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7 February 2011
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Language change
One word used out of context in the U.K. that I find very annoying is brilliant. When I lived in England the word meant shining or glittering. It would be a very dull language though if it didn't change with time. Veronica, Canada
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American words make it into the dictionary
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Is America ruining English?
Americanisation: a four-letter word

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Foreign Language Syndrome occurs when people with brain injuries lose the ability to talk in their native accent. After a stroke, George Reynolds developed an Italian accent.
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Semantic change
Intrusive 'R'

Language Change by Philippa Law

Americanisation - Don't worry, it's not as bad as you might think

It's one issue that really gets people's goat: Americanisms. Tony Robinson from Cheltenham says, "In these days of mass communication it is sad to see the English language being battered by the ever advancing tide of Americanism."

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play audio Listen to a Townswomen's Guild discuss Americanisms in Nantwich. More...
Mark Hughes from Walsall doesn't like it either: "The thing that drives me demented is the rampant Americanisation of everything, especially British English, and the habit of turning nouns into verbs, such as prioritise and incentivise. Yuk!"

British English borrows lots of words from American English. Prioritise was apparently coined during the 1972 presidential election; teenager, blizzard and belittle originated in the USA and, unsurprisingly, there are umpteen computer-related terms that come from the United States.

It's not always obvious to speakers where new words have emerged from. As Virginia Reed from California writes, "I thought incentivise was 'all your fault'!"

"The assumption is that anything new is American and thus objectionable on double grounds."

The American linguist John Algeo notes a propensity in the UK to attribute changes in British English to the influence of the USA, whether it's justified or not: "The assumption is that anything new is American and thus objectionable on double grounds."

An example of misattribution is the word controversy. Some people pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable: CONtroversy; others stress the second: conTROVersy. It's a widely-held belief that the second, newer pronunciation is an Americanism, but it isn't - it originated in the UK.

And for those of you who don't like the phrase I guess..., did you know that the word gesse (for think or suppose) was common in England in the Middle Ages, and I gesse... crops up in Chaucer?

Patsy from Cornwall deplores Americanisms: "Let us ensure that future generations learn to use English correctly. We should be aware that the English language originated in England and was taken from here to other English speaking countries."

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play audio Listen to Debbie in Suffolk talk about the language of teenagers. More...
She's right that English originated in England, but it's not right to imply that other varieties of English are versions of 'our' language. Americans don't speak a different version of British English; English speakers in the UK and the USA speak modern dialects which have both evolved from 16th century English. Today's British English is no nearer that common ancestor than American English is!

As it happens, American English has been more conservative than British English in some respects. It has retained the third syllable of words like library and secretary, whilst many British dialects use the newer forms secretree and libree. Old words like diaper and fall are still used in America but have been replaced by new words (nappy and autumn) in Britain.

Why do so many people hate Americanisms? The word itself suggests it's something to do with America, rather than linguistic borrowing in general. As the linguist Steve Jones points out: "Ever heard jodhpurs referred to as an 'Indianism' or karaoke as a 'Japism'?"

He suggests that, "It would seem that when folk complain about the Americanisation of the language, their complaint is really about the insidious effect of Americanisation on our culture."

Whatever your feelings are towards Americanisms, there's no reason to think we'll all turn American any time soon. As Peter Trudgill explains, our language is most influenced by the people we interact with, not by watching TV. Even though the American and British vocabularies are getting more similar, our accents and pronunciation are more different than they have ever been - and are growing further apart.


Your Comments
What language changes annoy you?

Dave from California
Have we all turned French? As native English speakers, we should be more concerned about learning the foreign languages that compete with our own and helping the non-native speakers of our language to communicate more effectively than complaining about which type of English is best. I'm an American and I can't think of a time I've ever used most of the "Americanisms" mentioned. I love most forms of our common language but it works both ways - many American ears are bothered by the non-standard usages of our fellow Anglophones.

John, Edinburgh
When asked how they are, more and more Britons, of all walks of life, will say "I'm good" (or even "I'm real good"!). I noticed this American slang creeping into New Zealand and Australian English about 5 years ago and sadly it's just hit our shores. ps. Does the BBC think it can get away with news articles on the "Mid East" Crisis? I've never heard of the place...

Andy from Hampshire
The use of words like 'snuck' (it's sneaked). Even BBC presenters (e.g. Simon King) are saying it. Also it amazes me how many people use 'f' instead of 'th' - pure laziness. Words ending in 'ing' do not need a 'k' sound on the end. It's 'anything' NOT 'anyfink'.

John B from Switzerland
It drives me around the twist to hear BBC announcers report that someone ANXIOUSLY awaited his birthday (for example) when in fact they meant EAGERLY awaited x x x. Americanisms aside (and they are just as sloppy over there), there is increasing laziness to use words that seem to sound right without consideration of their meaning. I am sure if others listened carefully to those who mouth the news whether on UK or US media, they would catch other such errors of speech. Try it;its amusing -- and galling.

Elysia from New York/Amsterdam
I am an American living in Amsterdam, and am constantly caught up in this sort of conversation with other native speakers and second-language speakers. And, don't worry, the English hold onto their language/slang fiercely, despite the ubiquitous use of "American terms" (e.g., fries, sneakers, sweater) by the rest of the international community. :-) However, I am shocked to see how many speech patterns in these comments are attributed to Americans when they are just bad English period! As a proper speaking American, I would never say many of these things! (It is "May I have..." and "runninG") And, I have heard just as much incorrect (yet very un-American) English come from English mouths as from American mouths! I'm shocked by this prejudice that I never previously realized existed. P.S. "Prioritise" is not an American word, "Prioritize" is. ;-) And I've never heard of "incentivise" with any spelling...

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