Americanisation vs americanization

English has garnered more recognition than ever during this digital age we are currently in. Whilst there is no official lingua franca for the planet, English is still regarded as the lingua franca in many countries and the default language in international business, tourism, technology, etc. According to historical linguists, the English language dates back to the 5th century, when Germanic tribes (speaking Proto-Germanic) invaded Britain. The languages of these groups influenced each other, forming Old English. Comparatively, we find that the English language was only introduced to the Americas much later, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, by British colonisation.

History of the English Language

With that said, the English language would not have soared so rapidly without the contribution of individual personalities such as England’s national poet, William Shakespeare, and renowned classical lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, as well as influential roles other countries played in the formation of the language, advancement in technology, changes in society and culture, the rise of political correctness, so on and so forth. However, according to many language theorists, it was the widespread construct of Americanisation that took the world by storm, by means of an alternative style of language, not only seen in written texts but also in spoken language. Thus, one of the most intriguing aspects of the English language is how Americanisation sprouted forth ever so quickly, and earned a reputation for itself across the globe, especially in the island from where the English language originated, i.e. Great Britain. Before addressing the matter at hand, one must consider the mitigating factors underlying the background of how the English language itself came to spread. The English language took a humongous leap towards its evolution in 1476, which was the year of the first English printer, William Caxton. He mastered the means of trade in the field of printing and also set up his own printing franchise. Through this invention, books could now be copied through ways of printing, as never seen before, rather than producing handwritten copies worth days and nights of hard and strenuous labour. This subsequently led to an impactful revolution of the education system, as more people were provided with the means to learn and read. It was only at this juncture, that the English language slowly but surely became standardised and more compact.

One century after this phenomenon, a man by the name of William Shakespeare stood out from the masses, and due to his persistent efforts for the spread of the English language, went on to become the most prominent figure in the English language world. He is renowned for his beautiful and unique poetic style exhibited in his sonnets and other forms of poetry, but many seem to forget his profound influence towards the change of the English language. His works contributed highly towards standardising grammatical aspects of the language along with spelling and vocabulary. A surprising fact for many is that Shakespeare introduced 1,700 original words into the language, of which many are still in use, such as ‘addiction’, ‘remorseless’, ‘lonely’, etc., whereas only a few were rendered archaic, even after around 400 years. Fast forward a few centuries and we find language more standardised than ever, replete of only minor errors to be found in grammar.

The English language, once firmly established, was able to freely spread across the globe due to its extensive colonisation by the British Empire. Despite the fact that the British Empire eventually regressed in size, the influence and significance of language remained within those nations. It reached a state where the English language became the official language of many countries within innumerable countries once inhabited by the Britons. A nation majorly affected by the spread of the English language in the 17th century was in fact the Americas, which is deemed as one, if not the most influential superpower in this day and age. The evolution of the English language thereafter is history.

Americanisms

Upon briefly exploring the history of the English language, we are now somewhat able to comprehend its background and therefore address the contemporary question at hand, that is to say, ‘how drastically has America influenced the English language?’

Professor of Linguistics and English Language, Paul Baker of Lancaster University, examined how both varieties of the language have been changing between the 1930s and the 2000s and the extent to which they are growing closer together or further apart. Take spelling, for example – towards the 1960s it looked like the UK was going in the direction of abandoning the ‘u’ in ‘colour’ and writing ‘centre’ as ‘center’. However, since then, the British have become more confident in some of their own spellings. In the 2000s, the UK used an American spelling choice about 11% of the time while Americans use a British one about 10% of the time, thus it somewhat of evens out. With that said, automatic spell-checkers which can be set to different national varieties are likely to play a part in keeping the two varieties fairly distinct due to which people often, unknowingly auto-correct their work from British English to American English and vice versa.

A vivid sense of pride is also apparent within Great Britain which demonstrates that Britons are not willing to adapt another form of English deriving from a different English-speaking nation. For example, the British are still using ‘mum’ rather than ‘mom’, ‘folk’ rather than ‘folks’, ‘transport’ rather than ‘transportation’, ‘petrol’ rather than ‘gas’, ‘railway’ rather than ‘railroad’ and ‘motorway’ rather than ‘highway’, to list but a few. Words to keep an eye on, however, are ‘lawyer’, ‘jail’, ‘cop’ – all of which are creeping into the lexicon more and more, but when we start thinking of language more in terms of style than vocabulary or spelling, a different picture emerges. Some of the bigger trends in American English are moving towards a more compact and informal use of language. American sentences are on average one word shorter in 2006 than they were in 1931. The term ‘like’ is a fine example of this concept as it has sneaked its way into British English through American films, and has since then become common in our dialects, especially amongst the youth – a case of Americanisation. Both, American and British English have been merged many a time. The British are now also prone to saying ‘movie’, which is actually an American term, instead of the original British English term ‘film’ due to the arguably, overly influential film industry. The word ‘Americanisation’ itself is spelt with a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’ in American English, yet most people are unaware of either, or both origins.

