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  • That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

Comments Jul 31, 2011 9:36 am

I loved Dennis' comments on this issue. He is of course absolutely right about the uninformed nature of Matthew Engel's opinions (maybe Engel should stick to economic issues, about which he presumably knows more - let's hope so, at least), but I want to comment on two other issues: 1) Dennis's comment that "it was British imperialism, not American, that set English on the path to world domination;" and 2) the notion of attitudes to language in general (i.e., not just toward English). 1) As somebody who holds dual British and American nationality, who (still) speaks with a British accent after living in the US for over 25 years (god knows why!) and who uses American spelling conventions, I would like to make the following comment. Yes, Dennis is quite correct that we Brits "set English on the path to world domination." But I would also like to point out that we Amicans have our own inglorious colonial/imperialist past in the 19th century. Remember: 1) Manifest Destiny; 2) the war(s) with Mexico in the 1840s which eventually resulted in the annexation of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California; and 3) the Spanish American war. All of these events resulted in the dramatic spread and use (whether partial or dominant) of English from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. In a same vein, major reasons for the continuing status of English as the world's leading lingua franca include the post 1945 process of British decolonization (starting with India and Pakistan in 1947 and going on through the 1960s), and the not accidental parallel rise of the US as the leading economic, military, scientific, pop cultural (and neo-imperialist?) super power of the 20th century and early 21 century. So, linguistically speaking; the geopolitical language torch was passed on from the UK to the US. Of course, in light of of the ongoing rise of China, Brazil, India, etc. by, say 2050, the question arises how long English will maintain its status as the main international lingua franca becomes an interesting question. For various complicated reasons, I'm betting on the continued use of English an increased role for Spanish as the two main lingua francas. In short, I'm arguing that Dennis' initial point (which is well-taken) can be usefully extended as suggested above. 2) Attitudes toward language are deeply embedded in culture (however we define this term), and there is nothing funnier than other people's linguistic prejudices. But we all have them! Let me make a true confession: I am, for various reasons we needn't go into, a native speaker of Geneva (Switzerland, not Wisconsin) French. I use this variety with francophone family members, but with all other native speakers of French, I have a Parisian accent (arguably still the highest prestige variety of French). I have great affection for the Geneva dialect, but am totally mystified by rural Qubequois French, which in extreme cases I don't understand and frankly find rather comic (yes, I know, this is despite the fact that I am a linguist and ought to know better; but then, native speakers of Parisian French think the Geneva dialect is also spoken by country bumpkins). So, just to dig my own hole deeper, when I went on vacation to France last year, I was hugely amused by a post card (a French example of the "what the world looks like as seen from x" genre) in which the Qubeq was inhabited by "nos cousins incomprhensibles." (PS: In the spirit in which this post was written, if anybody wishes to respond to this, please start with your own true linguistic confession first!). Now, this particular example of linguistic prejudice may or may not be harmless. Personally, I'm mainly struck by the fact that I have different attitudes toward different dialects of English and French depending on which language I'm speaking. Basically, it seems I am far more tolerant of different dialects of English than I am of different dialects of French, which seems weird. In any case, switching the focus of these meditations slightly, there are domains of language use in which linguistic prejudice is clearly harmful: just to give a particularly clear instance, in racist discourse. Going back to American English, this reminds me of Dennis Preston's fascinating sociolinguistic work on where people think the best American English is spoken, and it usually turns out that one's own regional dialect is of course the best. I think that's fine, but what Preston's research shows is that things really get complicated when bi-dialectal speakers of Standard American and Latino or Black English phone landlords twice (using Standard American in one call and whatever ethnic variety they also speak in the other) to inquire about renting a flat (sorry! apartment). Guess which persona/ dialect is the most successful ... My overall conclusion: what a pain (linguistic) nationalism turns out to be!

Reply to at 9:36 am