Thursday, July 14, 2011

The History of English (or: Those Irritating Americans Are At It Again)

I was amused to check my news feed yesterday to find the headline "Why do some Americanisms irritate people?"  A click of the mouse took me to the BBC and a short (and rather gentler than expected) history of just how annoying we Americans are with our knack for creating slang so pervasive that there was just no stomping it out.

It goes both ways, my friends. And not just the Beatles and the Rolling Stones either. The British sensibility, especially in terms of comedy, is so deeply intrenched in American society these days that most of us don't even realize it. Beyond American Idol and Big Brother, both of them imported across the pond, there are very few modern sitcoms that do not owe a greater debt to Basil Fawlty than they do to Lucy Ricardo.

It goes both ways and in currents so deep that many of us don't realize they're there until we dig around a bit.

I grew up reading English writers and watching bootleg tapes of BBC comedies to the endless amusement and eventual irritation of my parents and especially my teachers, the idea that there were other ways to spell things and say things that were equally correct invaded every aspect of my world.

A typical conversation went something like this...
Teacher "Scott, you misspelled this word."
Scott: "Which word?"
Teacher: "Well... almost all of them, actually."
Scott: "I'll be right back."
Teacher: "Where are you going?"
Scott: "To fetch the Oxford English Dictionary."
Sometimes I won that argument (because "pajamas" and "pyjamas" are equally correct depending on your latitude and longitude) sometimes I lost. Often, we reached a sort of detente, where I could write "cheque" but had to stop quoting Monty Python in class.

So it was that I learned how to pick my battles and added the word "orthography" to my repertoire rather earlier in life than most. I also read some great literature and watched some excellent (and ever so slightly corny) television that it took my classmates a decade to catch on to. And while I do not consider myself an anglophile per se, my coworkers at the center still tease me for how I pronounce "Schedule."

Feel free to blame John Cleese, I certainly do.

At any rate, I just take it as writ that somewhere, at that exact moment, my mom and all my teachers stopped what they were doing to gaze eastward and mutter: "Serves 'em right."

It still amazes me that my spacial coordinates have such a great impact on how correct my spelling is, considering we're supposedly all speaking the same language. Two people divided by a common language indeed.

Another thing that crossed my desktop recently and fell immediately into the category of Things That Make My Heart Happy, the UK's Open University created an animated series of You Tube videos charting the history of English in ten minutes (and change).

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).