Thursday, 10 January 2019

Young Americans



Surprisingly, perhaps, the majority of the readers of this blog tend to be American (can you tend to be American? Are American!) so I will need to think carefully about what I have to say here. We British have the false impression that our language is becoming the lingua franca of the entire world. Not so: American English, for obvious reasons, is now the world-language of aspiration and education – you have only to listen to some bright youngster who has never left her dusty third-world village quacking like a rilly Californian, like, Valley Girl to realise this – and this linguistic hegemony is making itself felt here in Britain as well. Not surprisingly, this is not always welcome.

Although I must admit to experiencing a little buzz of annoyance whenever a fashionable Americanism supplants a perfectly serviceable British English equivalent [1] – things like the use of the absurd "pinkie" for "little finger", or "reach out to" for "get in touch with" – I generally suppress this feeling, as it is clearly one of the early symptoms of the onset of age-related pedantry, an incurable and unattractive condition. After all, as a young person I embraced plenty of Americanisms myself, consciously and unconsciously, simply because they were part of the US-dominated youth culture I had willingly embraced (or had been embraced by). More recently, I can even pretend indifference when I hear young people ask, briskly, "Can I get a small latte?" rather than "Could I have a bucket of perfectly ordinary coffee with milk, please?" It still sounds affected and ill-mannered to me, but there's something going on there that clearly works for the young, and which I am now too out of touch to find "relatable". However, certain imported expressions do grate, because what makes them work is their cultural hinterland; if this is missing, then the expression is not so much meaningless as lacking any meaningful referent.

I have a particular dislike for "stepping up to the plate", for example, so beloved of our politicians and political commentators. Now, I don't mind a useful cliché, so long as the people who use it have a clear image in mind. Anyone who has had children at primary school knows only too well, for example, what it means to go through something with a "fine-tooth comb", and you don't have to have served as a Napoleonic Era soldier to understand why you should keep your powder dry or avoid things going off half-cocked, either. Clearly, "stepping up to the plate" meets a felt need for an expression meaning "it's time to stop thinking and criticising and to act, to show what you're capable of, to take the initiative"; to put up or shut up, as you might say. But, come on, it's a baseball metaphor! No-one plays or understands baseball in Britain, and no British sport or activity involves a "plate", up to which one must eventually step. You can step up to the crease in cricket, or to the penalty spot in football, and even the oche (ocky) in darts. But "the plate"? What sort of plate do people imagine – a dinner plate? a commemorative plaque? – and what do they expect you to do, having stepped up to it?

Obviously, a lot of people do use language incuriously, chucking around linguistic small change as mere tokens of meaning. They may think, vaguely, if they think at all, that there is such a thing as a rather nice "tooth-comb", or that powder of any variety benefits from being kept dry, which is true enough, but there's more to it than that. I suspect there's a sort of inherent machismo to many American metaphors – especially military and sporting ones, things like "slam dunk", "knock it out of the park", etc. – which is absent from our native equivalents, and which makes them irresistible to the wannabe rhetorical tough-guy, even if the actual meaning of, say, "the whole nine yards" is entirely opaque, even to Americans. But, like a pair of ironed Levi's on a Prime Minister, however good they may feel to wear, the effect is ridiculous.

More insidious, though, is the gradual adoption by the young of American speaking styles. I don't mean the well-established differences in pronunciation: you say "tomato" and I say "route", and all that. Differences are fine; we enjoy difference. Although, let's be honest, some American pronunciations are risible: 'erbs for "herbs"? Please! And "primmer" as the "correct" pronunciation of "primer" is just, ah, dim and dimer, especially in the land of that renowned librarian and spelling reformer Melvil Dewey [2]. No, what is seeping into British English, presumably via the rich diet of US TV and film being consumed via Netflix and the like, is the sort of systemic stuff which affects the rhythm and music of speech. Things like that American habit of emphasising the adjective rather than the noun, as in "Red Bull" rather than "Red Bull" ("Can I get a can of Red Bull?"). And there's that teen-talk insistence on turning every statement into a question? Called "uptalk"? As if I must pretend to need constant reassurance about things I know to be perfectly true? Which may even be Australian, but nobody's sure? Yes, that. And let's not even get started on the infectious, faux-sophisticated idea in the American art-world that the word "cliché" is emphasised on the final syllable and is an adjective.

The linguistic traffic can still be a little two-way, of course. I am surprised how many "Britishisms" seem to have made it into American speech in recent years. Mainly vulgar stuff, it's true (well, it's what we do best): I'm pretty sure words like "bloody", "bugger", "bloke", "geezer", or even "wanker" were never as widely used in America as they seem to be now. Hey, you're welcome! But sometimes things are sailing under false flags. I was deeply baffled, some years ago, by one commenter's reference to a "bumbershoot". A what? Apparently he, like many Americans, was under the impression that this is British slang for an umbrella. No, sorry, Mary Poppins: never heard of it. Brolly, yes; but bumbershoot, no. Like the so-called English muffin (about to make the most out of a toaster, "I'd ease myself down, Comin' up brown!") it's a wholly American invention that, no doubt and nonetheless, we'll eventually be obliged to adopt as our own.

