh.
    The magazine ELLE is indeed one of the worst offenders (I wrote a post about it on my own blog, ages ago). This is just an example of what one can find on their website this week:
    Fonelle a shoppé pour vous
    Ski, surfez sur la mode !
    Votre coach mode
    Les people
    Les news mode
    Street style
    Quelle est la fashionista qui porte le mieux le ventre rond, nouveau hit de l’été ?
    Je m’inscris aux newsletters Elle
    Le bi-blush
    Etc. etc. etc.
    Btw, even Zadie Smith writes ‘different than’ in a recent (and brilliant) Guardian article.

  2. Angela February 6, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    I’m not sure I’ve ever commented here before, though I do read sometimes – anyway. Something which annoys me for no very good reason is the phrase exemplified in ‘the internet just got better!’ or similar.
    That’s a clear Americanism – Brits (used to) use the compound past here, not the simple past – ‘the internet has just got better!’.
    I shan’t be using that one.

  3. caroline February 6, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    you’re not being “judgemental” but, as an american, i do believe you are being “judgmental”.
    and in reference to the difference between “problems” and “issues”, problems have solutions whereas issues do not. so, unless you can put a stop to the global marketing machine from the greatest, most powerful and righteous country on earth, the UK will be having issues for quite some time. But that’s okay; that’s what therapy is for 😉

  4. Kimberley February 6, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    Would you like to tell me how it is possible for people with hundreds of native tongues to settle in Britain and not have any influence on the English spoken there?

  5. céline February 7, 2007 at 7:46 am

    Bela, would you mind putting the link to your entry in a comment? I turned your blog upside down but couldn’t find it.

  6. Tony February 7, 2007 at 9:41 am

    I think you do protest too much:
    1 (Hopefully etc) These three words have been current in English as routine adverbs since 17th century or earlier. Fowler (Burchfield) has a whole page on the recent extension of their use to qualify a predication or assertion as a whole; the row about “hopefully” has been going on since the 1960s. There is no reason to suppose that this usage is an American import.
    11 (adult) Here you are plain wrong. The word should be stressed differently for the adjective and the noun, not that anybody cares much nowadays; there are many other words like this, or words stressed differently as verb or noun. Much more deplorable is the almost universal use of ROmance and many similar two-syllable words in which the stress has shifted. Here again I don’t think it’s the fault of the Americans.
    The rest of your complaints are mostly justified, though some are really hardly worth protesting about: I mean, “truck” and “lorry” have both been used in England for a wheeled motor vehicle to carry goods since the early years of the 20th century.
    I expect you know that in the 19th century “Punch” was full of pieces sneering at “disgusting” Americanisms such as “pretty good”. We must carry on condemning the most deplorable imports, of course, while recognising that we won’t make a scrap of difference.
    [The Guardian’s style guide is better than the Economist’s, and not just because I contributed to it.]

  7. Xavier Kreiss February 7, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Bela: thanks for your kind words! I’ve been browsing through your blog with great interest. Found your entry about Elle. Have a look, everybody, and weep:
    http://slapoftheday.blogspot.com/2005/08/parlez-vous-english.html
    When you say “I’m not an intransigent purist: I don’t mind a few foreign (for “foreign”, read “English” these days) words here and there, but this is nonsense”. Exactly !
    Those of you who wonder what the fuss is about could go to http://www.elle.fr . I did so, out of (morbid?) curiosity , this morning. The first thing I saw was a headline: “Fonelle a shoppé”… Among the any links on the home page, I clicked the one about “the stars’ beauty tips”. I clicked and found an entry: “les tendances make-up du moment”. Oh dear…
    I see – and note with approval – that you also bemoan the fact that, in certain British schools, kids are no longer required to learn foreign languages. ( http://slapoftheday.blogspot.com/2006/11/un-vritable-scandale.html ).
    The way things are going, they might not need to learn any French. If they go to France, they may soon find that our language is very close to theirs. One lesson may be enough – to learn a few articles. Then all they’ll need to do to speak “French” will be to take any English word, add “le”, “la”,or “les” , and they’ll be home and dry !
    Tony: thanks for your constructive (and erudite) comments and criticisms. And above all, for the tip concerning the Guardian’s style guide. I’ve had a look, and it won’t be the last.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide

  8. Tony February 7, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Xavier:
    Diffidently, and with the greatest respect, I must take you to task for referring to “kids”.
    http://omf.blogspot.com/2004/05/chirac-never-says-gosses.html

