2007/02/22

Americans, Brits, and English

First, if you are British, let me say that I love Britain, and for many of reasons. Not least is because my Great, great, ... grandfather, Thomas Hall, left Somerset in 1836 to come to America. There are many other reasons, things that America owes to the Mother Country: common law, free speech, constitutional government. The list goes on and on. English History is one of my passions. So please, understand that I'm not looking to start a fight here. This isn't intended as an anti-British diatribe.

We (and the Aussies, Kiwis, Canucks, etc., etc.) share a beautiful, rich language. But the attitudes of some of you seem more than a little reluctant to admit that it is shared. You do not own it. Neither do we. Admittedly, your ancestors (and mine) invented it. But they also spread it around the world. And it is too late to take it back and hoard it all to yourselves.

I could cite many examples of this attitude, but let me pick the example that caused me to write this plea. I am not linking to this specific example, since it would be unfair to single this individual out.
"[T]he extent to which the English language suffers Americanisms – incorrect, sloppy grammar and words that simply do not exist in the English language – is enough to make you wince."

What makes me wince is the attitude that English needs to be protected from her speakers. English is the language that it is today because of her inventive speakers. If English speakers were as rule-bound as this attitude would have them be, we would never have the tongue we have today.

I admire stylish and well-crafted prose as much as the next person. But the rules of English grammar are constantly changing. Correct usage today is not the same as 100 years ago, and in 100 years it will be different from now. English even changed before there were any Americans, believe it or not. And a good thing, too.

And silliest of all is to complain about using "words that simply do not exist in the English language"! English speakers love to invent new words. Would you really deny all of us that right? You do realized that by condemning the use of "words that simply do not exist in the English language" you are also condemning our greatest writers, including Shakespeare? Just take a look at this "List of English words invented by Shakespeare. Are you really going to tell me that no one should use "quarrelsome" or "sanctimonious"? How else am I going to describe your behaviour?

English is a great democratic institution. We have never taken the view of that we need to protect English from foreign words. We seek out foreign words to enrich our vocabulary. Actually, "we should say that English aggressively mugs other languages for their lexical treasure". I'm proud of the contributions of my countrymen and women to English and grateful for those of English speakers around the world, past, present and future.

4 comments:

julia said...

its terrific that English language adopts new words and it is a matter of recognizing American, British etc English etc.as a fact of life. The world wide hast to learn english is a can of worms, maybe a money making comodity to exploit,who knows what professional skills ESL teachers have yet they can make ill conceived inroads into the precious area of a persons own tongue - the imperialism of English

Keefieboy said...

I'm sure you've read Bill Bryson's 'Mother Tongue'. It explains a lot about how American English developed the way it did. And you are quite right: Brits do not have exclusive rights to the language.

Brn said...

hi julia,

I actually think that it is unfair to call English imperialistic. I think that it is rather that, as a historical quirk, so many of the world's richest countries at this moment use English as their first language. No one is forcing anyone to learn English (not even those who live in America or England are required).

hi keefie,

Yeah, I did read that one, an excellent book. I'm currently reading Steven Pinker's "Words and Rules", which is another fascinating book, albeit with a very different focus. I think that it was John Chilton who recommended that one.

Tara said...

I agree 100%