Having lived in New York for over a year, I’m almost bored of being complimented on my British accent. I imagine people who are extraordinarily attractive might develop a similar nonchalance towards being admired by strangers: it’s nice, but it can also be a minor inconvenience to be inveigled into sharing a potted personal history when you really just want to read your book and enjoy your cappuccino in peace.
Unfortunately for Americans in Britain, the love flows only one way. While US websites publish listicles such as “30 Awesome British Slang Terms You Should Start Using Immediately”, the British media has a fondness for articles such as “41 Things That Americans Say Wrong”. It’s odd that the US, a country that does not want for national pride, should seem agreed that British English is superior.
Lynne Murphy, an American professor of linguistics who has lived in the UK for almost 20 years, has decided to investigate this curious phenomenon. Her book, The Prodigal Tongue, offers an entertaining and sometimes gleeful riposte to the countless stories she has read complaining of the “creeping”, “invading”, “pointless” and “annoying” Americanisms that are corrupting British English.
Murphy has yet to find a list of supposed Americanisms or Britishisms that isn’t at least partly poppycock (a word that sounds silly enough to be thought of as British, but in fact originated in North America). Our attitudes towards accents reflect our underlying prejudices, and don’t hold up to rational scrutiny.
When Americans think of British English, they tend to think of received pronunciation, which conjures up images of sprawling country estates and bumbling eccentrics. The British actor and TV presenter James Corden was reportedly encouraged by the US television network CBS to use “charming” British words and to avoid “confusing” ones. “Willy”, “shag”, “bonkers” and “squiffy” were in; “bladdered” and “dodgy geezer” were out.
Brits often dismiss words they don’t like as “Americanisms” and have a tendency to tie themselves in logical knots while trying to explain why Americans are “wrong”. Murphy singles out Simon Heffer, who contributes to a “well-populated genre of writing guides by people who don’t know a lot about language”, for asserting that in saying “maths”, rather than “math”, Brits have “maintain[ed] the plural of the original word”. In fact, mathematics is singular. Math is a clipping, like “lab” instead of laboratory, while “maths” is a contraction, like “attn”. Both are grammatically correct.
We Brits often have ourselves to blame for the worst “Americanisms”. Writing “might of” instead of “might’ve” is sometimes mislabelled an Americanism, but it’s a grammar mistake – and one that occurs twice as often in British texts than in American ones. The US may have embraced management speak with gusto, but that awful phrase “blue-sky thinking” appears six times more frequently on British websites than on American ones.
Some of the habits that we identify as being British are relatively new. For instance, it was only in the 1990s that spellings such as apologize and realize were largely dropped in British English in favour of their -ise variants. When we try to be more British we frequently end up sounding more French. The word autumn was introduced to English from French in the 1300s, and fall, or fall of the leaf, came into use in the 1500s. “Why did Americans take to fall, while Brits forgot it? Maybe it’s because Americans have more to be poetic about. Autumn in Britain is relatively drab,” writes Murphy.
The Prodigal Tongue is ultimately a celebration of the richness and diversity of English, and a reminder that the language we use reflects and perpetuates cultural, political and social imbalances. Words are power – but they have their limitations too. A 2007 study (admittedly small-scale) found that Americans who had lived abroad were less likely to be impressed by British accents. This suggests a simple but discomfiting cure for Americans’ love of British English: exposure to more British people.
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge