Today, we speak what is easy: Language in modernity

By Jasmine Lo 

The BBC’s Hephzibah Anderson’s article ‘How Americanisms are killing the English language’ is a response to a recently published book by Matthew Engel— That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. The book claims that ‘Americanisms’ will contribute to the fall of true British English by 2120. However, this raises a crucial question: what constitutes this ‘true British English’? Can we really blame the US for its influence? And, if such influence is proving so harmful, why is the English language so susceptible to change?

From day one, the English language has been built upon and shaped by the influences of other languages (namely Latin, Old Norse, and Old French). From the time of British colonisation, English expanded to have an international reach. But as the language grew, the degradation of the English language— or as C.S. Lewis once termed it, ‘verbicide’— became, and remains, an underlying concern. In the eighteenth century, dedicated grammarians like Samuel Johnson took it upon themselves to cement and ‘correct’ the English language. English had begun to diverge from a standardized form, and people began to worry about the emerging divergent varieties of spelling, grammar and pronunciation. Johnson defined a ‘corrected English’ into his renowned Dictionary and hoped that would fix the flux problem entirely.

However, it is evident that this – to put it mildly – did not quite work. The English language is changeable by nature. All the efforts to fix it into a static form backfired in the nineteenth-century, and as previously mentioned, today’s English is spoken on a global scale; this has led to an emergence of innumerable dialects and idiolects.

Now, we find ourselves in the twenty-first century, at another point of change – this time technological. Again, as before, our concern for the form of language has returned. The priorities of difference centuries can be clearly seen in their treatment of language: where the eighteenth-century prioritized the refinement and correction of language, our modern society is remarkably motivated to simplify everything. Our knowledge of and dependence on technology and social media has made communication almost unrecognizable, compared to its prior forms.

Where the eighteenth-century prioritized the refinement and correction of language, our modern society is remarkably motivated to simplify everything.

Today, we’ve got online slang and shortened spellings to make communication faster. We’ve even got memes that propose how different characters would speak English (most notably of ‘the doggos’). When we text, it is eerily similar to what George Orwell predicted in his best-seller, 1984. Similarly, in the advertising world, it is not long and brilliantly constructed paragraphs which necessarily successfully sell; it is short, concise copy that speaks most effectively to millennials.

Anderson’s appropriate example of the saying, ‘can I get a decaf soy latte to go?’ is a classic example of an Americanism. In our own country, we have habituated certain phrases and made them our own — but we forget where they actually come from. It has reached the point where we are not even aware of our Americanisms (or for that matter, any ‘isms’).

We always choose easy, familiar vocabulary. We use ‘awesome’ to describe everything, and ’24/7′ instead of ‘all day, every day’. What is it about American English which is so appealing and contagious, then? Perhaps, as Anderson suggests, it was originally the taint of glamour (encouraged by the existence of Hollywood and the business bustle of New York). Perhaps, there is also a natural, human urge to always try and utilise what our neighbour speaks.

Language is after all a reflection of our social desires and instincts. Indeed, I have to agree with Anderson and Engel that the ‘homogenising effects of global digital culture’ limits our language, and thus inevitably limits our communicative abilities. Taking notice of the assumption that oversimplification is simply required for modern life should be an eye-opener that we are not taking enough care as custodians of our language.

But, whilst Anderson is urging a ‘call to arms’ in favour of retaining the ‘Britishness’ of British English, I am compelled to recall the similar plea that Johnson made in the 1750’s. It would certainly be a shame for British English to be thrown out the window, but it is important to remember and understand the fundamentally changeable nature of English before blaming Americanisms entirely. As Anderson already hints at, the problem does not lie in the criticism and comparison of American against British English. It is, rather, an issue that surely raises questions about our reliance on the ‘global digital culture’. Perhaps we should concede, then, that the current concern for the English language is well intended – and it is a crucial reminder to not be so thoughtless about the ways we choose to communicate.

Image by Oregon State University via Flickr and CreativeCommons

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