It goes without saying that there are many "Americans", just as there are many "Englishes". The intersections of region, social class, race, education, and gender all generate recognisable sub-dialects, right down to the level of the individual, what linguists call an "idiolect". My own speech is quite different from the written "voice" you probably hear as you read these words, in the same way the actual face of a radio presenter can never supplant the one their voice conjures in your mind [3]. In Britain, regional accents can be particularly finely-tuned. My mother came from Pirton, a tiny village in North Hertfordshire. Across a couple of fields, you could see another tiny village, Shillington, situated in Bedfordshire. Apparently, at social occasions like village-hall dances, you could tell Shillington from Pirton "gels" because of their quite distinct accent; at least, you could if you'd grown up in Pirton. I get the impression that American dialects are more broad-brush, but there's no question that the version of "American" that gets exported to the world via TV, film, and music is a blunt instrument that ignores all the important subtleties that enable one American to despise another (it surely can't just be us that do that, can it? [4]).

But, [heads up, guys] now look here, you young fellows! The day crisps become "chips" and biscuits become "cookies" in Britain is the day (expressed as DD/MM/YY) that age-related pedantry tips over into age-related patriotism, and us old codgers [light out for the Territory] take to the hills, packing the OED, Erskine May, and a complete backrun of The Beano into the boot of the car, along with plenty of petrol and, for those that way inclined, a good supply of fags. Ooo-err, missus! And not just for a fortnight, either. Understood, [kiddo] Sonny Jim? [Outstanding] Splendid! Anyone for a cuppa?


1.  I say "equivalent", rather than "original", because establishing precedence can be tricky. A lot of "Americanisms" actually turn out to be survivals of an even older British English.
2. "Buoy" is a curious one. I say "boy", you say "boowie". So do Americans feel "boowied up" by good news, or assess the "boowieyancy" of boats (or maybe it's their beyoncé)? I suspect not.
3. As it happens, it's an unlovely mash-up of London and North Hertfordshire, with top notes of higher-ed, and subcultural undertones. When I was at school, my teachers would actually mimic my pronunciation, presumably in an attempt to get me to change it, and I'll never forget being asked to repeat my reply, several times, to a question in my Oxford entrance interview ("I'm so sorry, I can't quite understand what you're saying... Could you repeat it once more?"). It was just as well he couldn't hear my sotto voce reply.
4. "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him" (according to an Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, preface to Pygmalion).

24 comments:

old_bloke said...

Suffering as I do from an extreme form of age-related pedantry, I have to take you to task for your bald statement "No-one plays or understands baseball in Britain". When I was growing up, the sports pages of the Liverpool Echo used to carry reports of the local baseball league. Indeed, the greatest footballer who ever lived (William Ralph Dean, obvs) also played baseball in Liverpool in the 1930s. And, of course, up until 1997, Derby County played at the Baseball Ground.

I do agree with most of what you've written though - when I lived in Michigan in the seventies, you could call someone a wanker with impunity. In fact, you could get away with most things if you spoke with a Beatles accent . . .

Best wishes for 2019



Mike C. said...

Old_bloke,

Funnily enough, it occurred to me even as I wrote that, "I bet that's not entirely true..." After all, British American "Football" teams get a mention in the sports news these days! Mind you, Liverpool has had its own "special relationship" with the States for a long time. Result: the Beatles...

Best 2019 wishes to you, too!

Mike

David Brookes said...

Right on, bro! (or should that be “well said, Michael, I agree with you wholeheartedly”). Actually I do not admit to your phrase “age related pedantry ” - my pedantry has flourished for a much longer period; all that age has brought is the knowledge that I was right all along.

DM said...

Awesome post, Mike. Very cool, dude.

Mike C. said...

David and DM,

Why, thank you, your approbation is most gratefully received, although it has to be said I'm waiting somewhat anxiously for the sun to illuminate those western shores (and I don't mean Cornwall).

Mike

Unknown said...

Just an idle thought but the the accent on the final vowel in cliché should that not make it the one to emphasis though I do agree with your phonetic
Personally I hate it when car manufacturers attempt to make us use the continental version of their car names. Its not an omeeega its an omegaaa
Not an O'Ryan but an Orion and as for the copywriter telling us to pronounce Xedos as 'kerzerdos'. What? We never heard of a xylophone or the Persian King Xerxes or a Xerox photo copier

Mike C. said...

Unknown,

re. "cliché": in French, yes; in British English, no.

I hesitate to ask, but how do you think "Orion" should be pronounced?

Mike

amolitor said...

So, would it be fair to summarize this post as "I'm Afraid of Americans?"

Mike C. said...

amolitor,

No.

Mike

amolitor said...

I believe that, like cherubs in paintings, a blog post could always do with another Bowie reference. I am disappointed, but not angry, to learn that my opinion is not universally held.

