Following on from my last blog, where I mentioned how lots of Americans love the English accent, I thought that I would ‘stick my oar in’ on the old British English vs American English debate. The most recent incidence of this controversy reared its ugly head a couple of months back, when Matthew Engel announced in an article on the BBC website, that he found Americanisms irritating. This was then countered by American writer, Grant Barrett who staunchly defended American English. A debate then ensued with British and American readers joining the (increasingly) heated debate.
I must admit that I am pretty much an anarchist on this matter and have never worried much about the influences on, or particular fate of British English. I never really minded Americanisms appearing in Britain and I would hate there to ever be some sort of national council sitting to decide the official rules for what words can and can’t be officially used, as happens in France. I tend to think that the whole thing should be allowed to proceed organically without any artificial “rules” being imposed. I am also generally skeptical of anti American English opinions expressed in the UK and suspect that they are rooted in snobbery to a greater or lesser degree.
Although there has obviously been interplay between Britain and America for four hundred years or so, the American English invasion never really got going until the 20th Century when American English expressions started creeping into British English via the American Movie/Film industry. Before that, British English ruled supreme, thanks to the British Empire. But as the British Empire declined and the increasingly cool American movie/film stars dominated the popular imagination, all sorts of expressions slipped into the UK. The process became even more pronounced with the American forces arriving in Britain during World War II, American music coming onto the radio, and more recently, American English expressions arriving via computer and internet technology (e-mail instead of e-post etc).
One possible reason for my own relaxed attitude to English is that I grew up speaking with a regional accent and back in the 1970s, when received English (“BBC English”) was still seen by some as the “proper” way to talk. In the class-ridden UK, regional accents were generally looked down upon, which I resented (that said, regional accents became increasingly more accepted by the “well-spoken” from the 1960s onwards and are now pretty much accepted). Anyway, I think it made me more sympathetic to the attitudes towards language found in the “New World” countries, with their generally more egalitarian approach.
Language is, of course, deeply political. The Celtic nations in the UK have attempted to bolster and/or revive their traditional languages in recent years, which are associated with a sense of independence and pride. That makes me wonder how Americans would feel if the situation was reversed with English: if their own American English expressions were gradually disappearing and being replaced by British English equivalents? Since I began living in the USA, I have noticed that there is a small but significant minority in the USA who feel threatened by what they perceive as an increasing Spanish language influence on their country, especially in the South of the country. I tend to agree with my fellow British expat blogger, Rob, who argues that America has been a multilingual country pretty much from the beginning and so it is a bit late for people to start complaining.
Anyway, moving swiftly away from the social politics and back to the strictly personal, one practical problem that I have on an everyday level with regard to the British English vs American English debate is, of course, spelling. When should I use British English spelling, and when should I use American English spelling? This problem is especially profound when it comes to the internet, which has no national boundaries. My solution has been to use American English when my writing is mainly aimed at Americans and British English when my writing is aimed at Brits. And when my writing is aimed at either or both, like with this expat blog, I just spell the words however I like!