In 1995, in much the same vein as the comment of 260 years earlier, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was reported by The Times as complaining to a British Council audience that American English is ‘very corrupting.’ Particularly, he bemoaned the fact that ‘people tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be.’ The Prince concluded: ‘We must act now to insure that English – and that, to my way of thinking, means English English – maintains its position as the world language well into the next century.”
One way Americans are ruining English is by changing it. Many of us, like Francis Moore and Prince Charles, regard what is foreign to us as barbarous and corrupt. We owe the term barbarous to the Greeks; they pitied the poor foreigner who could only stammer ‘bar-bar’ and hence was a ‘barbaros’. Barbarians are simply those who do not talk as we do, whether they are outsiders, Yanks or fellow countrymen and countrywomen whose style we do not admire.
The journalist Edwin Newman is a linguistic prophet who sees the language style of his fellow Americans as deadly. In 1974 he vaticinated in a book called Strictly Speaking, which was subtitled Will America be the Death of English? In it, he too objected to the invention of all sorts of nouns and verbs and words that shouldn’t be. In particular he objected to verbosity and euphemism as bad style. A number of Americans bemoan the baleful influence of their fellow citizens on the health or integrity of the language, but only a few, like Edwin Newman, have been able to make a career of it.
In England, on the other hand, a perception that America is ruining the language pervades the discourse of the Great British public. Indeed, a fair number of British intellectuals regard ‘new’, ‘distasteful’, and ‘American’ as synonymous. Change in language is, however, inevitable, just as it is in all other aspects of reality. Particular changes will be, in the eyes of one observer or another, improvements or degenerations. But judgements of what is beautiful or ugly, valuable or useless, barbarous or elegant, corrupting or improving are highly personal idiosyncratic ones. A language – or anything else that does not change – is dead. However no one is required to like all or any particular changes. It is our right to have our own opinions and to take it or leave it when it come to style in culture, diet, entertainment, religion and language. We don’t have to like particular changes, or even the fact of change itself. The eighteenth-century hope that language could be ‘fixed’ – that is, improved, or changed in a way some self-appointed linguistic judge would approve of until it reached a state of perfection and then preserved so that it would not thereafter degenerate or change in a way the judge disliked – was a chimera. It was an illusion based on misunderstandings about the nature of language, values and human nature.
During the recorded history of English, the language has changed from something quite incomprehensible to a present-day English speaker, which we call Old English. During its roughly thirteen centuries of recorded history, English has diversified in many ways. Any two varieties of a language become increasingly different from each other when their speakers do not communicate with one other but more alike as those who use them talk among themselves. That is the way language works.
Both Americans and the British innovate in English pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. British people, however, tend to be more aware of American innovations than Americans are of British ones. The cause of that greater awareness may be a keener linguistic sensitivity on the part of the British, or a more insular anxiety and hence irritation about influences from abroad. Multi national american speakers are so less aware of the British Isles and our traditions.
It is curious and remarkable that the present state of affairs was foreseen with great accuracy by John Adams, who in 1780, even before it was obvious that the American Revolution would succeed, wrote: “English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age. The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use.”
So is America ruining the English language? I maintain it is. If America wishes to perform a rendition [ Kidnapping and illegal torture] on their own spoken word so be it – but leave English English to evolve separately and protect our noble English language. We urgently need the equivalent of the French L’Académie française, the institution that defends the purity of French, to protect the Queen’s English from furthur disneyfication from a country where Spanish will be the predominant language by the end of this century.