The first part of the title of this post is the title of an article I came across yesterday on the Culture of the BBC website. I thought it would be interesting, and wondered in what way they might be killing the English language. I was quite disappointed then, to read it and find out, as I’d expected, they’re not killing it at all.
The basic gist of the article is that more American-English terms are being used by English speakers in other countries, which anyone could have told you. I was expecting something a little more considered and nuanced from the BBC. There were some interesting points raised in the article, like the idea that terms used to refer to the American experience might not be suited to describing the experience of people in different countries, growing up in different contexts and with different cultural referents. There’s some truth to that, but I don’t think it has a significant effect. Just because Irish people, for example, drink more tea than Americans, doesn’t mean that we still don’t understand an expression like wake up and smell the coffee.
It’s not as though we’re completely ignorant as to what American-English expressions might mean. We use more Americanisms because we’re more exposed to American English than ever before through various media, but that also gives us more knowledge about American culture, and helps us to understand the origins and meanings of Americanisms.
A more valid concern is that the spread of American English leads to a homogenisation of English, and makes us lose the variety of dialects and slang forms that exist. I would miss it if we all spoke exactly the same way, and I do notice a little less variety in the way younger people use slang these days, as one of the main sources is now the internet. Still, I’m not greatly concerned about this as of yet. English has always been adept at picking up words and expressions from other languages, and more localised forms of English have always taken words from other forms of English. In fact, I expect to see a much greater influence on English from other languages in the coming years, given that there are so many more non-native speakers of English than native speakers. English has always evolved to accommodate a variety of influences, and I think the increase of Americanisms is just another aspect of that.
Still, for all I’ve said I’m not worried about the influence of American English, and as much as I feel the article is superficial, I still understand the author’s feelings. Though I consciously know that American English is an entirely valid form that isn’t going to “kill” other forms, I recognise that I still feel a little annoyed when I hear Americanisms being used outside of the United States. Why is that? Why don’t I get annoyed at words which come from other languages or other English dialects?
I think it’s very much a case of punching up. How could I get annoyed at words which have their origins in languages or dialects from the Caribbean or parts of Asia, when the people who introduced these words into English were colonised by the British Empire? Influencing the English language feels like a little bit of revenge for these peoples, like when they’re better than England at cricket. Plus, complaining about this influence on English would seem a bit rich, considering the influence pales in comparison to the suffering and lack of freedom inflicted by colonisation.
With American English it’s different though, because its spread feels like another aspect of America’s cultural domination of much of the world. Which we can’t really blame them for, I suppose. But it certainly feels like one more way in which we’re exposed to and influenced by the most powerful country in the world. Only this feels more fundamental and insidious, as it affects how we communicate, and thus possibly how we think. And I’m sure it’s particularly annoying for English people. At least for me, I speak my own slightly distinct form of English, so I don’t feel too concerned about what’s perceived as standard English being influenced by a third distinct form of English. But if I were English, I might feel a stronger attachment to the language, and therefore be more aggrieved at this upstart new country going from a colony to global superpower, and affecting how I use English.
So I’m not too worried about Americanisms, but I understand if you are. I think though, it’s worth taking a look at which Americanisms people use, and whether they make sense. If they do, then at least meaning and comprehension aren’t affected, and perhaps you should consider that they haven’t really changed the way people communicate. Besides, you’ll always have Shakespeare: they can’t take that from you.