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#sowhoknew: Is American English killing British English?

Vacation or holiday? Garbage or rubbish? Sidewalk or pavement? Well according to a new piece of research it seems that the original British English words are slowly succumbing to their American linguistic cousins…

My good pal Richard Blackburn (MD at ECN UK) put me on to some research by Paul Baker, Professor of Linguistics at Lancaster University, which claims that British English is not holding up well to the rise of Americanised alternatives. Baker has done an in-depth analysis of millions of words in written text (including newspapers, books, magazines etc.) from the past 80 years, from both sides of the Atlantic and concluded that many original British English words and phrases are slowly being usurped.

In his book, “American and British English – Divided By A Common Language” he talks specifically about how the use of the adverb has been the biggest casualty to date. The usage of an ‘awfully’, a ‘quite’ and the odd ‘rather’ has diminished to such an extent that Baker feels the British are losing an element of what makes them, well, British:

“If anything marks out the British linguistically it’s their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise. So ‘the worst day ever’ is ‘things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be’ ”

In all fairness the dreadful loss of adverbs makes one frightfully melancholic, would one not agree?

The trend for simplification extends beyond the use of adverbs, it even affects individual words. His prime example? Color rather than colour. Baker also goes on to point out differences in vocabulary plus a range of “morphological, grammatical, semantic and pragmatic features”. And there are a startling amount of them:

  • chips / fries
  • curtains / drapes
  • film / movie
  • football / soccer
  • lift / elevator
  • lorry / truck
  • nappy / diaper
  • toilet / rest room
  • post / mail
  • trousers / pants
  • biscuit / cookie
  • rubber / eraser
  • sweets / candy
  • jug / pitcher
  • yoghurt / yogurt

Etcetera, etcetera. I could go on but I don’t want to labour (labor?) the point.

I have certainly witnessed first hand how my own daughters have adopted words like fries, movie, cookie, candy and (given the latest Muller advert with Nicole Scherzinger) the American spelling and pronunciation of yogurt (much to my chagrin, I jolly well hasten to add).

It seems that Brits are becoming increasingly economical and direct in their use of English language by imitating and adopting the American way of speaking. Professor Baker goes on to say:

“Americans want to get to the point and say what they mean, whereas British people want to avoid conflict so use down toners like ‘quites’ and ‘rathers’. We are more cautious and apologetic, but it can also come across as long winded and means we take a bit longer to get to the point. My academic head tells me that it is an interesting change. But with a British person’s head, I think it is a bit of a shame as it is a mark of identity”

This increased simplification has also meant we are now used to using shorter sentences and words. For example the trend for combining words with apostrophes (do not becomes don’t) has been accelerating and the rise of shorthand social media communication (at least until the recent Twitter character count being doubled to 280?) has led to us using more and more acronyms. OMG I’m SMH as I LOL. JK.

Part of the reason for the decline is also a caused by a dismantling of the British class system. The use of gradable adverbs in particular is seen as being very “upper class” and Baker points out that as the classes have levelled-out over the past 8 decades people no longer want to be associated with what he describes as “fuddy duddy” language.

So what do you think? Is American English slowly vanquishing the original British version or is it just a temporary trend? Do you think there will be a resurgence in the British English variants or will they ultimately become lost forever? As ever I am (awfully) interested to hear your opinion…

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.