The English War

No country perplexes Americans quite like Britain. Other countries are weirder, but it seems like Britain should be easy to understand. And yet, it befuddles us. First off, we’re not quite sure what to call it. We’re vaguely aware that Britain and England aren’t quite the same thing, and that there is a place called Wales that a man named Charles is prince of. We’re pretty sure Britain also includes Scotland, but when we called that Scottish guy “British” once in a pub, he took a swing at us. Ireland is completely out, except the part where they were still fighting the Thirty Years’ War less than thirty years ago. I don’t even know what the hell the Isle of Man is, or why its flag is a swastika of feet.

Mostly, though, we don’t quite get why we can’t quite get what they’re saying. There’s the old saw by George Bernard Shaw that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” and it’s cliche because it’s true. Americans and Brits can be fast and loving friends for decades until someone spells “colo(u)r” with or without a “u” and all hell breaks loose.

This happens a lot. In fact, there was a recent article in the British Daily Mail from a columnist loudly proclaiming against the introduction of “Americanisms” into British English

Apparently, the people of Britain/the UK/England/this Scepter’d Isle/Whatever the Hell We’re Supposed to Call It, are increasingly using American words like “snuck” and “specialty shop” and phrases like “I’m good” over their British counterparts. God forbid, they might even start calling “zebra crossings” crosswalks.

On the one hand, this is just so much raging against the storm. Language is effective in so far as it’s adaptable. English, especially, sucks up loan words like no other. Even from its earliest days as remote guttural German dialect, English absorbed Celtic (badger), Danish (ugly), and Latin words (paper; itself on loan from Greek), then later a whole boatload of French words (beef). Later came Spanish (mosquito), native American (chocolate), Arabic (orange), Italian (balcony), Bengali (bungalow), Japanese (futon), and many, many more.

The writer calls this “cultural imperialism,” which is laughably hypocritical considering that people in the New World only speak English thanks to British cultural and military imperialism. Languages and dialects aren’t static, they compete and war with each other to become dominate. The English of Chaucer beat out the English of the Pearl Poet in the medieval era to become modern English. London had the people and the power to make its version of the language the dominant one.

A similar thing is happening to today, not just between New York and London, but within the US. Local accents around the country are dying off, replaced by the unaffected cadences of the Midwest. My hometown of Charleston has its own accent (with a sort of South Carolina by way of London sound), but it’s becoming rare even in the city’s oldest quarters. Thankfully, the general Southern, Boston, New York, and New Jersey accents don’t seem to be going anywhere.

On the other hand, I think he’s right that England should keep their English English. The beauty and power of a language comes not just from its ability to absorb and adapt, but also to vary, to localize, to reflect local customs and history. If everyone in the world spoke English like everyone else, the world would be an incredibly boring place.

Oddly enough, I think the writer would find a lot of support for this in the US. We love English accents (preferably posh ones) and interesting British words and turns of phrase. There are few people in the world more delighted than an American in London hearing a soda can called “aluminium” for the first time. There was an uproar when it turned out that the Harry Potter books had their English English sanitized (I believe “bogey” became “booger”). Americans didn’t want Harry Potter spouting American English, we wanted him speaking English English.

Granted, that’s partially because Harry Potter on the whole is so damned British: boarding school, castles, wizards, people named “Hermione.” Harry crossing a crosswalk to get to a drug store while frenching a lawyer doesn’t sound right. Much better if he’s crossing a zebra crossing to get to the chemist while snogging a barrister.

So, Britain/England, please, don’t talk like us. We like how we talk, but we kind of like how you talk better. It sounds posh, sexy. Hearing a British accent makes us feel right chuffed, or something.

…except when you say “schedule.” You’re just pronouncing that one wrong and you know it.

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One Comment

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  1. I refer the right honourable gentleman to the Eddie Izzard stand-up sketch in San Francisco, ‘you say caterpillar, we say caterpillar; you say alUminum, we say alumInium; you say centrIfigal we say centriFUgal; you say leezure, we say leyzureiay; you say beyzle we say bazle; you say erbs and we say herbs because there’s a ____ ‘H’ in it.’ Dress to Kill

    lol ‘people named ‘Hermione’ – that’s even a little too ‘posh’ for us

    nobody says right chuffed – well chuffed or really chuffed. (I know, it really didn’t need clarification.)

    ‘Britain/England please don’t talk like us’ – good to know ; )

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