Amer­i­can in­va­sion is hard to re­sist, in­nit?

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Kathryn Hughes

That’s the Way it Crum­bles by Matthew En­gel Pro­file, 288pp

OK, here’s the thing. Maybe you like to think that you are a re­li­able user of the Queen’s English. You give slang a wide berth and never re­fer to any­one as a “guy” un­less it hap­pens to be the fifth of Novem­ber. You don’t “do the math”, not least be­cause back in your day it was called “maths”. Re­ceiv­ing an email that be­gins “Hi” makes you squirm, and when­ever you at­tempt to “kick ass” you worry about get­ting a call from the RSPCA.

Well done, you. Not. For as Matthew En­gel shows in this jaunty book, even the most pedan­tic Bri­tons use Amer­i­can­isms – words, phrases, pro­nun­ci­a­tions and spellings, but also that in­de­fin­able thing called ca­dence – 24/7. We can’t help it. Our ears are ex­posed to an Amer­i­can ver­sion of our mother tongue all day, every day – at work, at play and even in the deep cave of do­mes­tic­ity where we binge on Net­flix.

En­gel is keen to make the point that this isn’t an anti-Amer­i­can book. For two years he was the Guardian’s cor­re­spon­dent in Wash­ing­ton and clearly loves the place and the peo­ple, not to men­tion base­ball, Break­ing Bad and the work of Philip Roth. It was a love seeded dur­ing his 1950s Northamp­ton child­hood, a time when Amer­ica was still a far­away land of slick talk and ma­te­rial plenty, sam­pled only at the movies or on a neigh­bour’s Louis Arm­strong LP. But what En­gel wants now is a re­turn to that state of in­no­cence when it was pos­si­ble to feel a flut­ter of ex­cite­ment at rolling “apart­ment”, “el­e­va­tor” or “garāāāge” around on your tongue.

Lin­guis­tic pu­rity, he in­sists, is not what he’s af­ter: it’s dif­fer­ence that in­ter­ests him, a re­sis­tance to the creep­ing mono­cul­ture that means that English now sounds the same, which is to say sounds Amer­i­can, wher­ever you go in the world.

Like many a nos­tal­gist, En­gel is deter­mined to make his de­mands sound nu­anced and rea­son­able. There was a time, he con­cedes, when it made sense for Bri­tons to adopt words from the group of peo­ple known archly as “our Amer­i­can cousins”. By the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, Bri­tish English had been re­duced to a fee­ble, feu­dal wheeze that had long lost the knock­about vigour of Chaucer. The Amer­i­cans, by con­trast, were busy mint­ing ex­pres­sions full of en­ergy and colour to match their pi­o­neer­ing cir­cum­stances. So into Bri­tish English, like an adren­a­line shot, came “en­thuse”, “greased light­ning”, “go the whole hog”, “jack­pot”, “pile it on” and, best of all, “vim”.

Nat­u­rally, there was push­back in a form that still gets used to­day when­ever some­one points to a word they don’t like and ac­cuses it of be­ing a blowin. Even worse, as far as En­gel is con­cerned, is the more gen­eral Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of Bri­tish cul­ture: the nar­cis­sism of school proms, the su­gar rush of trick or treat­ing, the ugly waste­ful­ness of Black Fri­day.

But just when he is in dan­ger of con­flat­ing too many things, he finds a rea­son to be cheer­ful. In the au­tumn of 2013, the head­teacher of a sec­ondary school in south Lon­don in­sisted that her stu­dents could no longer use a list of banned words in­clud­ing “ba­si­cally”, “bare” and “ex­tra”– ap­par­ently all part of “mul­ti­cul­tural Lon­don English”, or MLE.

The head­teacher was wor­ried that her stu­dents were spoil­ing their chances at job and col­lege in­ter­views. Un­less they could learn to talk proper – talk in Amer­i­can­ised English, in other words – they risked ex­il­ing them­selves from the mod­ern world. But to En­gel’s jaded ears MLE is glo­ri­ous ev­i­dence of a youth­ful re­sis­tance to im­ported lan­guage in favour of some­thing au­then­tic and home-brewed. Never has “in­nit” sounded quite so close to po­etry.

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