The Ir­ish: nearly as Bri­tish as the Bri­tish them­selves

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

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!

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