Americanisms: they shouldn’t be so annoying to people from England

posted by John

Almost a month ago now, Sandeep sent me the following article about “Americanisms” that annoy our English-speaking counterparts several thousand miles to the east. I was originally planning a post about the use of “you’re welcome” in different languages as my first contribution to the blog, but I’ve since decided I’d prefer to introduce myself otherwise.

Here is the article linked in full. If you feel the need to get your blood boiling, then by all means read the whole thing. It consists of a list of 50 popular complaints sent into the BBC by Brits around the US and England. Here are a few of their least favorite selections from our apparently ghastly lexicon:

“#11. Transportation. What’s wrong with transport? Greg Porter, Hercules, CA, US
#12. The word I hate to hear is “leverage”. Pronounced lev-er-ig rather than lee-ver -ig. It seems to pop up in all aspects of work. And its meaning seems to have changed to “value added”. Gareth Wilkins, Leicester . . .
#18. Take-out rather than takeaway! Simon Ball, Worcester
. . .
#25″Normalcy” instead of “normality” really irritates me. Tom Gabbutt, Huddersfield
#26. As an expat living in New Orleans, it is a very long list but “burglarize” is currently the word that I most dislike. Simon, New Orleans”

Some of the entries concern themselves with misunderstood phrases, like “It’s a doggy-dog world out there” instead of a “dog-eat-dog” one. James from Somerset England points out one such example:

“My favourite one was where Americans claimed their family were “Scotch-Irish”. This of course it totally inaccurate, as even if it were possible, it would be “Scots” not “Scotch”, which as I pointed out is a drink.”

Phrases like this one, while they make interesting examples of how language changes in the first place, are often rather funny to point out. Until I was 12 or 13, I thought that the phrase meaning “to try really hard to do something” was to make a “conceited” instead of a “concerted” effort.

Other Americanisms that made the list, including the ones listed above, aren’t so good-natured. Indeed, the derision is palpable in the contributing Britons’ outcry against the ugly American habit of calling an expiry date an expiration date, or full stop a period. How appalling it is that the letter Z is zee not zed, or that a shopping cart isn’t a shopping trolley, or that biweekly is not fortnightly. The list is a long one. Ultimately, though, it is a fundamental linguistic misconception that informs these opinions of American usage. It is pointing out and correcting this misconception that I want to make the real substance of my first post. And if I can use this article to do it– and thereby show the reader its arrogance, and in a real sense its incorrectness– then that’s good too.

The fundamental misunderstanding I’m talking about is that of linguistic prescriptivism. To quote Jesse Sheidlower from the AtlanticOnline, “Prescriptivism involves the laying down of rules by those claiming to have special knowledge of or feeling for a language. Prescriptive advice tends to be conservative, changes being regarded with suspicion if not disdain.”(Elegant Variation and All That. December 1996). Style guides and English teachers claiming, for example, that we must not split our infinitives or use ‘impact’ as a verb are being prescriptive.

The problem is that prescriptivists do not base their rules or assumptions on what real people actually say in normal conversation. Prescriptive rules are what may be considered ‘grammatically correct,’ but they are often far behind the times when it comes to what we might hear walking down the street. They are also different from the grammar we acquire as children–so different, in fact, that they are actually called ‘viruses’ by some linguists. A virus is essentially what happens when a rule taught to a person outside of his or her actual grammar takes over and ‘infects’ the natural usage in other contexts. For example, many people find themselves saying “She gave it to Hannah and I” because they have been taught to say, “Hannah and I went to the park.” For many of us, this latter form truly does seem better, but if you record large amounts of natural human conversation, most people actually say, “Me and Hannah went to the park.” The taught form, “Hannah and I,” which is not part of the grammar acquired by the child initially, then spreads to places where “I” has no business whatsoever (i.e. as a direct object). True, “me” is not normally a subject, but for must people, when both I and my friend Hannah are involved, it is always “me and Hannah.” And by the way, “me” does function as a subject sometimes (“Me too” or “It’s me”).

The case of the British critique of Americanisms is simply an exaggerated version of the Hannah and I issue or the issue of whom becoming who. Simply put, language changes over time. It starts with the simplification of things like whom to who and with idiosyncratic changes like the acceptance of me and Hannah. It ends with different dialects, idioms, usages, and, eventually, different languages altogether. It is the ignorance of this fact demonstrated by the article from the BBC that so bugs me, and I hope I’ve explained it well enough to make it bug you, too.

The reader might at this point wish to ask why, being so anti-prescriptivist, I am writing, or trying to write, with ‘proper grammar.’ It’s a good question and a fair one. I don’t want to spend too much time on the issue of ‘registers’ here, but basically, if I’m writing or speaking in a formal context, I should write or speak in a formal register–using formal rules of grammar. I should say “Hannah and I.” If I’m chatting in an informal setting, I should leave prepositions hanging and split infinitives– that’s simply how people talk. Neither of these, I’ll stress, is more correct than the other in any sort of absolute sense. It is simply that in certain circumstances, certain manners of speaking are considered to be more appropriate. That’s all I’ll say here, but if you want more on registers, see Sandeep’s column in the Duke Chronicle about the issue:

Now, just for fun, I want to take on one of the British claims to linguistic superiority. The example I’ll choose is the British maths versus the American math. “Surely the most irritating is: ‘You do the Math,’” Mathew Zealey of London writes. “Math? It’s MATHS.” True, the long form of the word is mathematics. But do you say (or might one in theory say) mathematics IS or mathematics ARE fun? How about gymnastics IS or gymnastics ARE fun? Is Chris Matthews incorrect when he writes (quoting a famous senator) that “all politics IS local”? Mathematics, just like gymnastics and politics, is a singular word. We would never call a politician a pols, just as we would never say “Maths are the hardest subject for me” (or maybe a good example is “Maths are the hardest subject(s)* for me,” meaning that if you wanted to say “maths”, you would need to say that “subjects” was plural as well–the asterisk indicates that the sentence is unacceptable without the ‘s’ at the end of subjects). Why would we think it is correct to add an ‘s’ to the end of a singular abbreviation? Clearly the American version is better!

But, of course, it isn’t– it would be ridiculous for me to say that calling mathematics maths is in some real sense wrong. There’s a simple linguistic explanation for it that I’m certain the reader has already guessed. This development in British English occurred because the non-pluralizing final s was mistaken for a plural s, and over time the pronunciation caught on. The American math simply took another track. That’s how language works. It’s how language changes and evolves–and culture right along with it.

True, when it’s the British calling American English silly, perhaps nothing beyond pride is vulnerable to attack, but often there is much more staked on considerably smaller differences. It happens within our own American brand of English, too. Many Americans believe that a person who speaks in African American Vernacular English (more commonly called Ebonics) is at best uneducated or illiterate, and at worst perhaps even dangerous. A southern drawl, too, is often associated with something between racism, drunkenness, and stupidity. These are themselves dangerous assumptions, and they are predicated upon the same fallacious understanding of linguistic change that makes the BBC’s article so annoying. So next time you hear someone spout a double negative, drop a slow twanged r, or simply say orientate instead of orient, try to remember that many of your own precious usages were once cringe-worthy deviations from the standard. Don’t take it for granite that you know better—for all intensive purposes, it’s best to assume you don’t.