In regard to this very notion English language guru David Crystal has argued that any pride taken in a native language may be ‘tinged with concern when you realise that other countries may not want to use the language in the same way.’ The truth is that the English language is not fixed and has undergone a myriad of changes over the centuries; absorbing words, phrases and spellings from all over the globe.

Media: Movie vs. Film

The indefatigable Tunstall calculated, approximately 5 years ago, that as much as half of British TV viewing is American-controlled, but two years is a long time in this tumultuous media world, and nowadays TV is by no means the only standard means of digital entertainment. ‘Netflix’ also caters for around 15 million Britons – a streaming service whose largest library of content is American-based.

In 1935, Alistair Cooke, famous British-American journalist and radio broadcaster made the following statement which shook the lexical world, ‘Every Englishman listening to me now unconsciously uses 30 to 40 Americanisms a day.’ More than 80 years have passed since and instances of utilising Americanisms without second thought have arguably increased to around three or four hundred a day, according to Americanisation specialist and author of ‘That’s the way it crumbles’, Matthew Engel, and presumably even more so for teenagers. This is a major cause of concern for prescriptivists who advocate the standardisation of the English language and do not approve of language change to a certain degree unless agreed upon collectively.

It goes without saying that accent and dialect have also played their respective roles in the media industry. Reporters, presenters, anchors etc. have undergone dramatic changes in perceived spoken word when compared to people of the same profession from only two or so decades ago. Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch has argued that, in 1776, both ‘Patriots and the Redcoats spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queen’s English.’ This is because, during the mid-to-late 18th century, the middle and upper classes in London and the south-east of England began to speak in a non-rhotic manner (not pronouncing the letter R). The result was a way of speaking which was distinct from American and grew to be known as ‘Received Pronunciation’. While many areas in England held on to their rhotic origins, received pronunciation came to be seen as the ideal English accent; even spreading into Wales and Scotland. Today, it is estimated that only 3% of the population use it, but the influence of TV, radio, film and our fading class system means it still looms large. Two or three decades ago, the Queen’s English, also known as Received Pronunciation loomed large in the face of British media but as of recently, with the fusion of the Cockney accent and Received Pronunciation, the Estuary English accent that is prevalent across the Thames River and its whereabouts has become the standard perceived English accent worldwide. The accent in general may be one of the few elements of British English that the Britons have preserved and upheld, not allowing themselves to succumb to the swaying American impact on language.

Geographical Spread of Americanisation

Whether we like it or not, the fact of the matter remains – the English language of the UK is being overshadowed by the influence of American English across the globe and is statistically proven to be on the decline, as seen in the graph below:

FIND PICTURE OF GRAPH

On a scale from -1 (thoroughly British to +1 (thoroughly American) These findings varied by geography – in Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and other western European cities, American English has significant influence on vocabulary even though British English has historically been the norm of the past. In contrast, in Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, ‘sweets’ are preferred to ‘candy’. As strange of an observation as this may be, the geographically closer located cities to Great Britain seem to be under more influence of the American vocabulary and spelling. In fact, this trend has emerged into the UK, too. For example, British people might occasionally say ‘rubber’ band instead of ‘elastic band’ but are unlikely to swap their ‘moustaches’ for ‘mustaches’. The authors attribute those shifts to ‘American-dominated television and film industries.’

One needs to bear in mind that these Americanisms have not made their way into the English language as of recently, but in fact, were noted to be quite rife even in the late 20th century. An article of ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ dating back to 1996 recorded a plethora of examples which illustrated this very influence. Staff writer of this article, Kim Campbell states,

‘“There’s no question that Britain made English an international language in the 19th century with its empire,”

Bill Bryson, an American author of several books on the history of English says:

“But it’s Americans that have been the driving force behind the globalization of English in the 20th century” because of their commercial and cultural clout.”

Another example thereof is that of Alexander MacLeod’s contribution to the article, he writes:

‘In Cairo, as recently as 1984, some university students received lower grades if they used American spellings instead of British. Since then, there has been an increase in the number of teachers in Egypt trained by Americans. “You can well imagine that nobody gets a red line through their paper for spelling ‘center’ with an ‘er’ anymore,” says Richard Boyum, the head of English-language teaching activities at the United States Information Agency (USIA).’

What does the future hold?

These are but a few instances of how Americanisation and Americanisms have crept into the English language to then shape it to great extent. If the British are not careful, so the argument goes, the homeland will soon be the 51st state of the U.S. Many experts of linguistics are in agreement with Matthew Engel, who made a prediction that may be far-fetched to some and quite probably for others – he stated, ‘It has become possible to imagine a time – 2120 would seem a plausible and arithmetically neat guesstimate – when American English absorbs the British version completely. The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted.’ Only time will tell what the future has in store for the English language, but it will most certainly be a telling tale, and with the way language is shifting in this day and age, nothing is certain. An emergence of any kind could open or close doors to the development of Americanisation.

Disclaimer

This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Usama Mubarak

Usama Mubarak

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