Education: The View From Here

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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.