Monday musings on Australian literature: Blaming the Americans

Rummaging through my little folder of papers and ideas for Monday Musings posts, I found a 2014 article from The Conversation titled “The Americans are destroying the English language – or are they?” If you are a non-American English-speaker you probably know exactly what this is about, because we non-American English-speakers love to get on our high horse about how Americans have corrupted the English language, except …

If you actually do the research, as I have on and off over the years, you find that the situation is nowhere near as simplistic as we like to think. And this is what The Conversation writer, Rob Pensalfini from the University of Queensland, explores in his article. He starts with some facts about English-speaking around the world, including the fact that the United Kingdom has only about 15% of the world’s native speakers of English, while the USA has almost 60%. Not that quantity is necessarily a signifying issue, but still, it gives one pause. He also points out that there are various forms of “standard” or “official” varieties of, say, British, American, and Australian English, as well as innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins.

Erin Moore, That's not EnglishHe then discusses what “ruining” a language – if indeed we accept that’s possible – might mean. He suggests that since languages change, “ruining” or “destroying” one must mean changing it in “unacceptable” or “negative” ways. It must mean, he continues, that it “threatens the capacity of the language to express something – be that complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument”. Good points, particularly that regarding the impact on our ability to express ourselves.

Anyhow, he lists the main “changes” for which Americans are criticised, and addresses each one. I’ll try to summarise them:

  • corrupt spelling (eg center, honor, neighbor): the American lexicographer, Noah Webster, as we know, introduced spelling reforms in the 1820s into American spelling, including the now commonly accepted “American” spellings of “honor, neighbor, center, and jail.” However, before we non-Americans become too smug, he notes that other reforms by Webster, the rest of us have also accepted such as “public and mask (in place of publick and masque).” Meanwhile, other of his reforms were not even accepted by Americans, such as “tung (tongue) and wimmen (women).” The weird thing – and this one I’ve researched before – is that the forms that raise the ire of us non-Americans (the “or” and “er” spellings) were actually older British spellings. Pensalfini says that “honour” occurs 393 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623), while “honor” occurs 530 times; “Humour” 47 times while “humor” is used 90 times; “center” occurs nine times, but “centre” only once; and “sceptre” appears four times, but “scepter” 36. Pensalfini says that “Webster chose the ‘or’ and ‘er’ spellings because they looked less French” while the British chose the “our” and “re” spellings in the 19th century “because their French look lent them a certain dignity”.
  • discordant sounds (post-vocalic /r/, “flat” /a/): firstly, he says the post-vocalic /r/ is used in parts of England (the West Country and Scotland) and is not used in parts of America. Indeed, he suggests that “the loss of /r/ erodes comprehension, in pairs like father/farther, pawn/porn, caught/court and batted/battered merging”. As for the “flat” /a/, it is an earlier form – so there!
  • double negatives: let’s not even go here. As Pensalfini says, they have a role and, anyhow, they are “not accepted in Standard American English any more than they are in Standard British English.”
  • ending sentences with prepositions: this is just silly he says, and “is as common in British as in American English. Would you really say ‘From whence did you come?’ Seriously? ‘Where did you come from?’ is absolutely standard for all varieties of English.” (I agree, though I think his example is poor, as “from” is not needed before “whence” which means “from where”.)
  • singular they: again, he provides several examples of this, including from Shakespeare. Jane Austen, I know, used it too.
  • using nouns as verbs: this one, he says, really gets the “pedants’ collective goat … the use of words like impact and action as verbs”. Again, though, “it’s been with the English language since at least the early Middle English period.” In fact, “the modern-day Americans aren’t verbing nearly as much as Shakespeare (“Grace me no grace; nor uncle me no uncle” (Richard II)).”

Pensalfini concludes his article on a political point about the British, but I’m not going there. Instead, as I like to do, I checked Trove’s digitised newspapers for any discussion about American English in the early 20th century. There was – a lot in fact. Much of it was critical, and focused on pronunciation (including reports of the author Henry James complaining about Americans’ “slovenly” pronunciation!) But here, I’ll share two I found about spelling and usage.

