Halfway up the 600 granite steps, shoes skidding on the spray from the waterfall and with insistent visions of my children tumbling into the drop, I realised I had no idea what Americans mean by “a hike”. Our first day in Yosemite, we’d taken one of the trails marked “easy” and it had been a half-mile shuffle around a paved loop. This time, we’d aimed one higher on the park’s three-part grading system and tried a “moderate” route; if we’d gone for “strenuous”, we could have taken a path that came with the reassuring disclaimer that “since 1919, relatively few people have fallen and died”.
There’s a deceptive security in having a common language. Easy, moderate, strenuous: I know what those words mean. But not, apparently, in California, and not in the context of hiking, which is similar to but not exactly like the British pastime of walking. Something about the two nations’ respective attitudes to the outdoors, something about their landscapes, means that the vocabulary of one doesn’t map exactly on to the other. And in that mismatch, there’s the possibility for disastrous error – some of which might be obvious when you’re standing on a mountainside, and some of which might be harder to notice.
The internet is an Anglosphere, but that doesn’t mean every English speaker is communicating on the same terms. There are almost five times as many English speakers in the US as there are in Britain: America’s pull on the language’s centre of gravity is as irresistible as it is invisible, especially when online media is essentially borderless. Publishers all over the world are chasing the draw of the biggest possible audience. At the same time, social media users are settling into a linguistic consensus, which is likely to be driven by the majority.
The consequences of this are often no more than mildly alienating. You can currently take a quiz on the international news website Buzzfeed which promises to “separate the millennials from the Gen Zers” on the basis of their TV viewing. It consists entirely of US shows, assuming a childhood hooked up to NBC, Nickelodeon and Disney, rather than the more parsimonious broadcast experience of the UK. (The only foolproof test for sorting a British audience by age is whether they know Ant and Dec for “He can’t see, man!” or Wonky Donkey.)
Yet sometimes, the effects are stranger. When we talk about suffragettes, are we talking about the British ones or the American ones? When the movie Suffragette came out in 2015, it was criticised for its lack of attention to racial politics and its all-white cast. But while there was friction between the US suffragette movement and the fight against slavery, the UK movement took place in a very different context. As in the film, British suffragettes were almost all white because Britain, at the time, was almost all white. Yet this accuracy was treated as “problematic” on social media.
Or take a concept such as cultural appropriation – the regular outcries over young women wearing Native American war bonnets at festivals, or the teenage girl criticised online for wearing a Chinese cheongsam to her prom. In America, the anxiety over such acts is at least comprehensible when you see the rigid geographic divisions imposed on people by race – whether those are the formal ones of Jim Crow laws and Indian reservations (as they’re still called), or the informal ones that have persisted despite the ostensible end of legal segregation. In Britain, the taboo on cultural mixing is harder to understand, which is why the Labour MP Dawn Butler’s horror about Jamie Oliver’s “jerk rice” was so difficult to parse. (Most “traditional” British foods are borrowed from elsewhere.)
On the internet, a shared language is describing realities that are very different from each other. Sometimes, as with Suffragette, international audiences are bringing their own backgrounds to a conversation. Elsewhere, British speakers are importing terms and analytical frames from America, regardless of how well they actually fit our own terrain. The results can be bizarre: a black British student (@raplinesdurag) went viral this week with a tweet about how her white tutors, apparently under the impression that “black” was now a word to be avoided, were using “African American” as a synonym, even when the people in question weren’t American.
The reason for this is that the internet itself is predominantly American. The big tech companies are based in California, and they reflect that country’s politics and preoccupations as well as its blind spots. In the early days of Facebook, the social network merely invited you to pick a position between “conservative” and “liberal”, as though everyone lived in their own version of the American two-party system. It’s still the case that if you speak English online, your politics are presumed to exist somewhere along a spectrum between Trump and Bernie Sanders. The use of the word “centrist” here owes more to Facebook’s old dialogue boxes than it does to the realities of British politics and its interplay of fiscal conservatism, social liberalism and internationalism. Language doesn’t only describe – it creates as well. And so the more ire is poured on a non-existent coterie of centrists, sat exactly where the slider is equidistant between fascism and socialism, the less we are able to comprehend the forces that actually threaten us.
On the internet, we are all speaking American, whether we intend to or not, and whether we’re aware of it or not. Linguistic drift is inevitable and hardly malicious, but it has consequences.
Perhaps one reason British politics feels so insecure is that none of us really knows what we’re talking about. Unsure how our words will be received, our feet skitter on the wet steps next to the precipice.
This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history