Some weeks ago Matthew Engel published an indignant rant on the BBC News Web site under the title “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?” (not a question he tried to answer), citing examples of U.S. linguistic invasion left, right, and center. Unfortunately he did his raging and fuming without checking whether his examples did indeed come from America. Bad policy. Mark Liberman over at Language Log did some digging into the matter.
Mark is a distinguished professor of linguistics at Penn, famous for his ruthless determination to find out what’s what by using empirical techniques of computer-assisted fact-finding and statistical analysis. But not very much of either was needed for him to determine very rapidly from the Oxford English Dictionary that only 20 percent of Engel’s examples of Americanisms seem actually to have an American origin.
Unconfused by mere facts, Engel’s article steadily evolves from rumination to a tirade against not just Americanisms but America. By the end he sounded like this:
[W]hat I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic—even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither.
Britain is a very distinct country from the U.S. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version—the original version—of the English language.
That’s the British for you: idle, blind, cultural grovelers, throwing their culture away, flushing nuance, subtlety, and suppleness down the toilet. English is wasting away while Cornish flourishes.
I despair when I see this kind of drivel. What on earth comes over people when they write about language? It’s not just their ability to use dictionaries that disappears, it’s their acumen, their numeracy, their common sense. Show some people a single unfamiliar word and they’ll whip themselves into a paroxysm of fury, shaking their fist at what they see as a tsunami of black lexical filth sweeping in to destroy the whole of their native tongue.
I don’t know if it would cheer Engel up (I doubt it) to know that Ben Yagoda maintains a blog to record Britishisms—migrant words and phrases that were originally British but have become long-term settlers in American English.
By the way, on the point about Cornish, the Brythonic language once spoken in Cornwall, this is extreme gullibility even by the standards of typical popular writing about language. There have been no monoglot speakers of Cornish since the late 17th century, and no speakers at all since the 18th. Even a century ago nobody living had ever heard it spoken by a native. The 20th-century efforts to revive it are not evidence of the health of the language, but only of hope springing eternal in the breasts of some enthusiastically patriotic Cornishmen. Cornish, unlike British English, is as dead as a doornail. But I’ll probably get death threats for saying that, so don’t quote me.