The Irish: nearly as British as the British themselves
Ihave some distressing news. It seems that the Irish are more British than any other nation. The British are the second most British country, but they’re not quite as British as us. I’m just yanking your chain. You’re likely staring furiously at that last phrase as you plan to write the letters page. It’s just the sort of creeping Americanism that, according to a recent study, Irish people resist. So is “likely” for “probably”. So is “write” rather than “write to”. Just do the math. (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
A study called The Fall of the Empire: The Americanization of English analysed 15 million books and 30 million tweets to determine which nationalities are most at home to US spelling and vocabulary.
Ireland does appear at the very bottom of the published list. But this is a bit of a cheat. The chart is arranged according to adoption of US spelling, and we are only just behind the United Kingdom in that ranking. Neither nation can be doing with “color” or “center”. When it comes to vocabulary the United Kingdom remains the least Americanised nation. Ireland follows closely. We still do the maths in Bristol and Borris.
Given Ireland’s historical entanglement with the United Kingdom, the continuing elision between Hiberno and British English is hardly surprising. The grouping elsewhere makes sense. Australia and New Zealand, Commonwealth nations that have English as a first language, come next in the fight against “drugstore” and “icebox”.
The polyglots in South Africa and India also resist. Canada is in the odd position of adopting US vocabulary while retaining much British spelling. Where English counts as a foreign language, American usage is considerably more common. (Like the United States, you say? That’s not funny. You’re neither clever nor grown-up.)
Here’s the headline. The report does suggest that Americanisms are increasingly present in anglophone nations. Cue another whinge about young people poisoning the culture. It’s the millennials. A gang of them broke into my house last night, plastered avocado toast over every vacant surface and declared the living room a safe zone. I suppose this will “trigger” them. Huh? Huh?
Ah, shut up. That generation seems no less cautious with language than my own.
This conversation about the advance of American usage has been going on for at least a century. The arrival of the talkies in the interwar years intensified the attack. Television and rock were more influential still in the 1950s and 1960s.
When I was at school, in the 1970s, it was not unusual to be told off for saying “yeah” or “okay”. Those words are Americanisms. At that point to use “movie” for “film” would be seen as evidence of enormous affectation. You may as well have pronounced “tomato” to rhyme with “potato”.
The United States was then a lot more foreign than it is now. It was also seen as wealthier, more liberated and more glamorous. Speaking thus was a bit of a pose.
“Yeah” and “okay” are now, however, immovable units of colloquial speech. “Movie” is in a less easy place. You will find it used in this publication as a variation on “film”, but the fingers clench with guilt each time it is typed. At any rate, the battle against those words is no longer worth fighting.
It is at this point that we confirm, yet again, that language is an evolving organism that resists pickling. We also say something erudite about the contrasting deadness of Latin. You know how this argument goes. It is a strong one. Everyday speech will – and should – engage with endless innovations.
But some resistance to change is an element of evolution. Jurassic reptiles were well advised not to leap off cliffs until they’d developed workable wings. It is not unwise to impose rules on formal written language. Such restrictions aid clarity and offer useful structure.
It is for this reason that I continue my battle against “likely” for “probably”. Some linguists do argue that the words were interchangeable centuries ago, but, for most of modern history, we have, on this side of the Atlantic, resisted constructions such as: “Donald will likely end by confirming his own pomposity.”
Who are we kidding? The main reason to oppose such shifts is that it gives us a chance to exercise our towering superiority over those too stupid to know any better. The same motivation powers campaigns against the grocer’s apostrophe and the mad notion that the 21st century began in 2000.
Of course you can have your ball back. I think you mean: “May I have my ball back?” Snort!