Thursday, September 27, 2012

British and American English borrowing goes both ways


British and American English borrowing goes both ways

World standard English has two versions, British-based and (North) American, the latter dominating since WWII, but, probably thanks to communication marvels such as this medium, and before this, movies, TV and pop music, Americans and not just anglophiles un-self-consciously use some Briticisms, some so subtle and naturalized they don’t seem like Briticisms (‘gone missing’). So the richness and variety of the language aren’t going away.
This came to the fore in the US when intern Chandra Levy “disappeared”, says Ben Yagoda. Go missing was widely used, he says, because it felt more nuanced. In his view, British terms can “really serve a purpose” when there is no exact equivalent in American English.
One I’ve noticed as a copy editor is the confusion over the verb form to use with collective nouns. About 45 years ago George Harrison sang ‘the band are not quite* right’ and Americans have been using more plural verbs for them ever since.

Amazingly after 400 years of separate development mostly without modern communication technology the two Englishes are so similar, not growing into separate languages like Spanish and Portuguese for example.

That separate development and mostly that English sounded different in the early 1600s from today are why the accents are so different. The former colonies with the Britishy accents were settled much later.

Interesting how it seems many young British people including actors, having heard American movies, TV and pop music all their lives, can imitate American very well but it’s harder for Americans to convincingly fake a British accent (both standard southern England and others).
We are not seeing a radical change to the American language, says Jesse Sheidlower, American editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary – rather a “very small, but noticeable” trend. And it is not so much the masses who use these terms, says Geoffrey Nunberg, as the educated elite. Journalists and other media types, like advertising agencies, are the worst offenders, in his view. “The words trickle down rather than trickle up,” he says.
Sure, top-class English has always been international that way partly because of lots of contact among that class on the two sides. There was the old hybrid mid-Atlantic accent of FDR and George Plimpton that American movie stars, before Bogart, and announcers used to be taught.

Paul Fussell’s masterpiece Class on American white culture explained anglophilia. First, before WWII when many/most Americans had cultural/familial ties to Britain, Britain as the world’s top dog really was a threat so most weren’t anglophilic in their beliefs. There was a naval arms race as recently as the 1920s. Fussell explained that this power then was naturally why the ambitious did it to show off, but now anglophilia tries to say the person’s old-money, really upper-class, because his family was rich and powerful back when Britain was (the 1800s). Also why, except for things like punk, only 30 years out of date, many Americans think, because of movies and TV (including the costume dramas Britain exports to the States), Britain is pre-modern, or they have an image about 70-100 years out of date.

*By the way British has both ironic quite (so quite interesting really means pretty/fairly interesting meaning not so interesting) and unironic (an intensifier like in America). Context. I don’t think that’s made it across the Atlantic.