Mike C. said...

amolitor,

Apologies, I clearly missed a trick there... I know every note and word of Bowie up until around "Young Americans" (!), after which I lost interest, really. A shame perhaps, as I'm told by (slightly) younger folk that the "Berlin" phase is the best.

I'll check it out later on Spotify... (after I've checked out the later career of Suzanne Vega... Is there no end to catching up?).

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Not forgetting 'creaky voice':

"Creaky voice is prevalent as a peer-group affectation among young women in the United States and United Kingdom"

Wikipedia

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Ah, yes -- I think the technical term is "vocal fry", but I think "creaky voice" describes it better.

I wonder how long before young men start artificially turning the "bass" in their voice up to 11, too?

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Yes,Wiki gives that as another name for it but following the link, that seems to be used in classifying voice register ("the deepest"), while 'creaky voice' is used by linguists to describe the speech characteristic. Could be wrong.

Whatever, the most amusing alternative name listed is 'girl grunt'.

Also, how long before female spokespersons start wearing false beards in TV interviews to add the necessary gravitas to their words?

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Women in the US are wearing false beards on TV? I had no idea!

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Ah, not afaik; slight topic drift there (are young men turning up the bass in the US?). Anyway, once they start, it's bound to catch on over here.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Yes, I've noticed a definite tendency to deepen the voice well below what we would consider someone's "normal" range, to use a "chest" voice rather than a "head" voice, in singer's terms. I've read various explanations for this, none of which seem convincing, it seems to be just a "thing".

Mike

DM said...

Gosh, 'girl grunt' sounds awfully good. Not just the utterances of those exciting lawn tennis women giving their all to a whip-like backhand or powerful forehand straight down the line? Pussy riot accompanied with girl grunt might be quite something.

Mike C. said...

DM,

Not sure where "girl grunt" came from, but sounds like a rather different thing: the "creaky / fry" thing is that curious growly, back of the throat voice that a lot of America women seem to have adopted, and which is catching on here. Curiously, though, speaking of tennis, Andy Murray is also a habitual "vocal fryer".

Mike

Chris Rusbridge said...

Brilliant rant, Mike. I can confirm that the rising inflection at the end of a sentence was very common in Australia in the 70s and thereafter; whether this was also the case in the US at that time, I don't know. "Neighbours" carried a lot of unfortunate baggage!

I liked your Pirton story. I was partly brought up in the Taunton Deane, and I can confirm the micro variation of village dialect variations from there. It later puzzled me that in Australia, largely populated initially in the 19th Century (far too sweeping a statement, but I hope it works for the case), where travel between, say, Sydney and Adelaide was a multi-day affair, the variation in accent/dialect was not MUCH greater. There definitely are differences, but much less than, say Texas to New York, let alone Bristol to Brum.

Your cliché reference is an isolated example of a general case, I claim, that Americans stress their syllables quite differently than the British. Further, this seems to me to be in some way class-related. So in a given city the subway-worker is quite incomprehensible to me, while the chief librarian is perfectly understandable, largely (ISTM) for reasons related to stresses.

By the way, given that we are supposed to say "an hotel" in English, is there not a case to be made for 'erbs? Although, even if there is, I too hate it with a passion.

However, the stand-out annoyance to me in your list is "muffin". No, a muffin is not a doughy, barely digestible cake reminiscent of an overgrown cupcake. It is a small bread-like thing to be toasted... and quite delicious.

And finally, way off topic, in the 1960s I spent a week on a trade mission in Moscow, as a very junior computer programmer (ICL was trying to sell System 4 computers to the Russians). I managed to decode enough Cyrillic to work out that "chemendex" on the breakfast menu was ham and eggs. But I was rather surprised to discover that "chai angliski s'limon" was black tea served in a glass on a saucer with a slice of lemon in it. Nothing remotely English about that, as far as I was concerned!

Mike C. said...

Chris,

Thanks for these interesting comments! One thing, though: the classic American "English muffin" (as featured in Simon & Garfunkel's "Punky's Dilemma") is a sort of cross between a drop scone and a crumpet, eaten for breakfast, and not the fluffy, mushroom-shaped cake we have also imported in recent years (along with the truly emetic iced doughnut, which -- if TV and film are to be believed -- appears to be the staple diet of US police forces, especially on clandestine stakeouts).

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

You may be interested, if you don't know of it already, in the Not One-off Briticisms site, which looks at British expressions creeping into US-speak, and which discussed bumbershoot in passing recently - and also revealed that ,stiff upper lip' is an Americanism originally...

Martyn Cornell said...

Oops forgot the link: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=2ahUKEwjyp7OGpZHgAhW7ShUIHZJ3Am4QFjAAegQIBhAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Fnotoneoffbritishisms.com%2F&usg=AOvVaw2TnH7Ct7qXPMG8uHsFt-vk

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Martyn, that's a fascinating site -- interesting that Americans would bother to monitor the westward traffic!

Mike