Dialectal drift

Posted by on July 25, 2011

Of the countless varieties of English, American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) are the most significant. This is why you can set Macmillan Dictionary’s default setting to either, and switch back and forth throughout.

American English regularly comes under fire from some BrE speakers who perhaps feel a bit possessive or protective about their mother tongue. Corpus data show that the word Americanism is often modified by a disparaging adjective, such as horrible, disgusting, absurd, and vile.

The BBC website recently published an article about AmE and its influence on BrE. Though the writer acknowledges the great flexibility of English, he cannot resist grumbling about particular Americanisms he finds “ugly and pointless”. These are subjective judgements, of course – and several of the facts he cites are wrong, as Language Log shows.

Occasional Macmillan Dictionary guest blogger Dan Clayton wrote an interesting response on his own language blog. He makes the important points that the dividing lines between dialects are far from clear-cut, and that with respect to AmE and BrE, the influence does not operate in one direction only.

Given that languages and dialects undergo constant change, and blend and blur into one another, the purist point of view seems misguided to me. It also encourages unsavoury peeve-fests like the one the BBC subsequently printed.

Catchphrases and idioms (often AmE) spread quickly, and grievances over new coinages and linguistic conventions are often knee-jerk objections that develop over time into pet hates. But some of these neologisms eventually become standard, widely used, and even loved.

Ever since English was brought to America, the two dialects – or rather the two sets of many dialects – have assumed their own forms and standards. AmE has steadily become the centre (aka center) of gravity, but each side affects the other in all sorts of ways. As Dan put it: “While the bigger picture might be of a drift towards more Americanisms, it’s not all one-way traffic and the drift is not uniform.”

I love the Irish English dialects I hear around me, but if I encounter an idiom I like from another dialect – guddle, for instance – I’m liable to adopt it. The history of English is a history of many languages and dialects mixing with one another. It’s what they do. I think linguistic diversity can and should be enjoyed and embraced. Instead of getting wound up about phrases we dislike, we can celebrate not only the great variation that exists but also the fact that so much mutual comprehensibility remains.

Comments (6)
  • Stan:
    This latest kerfuffle over Americanisms vs. the Holy Grail of Pure English really seems to me to be a tempest in a pot of tea, or as I’ve heard the English say, a tempest in a teapot. As a writer and journalist, as well as a lifelong lover of language – purely as an amateur – I take the same position you do. I think that all the myriad accents and dialects of English enrich the totality of the language as a means of communication, and after all, our ability to communicate verbally is what separates us from the other denizens of the planet.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 25th July, 2011
  • Marc: It is, as you say, a tempest in a teapot. But there’s a lot of people jumping in for a vigorous splash and scalding innocent passers-by. I agree wholeheartedly that variety is enriching. It would be a pleasure to see a message like that coming from a BBC article on language, instead of the recent binges of irritation.

    Posted by Stan on 25th July, 2011
  • [...] Americanisms.” And finally, on 25 July, the Macmillian Dictionary blog author Stan Carey wrote a thoughtful, objective perspective on the original article, the “unsavoury peeve-fests” of the Top 50 list, and the [...]

    Posted by Can’t we all just get along? | As a Linguist… on 26th July, 2011
  • [...] with part two of a post from Lynnequist, some words from Grant Barrett of A Way With Words, and some thoughts from Stan [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 29th July, 2011
  • [...] “Dialectal drift” was a brief response to a lively recent debate over Americanisms, which I hope to address at greater length in a future blog post. Copyediting newsletter was kind enough to call it “the voice of reason”, but as I said to someone elsewhere, these things are relative; I read a lot of unreason on the topic. Anyway, here’s an excerpt: Given that languages and dialects undergo constant change, and blend and blur into one another, the purist point of view seems misguided to me. . . . Catchphrases and idioms (often AmE) spread quickly, and grievances over new coinages and linguistic conventions are often knee-jerk objections that develop over time into pet hates. But some of these neologisms eventually become standard, widely used, and even loved. . . . [...]

    Posted by Dialects and dimpsy doddermen « Sentence first on 4th August, 2011
  • [...] addressing the furore, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I said the purist point of view seems misguided because languages and dialects in contact [...]

    Posted by Anti-anti-Americanismism « Sentence first on 27th September, 2012
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