The first is a letter to the editor, in Melbourne’s Herald in 1923:

Sir.— In answer to “Baffled’s” letter in tonight’s “Herald” re English spelling, it is my opinion the sooner English people all over the world wake up and copy the American system of spelling, the sooner will they become a more intelligent and efficient race. Let Australia be the first to start a campaign for the reforming of spelling, and do away with such spelling as “through” and “fright”. — Yours, etc

South Yarra, October 17.

Ms or Mr Efficiency was, from my short survey, swimming against the tide!

The other is an article from The Maitland Daily Herald in 1933. This writer goes to town. They (I’m using the “singular they” since the author isn’t identified) admit there are some good writers in the US, but just read any magazine they say and readers will see

the vile distortions of language, that there abound, the violations of fundamental rules of syntax, the apparent endeavour to write in a style as different as possible from that seen in an English or Australian journal of similar type. Slang is everywhere in evidence, often where it serves no good purpose, and where it ceases to be picturesque and becomes silly.

Some American slang is, they say, “decidedly clever and picturesque” but, “this cannot be said of the majority of what we see and hear. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to make American-English as much unlike English-English as possible.” Oh dear, such a crime! How conservative this sounds.

And so, this writer continues,

An effort should be made continuously by parents and teachers to impress on our young people the glory of good English, the priceless heritage left to them in the prose of Addison, the verse of Milton, the dramas of Shakespeare, and so forth. …

Now, that’s funny, given Pensalfini’s examples from Shakespeare (whom he used, he says, “because for many, Shakespeare represents a sort of pinnacle of English language usage”!)

I must say that over the years I’ve relaxed my attitude to all this. Language does change, and I know that many words we use now – such as “nice” – meant something completely different a few hundred years ago from the way we use them now. So, what to do? Like all readers, I love fine language. But I also know that fine language – that is, literary language – can be so, exactly because it breaks the rules, because it pushes boundaries. Ultimately, the point, as Pensalfini suggests, is to be able to express “complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument” and, I’d add, for that expression to be understood.

And so, the important thing, I’d argue, is to continue the debate, because it is probably that more than anything which keeps the language fresh and true.

What do you think?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Blaming the Americans

  1. Jane Austen was joking about the overuse of nice two centuries ago, so that problem’s been around a while (can’t tell you where, but you probably know anyway). When I was young people were always complaining about English’s illogical spelling, but it was phonetic once – you only have to listen to a scotsman pronounce knight (k-nich-t) to realise that.

    • Thanks Bill … yes, my pedant-self took a big hit a couple of decades ago when I started to realise that people have been complaining for ever, and that things past people complained about are things we now see as set in concrete.

      Nice – it was in Northanger Abbey.

  2. How interesting. Back in 1986 I was teaching senior students at Nelson Bay High School from the 1986 publication – The Story of English BBC publication – and a TV series – edited/written by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. During my many years in Japan it gave me the basis for speaking of English – explaining its origins – its growth and development. There was no mystery about US English being – in its standard form – the oldest version of standard English. Dating around the time of Shakespeare – the old principle of fossilisation in operation. (Gotten/fall – simple tense usage in preference to perfect forms – some of the markers in addition to spelling and other vocabulary forms). Australian English has had its spelling reforms – too – the “z” in forms such as civilize and civilization gave way to “s”! Programme became program (though a silly recent PM 30 years later in some kind of personal idiosyncratic manner declared for Federal matters it should become programme again! A mid, late 18th century form of English – not too far behind the most modern form of English – the standard form – of the UK. Language is organic – it changes over time – according to all sorts of factors and influences. Since my return from Japan I have noticed some interesting shifts – Territory (Terror-tree – has become Terror-Tory) – it sets my teeth on edge to hear it from ABC announcers – not all of them but enough! Language changes – I remind myself – but I sit and listen and offer my corrections to the wind! >

    • Haha, so do I Jim …. language is organic … BUT also cereMoany. And militAIRy. They set my teeth ON edge too.

