Americanisms Killing British English?

The BBC has an article on Americanisms killing the English language, which considers the arguments of a new book by Matthew Engel, That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. Because by English, I mean British English.

Speaking on the wireless in 1935, Alistair Cooke declared that “Every Englishman listening to me now unconsciously uses 30 or 40 Americanisms a day”. In 2017, that number is likely closer to three or four hundred, Engel hazards – more for a teenager, “if they use that many words in a day”.

It’s often pointed out that plenty of these Americanisms were British English to begin with – we exported them, then imported them back. A commonly made case in point is ‘I guess’, which crops up in Chaucer. When Dr Johnson compiled his seminal 1755 dictionary, ‘gotten’ was still in use as a past participle of ‘get’. But as Engel points out, good old English is not good new English. Moreover, his beef isn’t really to do with authenticity; it’s more to do with our unthinking complicity. Because it’s not just the cookies and the closets, or even the garbage, it’s the insidiousness of it all. We’ve already reached the point where most of us can no longer tell whether a word is an Americanism or not. By 2120, he suggests, American English will have absorbed the British version entirely. As he puts it, “The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted”.

None of this would matter if these imported words were augmenting our existing vocabulary….Engel quotes researchers behind 2014’s Spoken British National Corpus, who found that the word ‘awesome’ is now used in conversation 72 times per million words. Marvellous, meanwhile, is used just twice per million – down from 155 times a mere 20 years earlier. ‘Cheerio’ and, yes, ‘fortnight’, are apparently staring at the same fate.

Fortnight is an interesting word–which I didn’t learn the exact meaning of for years after I first read it in novels and basically figured it meant “a specific length of time.” Once I realized it was fourteen-nights shortened, it was way easier to remember what it meant, two weeks.

10 Things About the English Language

An article on the blog for Oxford Dictionaries entitled “Ten Things You Might Not Have Known about the English Language” caught my attention. It’s several years old, but it contains interesting information. The only ones I didn’t know were that -ize was British and not American and how many people are in process of learning English.

During classes that I teach, I often talk about the lack of a language academy that has the ability to decide what is “good” English. While I might have been more in favor of the idea in the past, after I heard that Brazilian Portuguese became the official standard for the Portuguese language, I was much less interested. (Can’t find the source I read that in.)

Only recently (say in the three years) have I learned that Noah Webster decided to Americanize English in order to make it better.

Bartleby quotes Mencken’s The American Language from 1921, saying,

Grounding his [Webster’s] wholesale reforms upon a saying by Franklin, that “those people spell best who do not know how to spell”—i. e., who spell phonetically and logically—he [Webster] made an almost complete sweep of whole classes of silent letters…
A good many of these new spellings, of course, were not actually Webster’s inventions. For example, the change from -our to -or in words of the honor class was a mere echo of an earlier English uncertainty. In the first three folios of Shakespeare, 1623, 1632 and 1663-6, honor and honour were used indiscriminately and in almost equal proportions; English spelling was still fluid, and the -our-form was not consistently adopted until the fourth folio of 1685.

A great many of his innovations, of course, failed to take root, and in the course of time he abandoned some of them himself.

Liberal Arts Degree = Hot Ticket

“The ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket” from Forbes says:

“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

And then there is this:
“Add up the jobs held by people who majored in psychology, history, gender studies and the like, and they quickly surpass the totals for engineering and computer science.”

Marketing English Majors

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article called “Feeding English Majors in the 21st Century.”

Not taking skills for granted became a mantra for the course, spurred in part by Katharine Brooks’s guide, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career. Former English majors gave talks — through class visits or via Skype — on their careers, which helped associate the major with a narrative of professional plenitude rather than scarcity.

We had real-world examples in class, too. The director of a local nonprofit health foundation talked about the challenges of getting social-service agencies to collaborate, and credited her literary training with teaching her to locate seemingly “disparate, unrelated stories within a larger story.”

Why Have English Majors?

The New Yorker has an article entitled “Why Teach English?” that answers the question of why English majors exist. It’s an interesting read overall. But I found this section particularly intriguing.

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

Wildly Successful English Majors

Business Insider has a post on famous, successful people with English majors.

The list includes business tycoon Mitt Romney and a former governor of New York.

It also includes Sting, the former CEO of NBC, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Barbara Walters, and the seventh commissioner of Major League Baseball.

The most inspiring, to me anyway, is Steven Spielberg.

Thanks to my colleague Al for pointing out this.

English Degree = Opportunity

A Washington Post article from ten years ago shows that the question of what to do with an English major has been around for several years and that there are more varied answers than teach. Perhaps our students are sometimes focused on what they already know. They’ve been in school for 16 years, so of course they should teach.

The article introduces different people who graduated with English majors and have done other jobs.

Dinsmore sold his English degree and teaching experience to hiring managers as an advantage, not a hindrance. “Although I admitted that it was a different field, I described the ways in which my teaching skills would translate to that of computer support tech: patience, ability to put myself in the user’s shoes, comfortable speaking in front of crowds.”

Best-Paying Jobs for English Majors, in the career advice section, has an article entitled “Best-Paying Jobs for English Majors.”

10) Technical Writer
Median Salary: $49,100

9) Marketing Communications Manager
Median Salary: $50,500

8) Managing Editor
Median Salary: $53,000

7) Marketing Director
Median Salary: $53,200

6) Human Resources Generalist
Median Salary: $54,000

5) Nonprofit Executive Director
Median Salary: $55,200

4) Web Developer
Median Salary: $58,500

3) Proposal Manager
Median Salary: $65,000

2) IT Project Manager
Median Salary: $67,000

1) Sales Account Manager
Median Salary: $67,300

One of my English majors in my business and professional writing class researched this topic for his long report and we’ve used the handout he constructed in our welcome packages for freshmen and transfer English majors ever since.