  9. Elise Reynolds February 7, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    nice read, no real news for me though. Not a disaster either…you do realise ‘kids’ is (or once was? does language borrowing have a statute of limitation?) an americanisation itself? (you wrote:’Kids fed an unending diet of […])
    See, it’s been creeping in for years!
    I’ll be back for more blog-reading, thanks

  10. Liesl February 9, 2007 at 1:43 am

    In defense of the Septics, I would like to mention that “to meet” and “to meet with” have very different meanings. The first implies that this is the first introduction. “Joe met Sally at a cocktail party.” The second hints that the event was a pre-arranged rendez-vous at which presumably important business topics were discussed. “Joe met with Sally to hash out the details of the merger.”
    The same goes for visit. “To visit,” for us, means the actual act of traveling to another locale and spending time there. In addition, you can visit both a person and a place. “Visiting with” can only be done to a person, and implies that you have sat down together, spent some time chatting and catching up on news, possibly drinking tea.
    All the other ones, I don’t have an explanation for. I think it’s fascinating, though, the interplay between British and American variations. I say: “Both a borrower and a lender be,” in this respect!

  11. Xavier Kreiss February 9, 2007 at 8:36 am

    My original intent was to keep my rant as informal as possible, hence my use of the colloquial “kids”.
    But: Elise and Tony, you worry me: I may have used an americanism myself !
    If that is the case, I hope the word can be counted as one of the “acceptable” and “natural” adoptions I mention.
    If not, I’ll simply have to be more careful in the future !

  12. Tony February 10, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    OK, Xavier, but no disquisition on linguistics with eleven numbered points can really be informal, and anyway informality is not ensured by colloquialism but by eschewing words like “eschew”.
    Anyway, you proved my point about the sad disappearance of “children”. If the word can nowadays be used only in formal contexts then it is indeed lost.
    I love most Americanisms and rarely beef when guys use them.
    If only we could all write like Runyon!
    http://omf.blogspot.com/2004/01/carol-concert.html

  13. Into Spanish Translation February 12, 2007 at 9:17 am

    Recently, two different clients of mine writing in British English used “billion” as meaning 10 to the power of 9. One of them explained: “I think most people see the UK Billion as too ambitious”…

  14. American Translator February 13, 2007 at 2:18 am

    Ha! You are clearly out of touch when you say, “And the Americans aren’t rushing to adopt British English. The traffic is overwhelmingly one-way.” How do you know? Have you been studying Americans? I and many other Americans I know use lots of British expressions everyday for the sheer fun of it: cock-a-hoop, boob, specialism (that gets us laughing every time), in hospital, jolly as a sandboy (we still can’t figure out why they were so happy, but we use the expression for it’s quaintness), fug, brown study, wool gathering, barmy… The difference, my dear chap, is that we don’t feel threatened by it. British English is so cute! Why not use it?!

  15. Hylbour February 13, 2007 at 5:01 am

    This kind of “language rage” has been the topic recently at Language Log, one of the preeminent logs on English language, linguistics, and usage. Here is the link:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/004156.html

  16. céline February 13, 2007 at 9:04 am

    American Translator, I don’t think we’re talking about the same kind of “language penetration” here. The fact that you and your educated friends play with language and are fond of English expressions and terms doesn’t mean that the vast majority of Americans will ever even be aware of them, let alone use them. You can’t compare a few language-lovers having a fondness for quaint British expressions with the general embracing of American English that we are witnessing in the UK.

  17. Tony February 13, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    What an extraordinary list of “British” expressions American Translator gives! They are mostly out-dated clichés, perfectly ordinary phrases or non-existent (“specialism”? What that?). Sad to think of all those quaint Americans bandying these about and imagining they are being frightfully British. But he should note that the greengrocers’ apostrophe is not regarded with favour on either side of the Atlantic.

  18. Tony February 13, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Yes, Hylbour, like most of what appears in Language Log, the advice on Language Rage is absolutely brilliant. But victims from this distressing malady normally also suffer from Irony/Satire Appreciation Deficiency and will want to enrol.

