On linguistic imperialism

November 12, 2016

I was brought up speaking English; my variety is pretty much Standard English although my south Lincolnshire origins occasionally betray themselves in my pronunciation. I’ve always taught students that SE is an enabler, rather than a replacement for their own variety, wherever they come from: to only be able to operate in a dialect or with a regional accent can disadvantage someone in certain circumstances.

My studies of American literature have made me reasonably familiar with US usages, though not with the many accents of that huge country. I have been aware of Britain and the USA being both connected and divided by a common language, and rather horrified by the vague and characterless ‘mid-Atlantic English’ that has evolved or developed over the past few decades, particularly for the use of non-native speakers… I know very little about other varieties of English, such as those of Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

What has retained my attention over the years is what having a language shared with the USA has done to us in the UK. Initially, it was our language; the choice of English over German as the national language of the USA was a narrow thing, apparently. I’m aware that pronunciations and usages and some of the spellings in use on the other side of the Atlantic are actually closer to those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries than the English we currently use in the UK. And obviously, as the power of the USA grew and that of ‘Great’ Britain faded with the progression of the twentieth century, US influence on our common language grew ever stronger. Increasingly books are published in a single US English edition, using US usage and spelling, for sale in all English-speaking countries and I have to get used to all those spellings I dislike and regard as incorrect for here… American TV shows, cheaply produced for a much larger audience, are easy fare for our TV companies looking to fill their schedules.

And, rather more alarmingly to me, the shared or almost-shared language means that every idea or theory, no matter how crackpot or bonkers, that someone in the US dreams up, is instantly and too easily accessible to us over here, whether economic, social, political or educational, whether it’s valid only for the US or more universally applicable – it can be in print, online or broadcast immediately and affect and influence us over here, often before we have time to engage our critical faculties.

This might seem blindingly obvious, and to an extent it is, but the point is that countries that use other languages have an inbuilt delay and a filter which is the need for translation, so ideas can and do take rather longer to percolate and infiltrate other countries, if they actually get there at all: they don’t potentially get the same kind of widespread and instant exposure that they can get here. An example: any teacher in the UK can list a great number of crazy theories and practices that have been adopted by or forced onto schools over the last couple of decades, often to the detriment of good education, and many of these ideas – such as performance management, for instance – originated in the corporate US, and have been dropped since. I have noticed from my reading of the French press that many of these half-baked and discredited ideas are now beginning to surface and be implemented in that country’s schools, and have met with the same scepticism and scorn from French teachers that they met quite a few years ago over here… It’s almost as if French, or German, or Polish or whatever is a shield from some of the craziness.

I’m not wanting to suggest that the USA has a monopoly on mad ideas, although I feel they do pretty well. But this linguistic imperialism is not something that seems to be that widely noticed or commented on, although its effects may be profound.

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