Education: The View From Here

When I used to present a late-night arts magazine programme for the BBC my producer would scrutinise my script with an eagle eye. She was not on the whole on the look-out for errors of fact or potential slanders. No, her vigilance was directed at my use of the English language. We both knew that a single inattentive "different to", or worse still "different than", where "different from" was strictly correct, a split infinitive or a dangling preposition, would bring bundles of mail in the days following transmission from any number of listeners whose sensibilities had been profoundly offended by my linguistic misdemeanour. In general I accepted this policing of my grammar with gratitude. I was less sure about her insistence that we be sure to avoid "Americanisms". I was supposed to go to the cinema, not to the movies, and not to praise or blame with terms like "cute" or "dumb". We (the BBC, I suppose), my producer, would explain, are the custodians of the English language; American is a lesser dialect.

So it was with some amusement that I encountered a review of an English book on the collapse of Barings Bank in last week's New York Times Book Review, which contained the following reproach:

The text is littered with needlessly confusing Britspeak: an exchange trading floor is "the size of a football pitch"; certain deeds are "just not on"; one Barings executive is "an amiable north Londoner," whatever that means.

As far as the American reviewer is concerned it is clearly we British who speak the dialect. Furthermore, those unnecessary bits of quaint local colloquial English had, it turned out, seriously impaired her ability to grasp the author's characteristically English ironical understatement in the book's closing remarks:

The linguistic laziness extends to the author's climactic verdict: "The bankruptcy of Barings was the biggest cock-up in the history of British banking." Cock-up? "A state or instance of confusion, a mix-up," says my Oxford English dictionary. Rather more than that, surely.

Possibly so, if you've never heard of the cock-up theory of history.

Nor is such a bold sense of superiority on the part of the erudite American when confronted with British usage currently confined to the columns of a high-brow book review. In an entertaining new book on American grammar by Patricia T O'Conner (engagingly entitled Woe is I: The Gramaphobe's guide to Better English in Plain English) the author has the following to say on the subject of "gotten":

At one time, everyone agreed that the verb "get" had two past participles: "got" and "gotten". It's true that the British stopped using "have gotten" about three hundred years ago, while we in the Colonies kept using both "have got" and "have gotten". But the result is that we have retained a nuance of meaning that the unfortunate Britons have lost.

And in case you want to know what that nuance of meaning is:

When we say, "Bruce has got three Armani suits", we mean he has them in his possession. It's another way of saying he has them. When we say, "Bruce has gotten three Armani suits", we mean he's acquired or obtained them.

Of course, we have all been aware of the world-wide pervasiveness of American English for some time. "In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, English was the language of the leading economic power - the US", writes David Crystal in an essay on "The language that took over the world", in last Saturday's Guardian. American military might and American domination of the computer industry have together made their version of English the international language. Which is why we all have to cope with word-processing spell-checkers which insist on correcting "licence" to "license", and "sceptical" to "skeptical".

None the less, educated Americans, particularly in their written usage, have on the whole tended to aspire to British English as intrinsically more cultivated than their own. When I co-authored a book with an eminent American scholar, he (to my delight) insisted that I write the final draft, because my English constructions and spelling had "snob appeal" in the United States.

Not any longer, apparently. Those charming little turns of phrase which distinguish us from our transatlantic cousins are now, it seems, obstacles to mutual understanding, infuriating evidence of our parochial insularity.

As we approach the millennium, American English has finally come of age in North America as the language of civility. And there's some irony in that. I read that reproachful review of the unfortunate author with his "needlessly confusing Britspeak" while on a visit to Los Angeles in California - a city in which more of the population now speaks Spanish than English. In New York and Washington too, signs on public buildings are now regularly written both in Spanish and in English. So educated America has apparently finally plucked up the courage to affirm the linguistic superiority of its own brand of the English language at the very moment in history at which English is ceasing to be the language of the majority of its people. Pride in ownership of the dominant form of our language comes just as it ceases to be so obviously theirs. A cock-up the size of a football pitch, really (that's "soccer field" for our American readers)n

The author is Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Cover Supervisor for school in Leeds

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Randstad Education are looking fo...

BTEC / A Level Business StudiesTeacher (Full time)

£100 - £160 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: BTEC and...

Maths Intervention / Learning Mentor

£60 - £80 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: We are loo...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day + Flexible with benefits: Randstad Education Group: Key St...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London