  19. Xavier Kreiss February 13, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    A few answers to comments:
    1) Liesl: “visit / visit with” may have two meanings. But the second one is American. In British English, you visit a museum, for instance, and you visit your aunt Flossie. You don’t visit with her.
    2) Tony: you love americanisms. So do I, as I took care to point out. And I too, rarely ” beef when guys use them”. What I am ranting against is the fact that we’re not talking about a few (or even a large number) of imported words and expressions, but about a deluge. Perhaps a good simile might be the use of salt in cooking. A little of it in the food does wonders. Too much of it, and the food becomes difficult to eat, and certainly unpleasant.
    And most people who use these americanisms don’t realize that they’re doing it.
    3) American translator: I do say that the traffic is overwhelmingly – ie not exclusively – one way.
    But as Céline says, some people in the US (and Canada) may use British terms for fun – or even adopt them, but you can’t compare that to what is happening in the UK.
    And to say you “don’t feel threatened by it”… surely there’s a difference in scale. If you’re using a blunderbuss, you don’t feel threatened by a peashooter.
    4) Hylbour: thanks for the interesting link. Regarding “language rage”, I took care to stress that people can speak any way they like as far as I’m concerned. As a journalist, freedom of speech is something I treasure. But yes, I do feel irritated by what’s happening.

  20. Tom von Heugen February 14, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    I am a little troubled at the assumptions underlying some of these points because you overlook a few important problems. First, language change is natural and ongoing, and it’s a bit cliché to look at language change as “decay” per se. Language change occurs, and English will inevitably be borrowing if not from language X then from language Y. In fact, it is this dramatic openness to language change that all English-speaking cultures share and that sets us apart from other language cultures in many ways.
    The sentence-adjunct use of “hopefully” (it is hoped that) did develop in the United States in the 1930s but is analogous with sentence-adjust adverbs like “certain -> certainly” (it is certain that). This use of “hopefully” is closer to the older Germanic way of using sentence-adjunct adverbs (cf. German “hoffentlich”) and despite a lack of earlier print citations is probably something the Anglo-Saxons did.
    The word “movie” seems to have originated possibly in Ireland first, not in the United States. But even so, “film” referred originally to any cellulose strip used in still or motion photography; the terms “moving picture” (whence “movie”) and “motion picture” are more accurate terms, American or not. There is also a difference in register valid on both sides of the Atlantic: _Harry Potter_ is not a film as much as a movie, but _The Queen_ is not a movie as much as a film.
    Although in the sense of “fellow” the word “guy” originated in America, it nonetheless derives from Guy Fawkes. But does it make sense to lament this Americanism since it has been in use in Britain in that sense since 1847?
    “To meet” and “to meet with” actually mean different things, in any English. “To meet” means “to be introduced to” or “to encounter,” whereas “to meet with” means “to experience” or “undergo” or “to join to consult or confer.” Analogous differences apply to the other “with” verbs. “Tony Blair met George Bush” means something quite different from “Tony Blair met with George Bush.” It makes no sense to deny an author the right to make this nuanced distinction.
    The tendency to use flowery language, such as words like “sesquipedalian” is by no means an American tendency. Indeed, that tendency plagues English speakers throughout the English speaking world. However, note that expressions like “in excess of” actually derive from legalese, and legalese is something that the British gave the English-speaking world along with Common Law.
    Your criticism of transitive “protest,” “appeal,” and “debate” is outlandish since those verbs have always been transitive the whole time they have been in use in English–and before that in French. Again, these terms are legalese and their transitive use is ancient and not at all characteristically American.
    Similarly, the intransitive use of “hurt” is ancient and not at all characteristically American. It is perfectly acceptable in any English to say, “The blow to his pride hurt most” (intransitive) or “my head hurts” (intransitive). The innovation in the expression “I’m hurting” is that the subject is the thematic experiencer and not the thematic agent (using linguistic terminology), but even this is not characteristically American since it has been in use in this sense since the 1400s.
    The nouning of verbs and the verbing of nouns are also not characteristically American: English has always done that. In Anglo-Saxon times, it might have been necessary to add an inflection such as -ian to do it; in Modern English, having dispensed with inflections, the parts of speech swim much more readily. This is not language decay: this is the very core of the linguistic creativity innovation that all English-speaking writers and poets have always used. That Americans also do that is due to Americans’ British heritage.
    “Social” and “societal” mean slightly different things. Again, nuance is one of the core characteristics of written English.
    “Specialty” is a very old form of that word–the OED cites the spelling “specialte” as early as the 1300s, which is a bit earlier than America. Not an Americanism at all. And the “aDULT” pronunciation is closer to the French and Latin pronunciation of this word, borrowed from those sources. The OED itself cites “A-dult” as the secondary, and not primary, pronunciation.
    In short, many of these criticism are not validly directed at American influence but rather at the very nature of the English language, at the history of the English language, or at perfectly natural language change–which is part of what makes English the flexible and creative tool of expression it is.

