English, across the zees

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Oh, that hurt.

I have Americanized my website, swapping esses for zees, swapping licence for license and removing that all-important letter u from color.

To me, it seems necessary because one of the site’s aims is to help land me a communications job in the United States. However, 12 years in Australian newsrooms (and being the daughter of two pedants) have drummed into me three things.

1. American English is poor English.
2. Australian English is unique.
3. Our language should be protected.

The first point we know to be – well, garbage.

Some of the greatest works ever written – literary and journalistic – have come from the colonies and US English continues to be one of the most dynamic and living languages on earth.

It absorbs words and phrases from its neighbors with startling speed (something linguists call ‘loan words’) and if an English word fails to accurately describe something, someone from Florida or Alaska just invents one that does!

However, badly used US English can be like stabbing yourself in the eye. Five minutes watching any trending Twitter topic will make you despair for English in all its incarnations.

Training analyst Blair Tidey, an Australian who has lived stateside, says US English is synonymous with bad English for Australians because most of us are exposed to it through popular culture, especially television.

Australian newspaperman and consultant John Grey says newspapers at home have cheapened themselves over time to emulate US tabloids and in doing so, adopted not just US spelling but lazy grammar.

“Over the years, more nouns have been ‘verbed’ – for example contact and impact – and non-words like hospitalized have become accepted,” Mr Grey said.

“And without crusty old relics – we used to call them subeditors – employed and empowered to take writers to task, the changes will now accelerate.”

Ouch, I resemble that remark.

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It has been drummed into me over the years on that “crusty old relic” desk to watch out for Americanisms: don’t use around when you mean about; don’t say over when you mean more than; and ‘allright’ is all wrong.

But American English major and Californian business owner Heather Rose says those who champion UK English over US might be engaging in a kind of cultural imperialism.

“American English – like the country itself – isn’t as old as British English, and the seniority rule holds this stigma of ‘we do it better because we’ve done it longer’,” Ms Rose said.

American culture feels all-pervasive in my home country. By law, more than half the content broadcast by Aussie television stations must be local but the only examples you’ll see in prime time are sports broadcasts. Newspapers are riddled with American spellings. And an estimated 96 cents in every dollar spent at the box office in Australia goes back to Hollywood.

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Suzanne Romaine, in her book World Englishes, argues Australians have a tough time accepting foreign influences because it irritates our colonial chip-on-the-shoulder.

“Colonized people are portrayed as weak, effeminate, and child-like at the same time as they are regarded as uncivilized, unclean, (and) morally impure.”

For many Australians, it feels like we have swapped Old Blighty’s governing imperialism for a kind of Yankee cultural imperialism.

Linguist Cay Miller, in her delightfully titled thesis Can Sesame Street Bridge the Pacific Ocean, says the issue is bigger than a few zees.

“To some Australians, the overabundance of American media can be seen as a threat to their national identity, especially if it is affecting their language,” Ms Miller wrote. “Some argue that once it has a grasp on the language, then, America is imposing on their entire nation.

2. Australian English is unique.

To address this assertion, we must first demonstrate what is different about Australian English.

Today, it is a mix of 18th and 19th century words, mostly from Cornwall, Wessex, the Midlands and Scotland, which has been colored by Irish slang, brought by the convicts that make up much of my ancestry.

Convicts were not great at self-censoring, which means minor swear words like bloody and bugger and much more common in our vernacular. (That’s why I swear so much, mum. It’s in my genes.)

Things are even more complicated for Canadians, who have the UK English jambalaya from settlers, plus a very strong American influence and a huge population of people who speak an archaic version of French.

Australia has been cozying up to the US politically (and personally, at least in Kings Cross) since World War II and inevitably, has absorbed a lot of culture and language.

Australian writing has been inundated with US spelling, grammar and idiom – as well as US-born expressions. With them have come sentence constructions we find odious, including the despised practice of ‘verbing’ nouns (for example, to Google) and grammar shortcuts.

However, the simplification of language embodied by US English has its champions.

Aussie music writer Thomas Willett said Australian English was a “living language” and trying to protect it from US English loan words would be as ridiculous as trying to write archaic versions of UK English.

Blair Tidey encourages his friends to “write him” rather than “write to him” because it is simpler and more straightforward.

My long-suffering beloved is quick to point out: “You Aussies shorten everything.” And he’s right. We say aircon(ditioning), doco (documentary) and arvo (afternoon) rather than bothering with the extra syllables; then inexplicably lengthen words that are blessedly short, especially names: Johnno, Davo, Janey.

Australians love to mess with the language. So why don’t we tolerate it when Americans do the same?

What seems to irk us the most is the arrogance with which Americans bastardized the language as an act of rebellion – for example, changing the ancient pronunciation of zed to zee out of spite for the English. But being annoyed by a defiant gesture seems hypocritical of a nation famous for giving the Old Country the finger.

3. Our language should be protected.

So now that I live in the US, do I go to tea, or dinner? Does the shopping or the groceries go in the boot or the trunk? Australia is run by the Labor Party, not Labour; trucks rather than lorries drive on the freeway (not motorway) and we often take elevators and sometimes – shock, horror – eat cookies.

The truth is that language is a living thing. All languages borrow from those they have geographical and cultural ties to. While I would hate to see the uniqueness of Australian English swept away on a tide of Americanisms, I think we have to give some ground for clarity – especially as we all strive to be understood online.

For some people, the cherry-picking of phrases from American or Australian English is biographical.

Australian computer systems specialist and father Robert Brockway was living in Canada when his daughter was born, so many of his baby-related words are North American – though expressed in a broad Queensland accent.

“In many ways, it is good that the language is not diverging too much. We wouldn’t want the various branches of English to evolve into different languages, would we?” Mr Brockway asked.

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Blair Tidey says Australian English does – and should – submit to the everyday “hard test of usefulness”. In order to survive, Australian words will have to prove they are better at expressing something than imports.

“The more complex the ideas, the more sophistication and subtlety is needed, so we still need to teach our kids how to use their language to its full potential. However, there is no need to fear new words being brought in,” Mr Tidey said.

Some linguists, like Graeme Turner, argue that the Americanization of the language is actually just modernizing – and that US English is just at the bleeding edge.

Heather Rose agrees.

“The spread of American English helps to show the spread of American influence. A lot of social media has its roots in American invention – the telephone, television, movies, Hollywood,” Ms Rose said.

For former editors like John Grey, who now consults on communications strategy, the battle is already lost.

“My son pointed out yesterday that his generation will be firmly in the zee camp because of Microsoft’s insistence on defaulting back to the US dictionary no matter what you do. There’s cultural imperialism for you.”

More word nerd resources

More on the letter u in colour.
The bizarre history of aluminum.
US spellings compared with UK.