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An outbreak of Anglocreep?

by Mark H. Teeter at 04/02/2013 20:22

What’s wrong with this dialogue?

– “Mind your step, Sergei! Halloo, you have trodden on my marigolds!”

– “I am ever so sorry, Masha! Have I spoilt your humour?”

1. Nothing.

2. Help! Two people with Russian names are drowning in Britspeak!

3. Pull them aboard and slap them around a little -- maybe they’ll speak normally.

4. Forget that! It’s 2013 outside and they’re trapped in 1910!

OK, everyone remain calm. If you answered 1, you’re technically right: there is nothing grammatically incorrect in the exchange. But 2 and 4 are also logical responses: Prof. Extreme well remembers teaching English in Moscow schools in the late 1980s, using textbooks that often featured Russian-named characters mouthing hyper-British locutions of Edwardian vintage – or so it seemed to an American ear.

And speaking of New World ears, answer 3 sounds like a wonderfully practical American response. Recall the classic observation attributed to Hollywood’s Groucho Marx: “If you wake an Englishman up in the middle of the night, he’ll talk like anybody else.” A good percentage of the American public probably thinks that’s not a joke…

But back to the über-stilted chat above: for the record, U.S. English favors “watch your step”; “walked”/”stepped” over “trodden”; “so sorry” without the “ever”; “spoiled” over “spoilt”; and “mood” over “humo(u)r.” Oh, and just forget about “hallooing” anybody, OK?

Ah, but all this was a generation ago, you say – surely new millennium textbooks use a more neutrally “mid-Atlantic” English. Perhaps, but not all of them. In Conversational English (Moscow, 2000) you find one creaky exchange after another (“Hallo, I say!”/“You, sir, I address myself to”). Not to be outdone, Advanced English (Moscow, 2000) highlights such foggy Britishisms as “a sticky wicket,” “to return to one’s muttons” and “to throw a wobbler” – as in, “He saw no point in throwing a wobbler when his mum refused him his favourite pudding.” Ahahahaha!

‘Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere’

© RIA Novosti. / Alexander Vilf

‘Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere’

See, such usages are likely to make Anglophones outside the UK laugh out loud, scratch their heads or both. When Russians learning English come across phrases that smack of terminal Blighty-ness, they should avoid them, naturally, to keep their speech and writing understandable to the widest possible audience.

Or should they? What if Americans themselves, in the throes of some linguo-contagion, started Britishizing their own speech? Well guess what: apparently Downton Abbey, the high-tone Edwardianera BBC serial now popular with U.S. audiences, is leaking locutions all over Main Street USA, enticing ordinary people into shamelessly Ta-ta!-ing and Old chap!-ing each other in public. Shouldn’t Russians consider doing the same?

In a word, no. But first things first. Yes, Britspeak has indeed been encroaching on American territory. As a recent New York Times observer anxiously put it, “Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere. Call it Anglocreep. Call it annoying.” Pique aside, it’s true: “Snippets of British vernacular — ‘cheers’ as a thank you, ‘brilliant’ as an affirmative, ‘loo’ as a bathroom — [have begun] cropping up in the daily speech of Americans (particularly New Yorkers) of the taste-making set, who often have no more direct tie to Britain than an affinity for ‘Downton Abbey.’”

Deep breaths, people. In the first place, waves (or ripples) of Britishisms have influenced America regularly for decades: recall pop music’s British Invasion of the 1960s; James Bond; the Monty Python cult; the endless Hobbits; the ubiquitous Harry Potter; even Rickey Gervais, for heaven’s sake. All these and more have left Britannic flotsam in American speech – and so what? The melting pot of U.S. English accepts them, swishes them around and either Americanizes them or lets them evaporate – as it has for a good century.

Traffic in the other direction – from U.S. English to the UK – has long been of higher volume. If you want to picture the future of English, ask an expert Brit: in his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, no less, Welsh linguist David Crystal concludes that America’s population, commercialism and social dynamism give it “a controlling interest in the way the language is likely to develop.” Rickey or no Rickey.

Fine, says a Russian student, let’s say I want to use whatever’s closest to “World English” – how can I tell when some word or phrase is too idio-British? If your teacher can’t help, try (a) Googling it – and watch for a UK-heavy hit-list; (b) Wikipedia’s helpful “List of British words not widely used in the United States”; and/or (c) www.translatebritish. com/, which features automatic British-American/American-British translation (“crikey” = “wow”). Use these net resources judiciously and you won’t throw a wobbler, old chap.

Mark H. Teeter is an American English teacher and translator

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