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?