      I remember the gradual change from programme to program, particularly as I was programming films at the time. We went from programme, to program for the computer variety and programme for the others, to program for everything. I went kicking and screaming, but eventually decided program in its simpler form for all was more efficient!

  3. As an American academic who runs a writing center (not centre) at a very selective little college, I’ve always been around American pedants who all have Britophilia and like to denigrate any use of language that doesn’t fit their picture of what is correct.
    As a person who was brought up by a theater prof and a speech and hearing prof and became a specialist in 18th-century British literature, I’ve always enjoyed variant spellings and pronunciation.
    There’s a silly bit in the movie (the film) Love, Actually where American girls ask a British guy to say various words because they love his accent. So many Americans would do this if they thought it was at all polite. I met some Australians when I was just out of college and wanted to keep telling them things just so they’d respond with “no way,” like David Sedaris describes in his essay “Nuit of the Living Dead” in which he admits to thinking up various ways to get a foreign traveler to continue saying “village” with a “w” sound at the beginning.

    • Oh thanks Jeanne. Great to have your perspective. Glad you have pedants too! I love the Sedaris story. When we lived in the USA usage was often the trickiest thing – gas, diaper, trunk, pacifier, cookie, etc. Though pronunciation got me into trouble at times. I once went to a department store looking for a “pen” and got sent to haberdashery where the “pins” were. Eventually I got them to understand what I wanted, “oh, you mean ballpoints”. Of course if I’d been in Australia I’d have asked for the “biros”!

  4. Being a fan of John McWhorter I certainly understand that language changes – of itself (by way of the lazy tongue and so on) and certainly in the interaction with other languages. Hear, hear! The book is now on my wish list. Thanks! 🙂

    • Such a fascinating topic Bekah, isn’t it.

      BTW if you mean the book imaged, I know nothing about it. I just chose it as an appropriate illustration for the topic. You can though read the article I discussed. It’s online through the link in the first para.

  5. I’ve always been fascinated by language and how it changes. Thank you for an interesting discussion! I suppose what we learnt when young seems to us to be the ‘correct’ version but of course change is inevitable (as long as meaning is not compromised). As an editor I’m always having to consider what’s acceptable in print as opposed to speech. But I do regret the diminishing range of vocabulary seen/heard nowadays, not to mention text messages and emojis …

    • Yes, that’s it isn’t it, Anna. What we learnt at school we seem to feel is set in concrete as THE correct version, but that’s not so. Meaning – and meaning in context (ie speech and print) – is the critical thing. And then flow, ie language that doesn’t sound clumsy or awkward, but that’s another matter!

      Re vocabulary, I take your point. It’s interesting when reading newspapers in Trive to see the variety in vocabulary. Readers now might think it was showing off, but you have to assume, in most cases at least, that the writers knew their audience’s capability, meaning that their readers did have wider vocabularies too.

  6. Love this, WG. As an American-born Australian writer have I ever got into trouble over these things. Not so much now since Australian style has changed so much down the years (especially in relation to accent and vocabulary) but back in the 1970s and 80s it was a real issue. Like you and your other correspondents I’ve been pretty relaxed about this, though I’m saddened at times by the loss of so much Australian vernacular being replaced by American. After all the effort I put into mastering it. But I have to say the pedant in me survives. (How I hate to see barbeque instead of barbecue.) But above all, language is idiosyncratic, and that in part is how it comes to change.

    • Ah yes, I love your perspective as a migrant Sara. I suspect you speak for a lot of us, in that we flop around the border between flexibility/acceptance and pedantry. But I think that’s a good thing …

      • As well as Australian vernacular losing its social prevalence (words like ‘drongo’ and ‘drop-kick’, for instance) I still tend to fall back on the British (particularly cockney) slang terms that I picked up off the BBC and Thames Television shows that the ABC aired when I was a child (I nearly said ‘programs/programmes’ there instead of ‘shows’, but I got scared.)