  21. Xavier Kreiss February 15, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Tom: many thanks for taking my rant seriously enough to devote such a detailed and thoughtful critique to it. I disagree with many of your points – you’d probably be surprised if I didn’t ! So, may I, in turn, try to rebut or qualify some of them?
    1) “language change is natural and ongoing”: I agree. And I do stress that “Languages change constantly, and are enriched by the adoption of foreign terms”. My point is that in the case of the americanisation of British English, the change is of massive proportions, and not necessarily “natural”. The influence of the American media, for instance, and of mov… er, films (many of which are of high quality and hugely enjoyable), is one of the factors that explain this.
    2) “The tendency to use flowery language”: I wouldn’t say “flowery” – a term which, in my opinion, would more accurately describe a certain kind of English spoken by many in the Indian subcontinent . I criticize the use of excessively long terms (at this moment in time, in excess of, etc) which are unnecessary, and often -not alwaays – of American origin. These terms add nothing, and are certainly not elegant.
    3) “guy” instead of “fellow”: all right, Tom, you win – I’ll gladly let you have that one. Why not? I do say that some imports are welcome.
    4) You also write: “Your criticism of transitive “protest,” “appeal,” and “debate” is outlandish since those verbs have always been transitive the whole time they have been in use in English–and before that in French”.
    I could, for instance, quote the Economist’s style guide which says: “Appeal is intransitive nowadays (except in America), so appeal against decisions”.
    As for “debating someone”, this, of course, is perfectly correct in one sense: we can “debate Tony Blair” ie: argue over his merits or otherwise, etc. But debating Tony Blair in the sense of “having a debate with him” is American. This transitive use of the verb may have ancient origins, but when it occurs over here nowadays, it is almost certainly due to American influence.
    See also the Guardian style guide (thanks again, Tony, for the link to that useful page!).
    It states: “protest against, over or about; not, for example, “protest the election result”
    5) “The nouning of verbs and the verbing of nouns are also not characteristically American: English has always done that”. Yes, it has. So let’s have English ‘nouning”. For the moment, most of this “nouning” is of American origin.
    Sometimes, of course, a new verb is formed by adding “ize”, as in “commoditize”,or (gulp) “incentivize”. Again: this practice may not be American, but the two terms I just mentioned are certainly americanisms.
    6) “Specialty” is a very old form of that word–the OED cites the spelling “specialte” as early as the 1300s, which is a bit earlier than America. Not an Americanism at all. ”
    I beg to differ. If a term starts its life in Great Britain, dies out, but is kept alive in the US, when it comes back it is indeed an Americanism. The English form, surely, is “speciality”?
    Imagine an English family wiped out by a catastrophe (say: in the 16th century). Only one or two members survive and emigrate to America. If some of their descendants come back and settle in the UK in the 21st century, they come back as Americans.
    It would be different if the return, or “rebirth” of terms such as “specialty” was of English origin.
    Your point is interesting, however – I seem to remember that “I guess” (to mean “I suppose”), for instance, is used by Chaucer (he might have spelt it “guesse”) . But would anyone deny that it is now American?
    Most of American English is of British origin. The fact that the word “hat” is used in America doesn’t make it an American term!
    But more and more words commonly used here are American imports. I have no objection in principle (freedom of speech etc) but they do constitute a flood.
    Even that would not be enough to introduce deep changes in British English. But many of the imports are not words or terms but changes in the way language, sentences, etc, are used.
    Tom, you did me an honour by taking such trouble to comment . Whatever our disagreements may be, I’m delighted to see that you, and other contributors to Céline’s blog, have given the matter so much thought. Because (in my opinion, anyway) the main reason why languages can fall into a kind of decay is that so many people don’t give a hoot.
    You may wish to “rebut my rebuttals”, and I’d be delighted. Go ahead! But the debate could go on for ages, and this might not be the best place for it. A pub, on the other hand…

  22. Stephen Gobin February 18, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    I contribute to a German-based on-line dictionary with a question-answer forum and other language-related sections. I seriously believe that the differences between AE and BE (as we refer to them on this site) are far greater than people ever give credit for and this is why I would never translate German or indeed French into AE. There are many occasions when AE and BE contributors make suggestions for translating a term, phrase or saying and the proposed translation is either typically US or GB and sometimes so alien that a GB or a US make the (erroneous) assumption that it must be the “other” English when in fact the suggestion may be simply obscure.
    Language is always in flux anyway, it is organic but as long as its users are able to skilfully adapt it to the variety of social contexts, well that’s the main thing. And that’s what translators do every day.

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