        • Haha, Glen! Yes, that is a bit sad about the vernacular but I guess that loss happens elsewhere too. But drongo is a great word isn’t it. Must say I sometimes use British terms too that I’ve picked up from TV – like “scarpered”. I think I might have first heard that on Callan!! It’s a great word.

  7. Hi sue, language never stands still, like us it keeps changing.The English which we speak and write is not the same English that was spoken and written by my parents. As you have said the farther we go back the less familiar we find ourselves with our ancestors. Like Sarah, I am disappointed that some of our Australian idioms are ‘carking it’. I don’t blame the Americans, even though I do think they have influenced us more so than other countries. I just hope one day I learn the old language of Latin.

    • Yes, exactly Meg. We have to accept it – we can grumble a bit, I think, but in the end we don’t want a moribund language do we?

      One change that makes me cranky is the turning of “loan” into a verb. When I grew up “lend” was the verb, and “loan” the noun. As a librarian, I feel attached to this distinction, but I’m learning that I have to let it go. But then you sometimes hear it used now as a synonym for “borrow”. Hmmm – when are we allowed to grit out teeth and when not!

  8. I’ve never bothered to check, but I overheard that the American “aluminum” supposedly pre-dates the more Anglo “aluminium.” As an undergraduate, I had a lecturer from the UK who pronounced “titanium” with a short ‘i’ in the first syllable, i.e. as opposed to TIGHTanium, which is how I’ve always said it. I presume this must be an American infusion as well.

    I’m not a fan of split infinitives, but evidently George Bernard Shaw wasn’t averse to them (have I told you guys this story before? Sorry if I have). He contacted the editor of one of the London daily newspapers when he noticed that a certain journalist’s copy had lost its split infinitives. He was convinced that some new sub-editor was responsible for this stylistic mangling (as he saw it), and urged the editor to sack whoever was responsible. He is supposed to have said about this unidentified criminal, “It does not matter whether he is quickly to go, to quickly go, or to go quickly. The point is, he must leave at once.”

    Finally, here’s a little clip about pronunciations, identities, and Anglo-American relations that’s surely not inappropriate here (See! Double negative! And I’m NOT sorry! Ha ha!) 🙂

  9. I don’t mind the odd split infinitive – “to boldly go” and all that! But I do love that GBS story. And, the Emily Blunt clip is great – love that disdainful look at the “bath” and”water” pronunciation.

    • I would love to be able to make a ‘fed up’ face like hers! Think I’ll go and practice in the mirror.

        • I think that defensiveness towards American English was a lot about the growth of American power as compared to Britain/Empire’s relative decline over the 20th century. But as the popularity of American writers from Mark Twain to JD Salinger to Toni Morrison among British and Australian readers attests, there has never been a serious reaction against the beauty and power of American English.

        • Well said Ian. That Britain-USA power thing is partly what the article author feels is behind it. There’s also just the issue of cultural imperialism I think – particularly here. But, in the end, good writing is good writing, as you say. And good readers will appreciate it.

        • As an aside to Ian’s comments, it seems rather strange that (as you said) Webster shied away from the French ‘our’ spelling, while France’s Oldest Enemy in the same period (i.e. Britain) adopted the same for it’s dignifying quality!

  10. This is fascinating stuff. I do not know much about linguistics I listen to radio shows that have linguists as guest and I love listening to what they have to say.

    I have never seen tongue spelled as tung and I have only seen women spelled wimmen as a joke. I love the phrase “vile distortions of language” which fits those two examples:)

    • Glad you enjoyed it Brian. I grew up with a mother who loved linguistics, and I did a year at university, so it’s something I’ve long been interested in. The thing about changing spelling is that you can lose the word’s derivation, but that’s probably not a big issue given how much words have already changed from their origins.

  11. I just got back from a tour with a bunch of Aussies, two other Americans, one of whom had lived in Europe 20 years, a Brit, and a woman from Holland. We had absolutely no problem communicating.

    • That’s great Carol … but did you have fun talking about language differences? Or did that not really come up? I think with globalisation we are all so much more familiar these days with different accents and different word usages, don’t you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s