- Peter Byrne
Adrift mid-Atlantic with two dictionaries as paddles aiming for a sunny spot on the sand of Atlantis is pretty much the fate of the writer of English just now. His history merges with that of the epithet mid-Atlantic, which some called transatlantic before trans-people came along. A long time ago this meant North American colonials curtseying to the unlikely symbol of the mother country, mad-with-porphyria George III. Taking a knee went on through Victoria’s reign with a few yelps of dissent. Post-Civil War, Mark Twain wrote in what some dared call American English. But what was acceptable from a humorist didn’t dent the thick skull of the literary establishment.
Ambrose Bierce, future columnist of the San Francisco Examiner, had been tagged with the nickname “Bitter Bierce” during his two-year sojourn in England. It may have been because he was so right about language. Under Lexicographer (“a pestilent fellow”) in his The Devil’s Dictionary, he says “…the bold and discerning writer who, recognising the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that ‘it isn’t in the dictionary’”.
H. L. Mencken still had to fight off pestilential academics when he published his The American Language in 1919. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore deserves, of course, a whole chapter in the history of American high culture. One strand of his brilliance was to recognise and offer evidence that English had divided into what he terms two major dialects. His preface to his study of 492 pages is worth quoting:
“That it should be regarded as an anti-social act to examine and exhibit the constantly growing differences between English and American, as certain American pedants argue sharply—this doctrine is quite beyond my understanding. All it indicates, stripped of sophistry, is a somewhat childish effort to gain the approval of Englishmen—a belated efflorescence of the colonial spirit, often commingled with fashionable aspiration. The plain fact is that the English themselves are not deceived, nor do they grant the approval so ardently sought for. On the contrary, they are keenly aware of the differences between the two dialects, and often discuss them, as the following pages show. Perhaps one dialect, in the long run, will defeat and absorb the other; if the two nations continue to be partners in great adventures it may very well happen. But even in that case, something may be accomplished by examining the differences which exist today. [….] But its chief excuse is its human interest, for it prods deeply into national idiosyncrasies and ways of mind, and that sort of prodding is always entertaining”.
But what exactly did “the English themselves,” think? It’s instructive to note how their estimation of American English changed along with the fluctuation in the world-wide power of the two nations. After the British Empire’s swan song at the end of the 19th-Century, Britain couldn’t avoid recognising the preponderance of the USA. However, this didn’t immediately register as linguistic equality. Something called World English got in the way. This aped RP or Received Pronunciation that had been formulated in England as an agreed and quite artificial way respectable people of some education should speak. World English purported to say how they should write. The American version took hints from pricey East Coast boarding schools, New England professors who lived mainly in libraries, and what was thought by package tourists to be British norms.
As the USA moved toward superpower status, this deference to an imaginary British cultural superiority persisted like a fantasist uncle’s tales of his youth. It even withstood the rise of Hollywood in the 1930s as the British public went bananas for American movies. That the cultural traffic now flowed west to east finally became undeniable in the 1940s when US servicemen brought their jazz records with them to the UK.
What did the British language pundits make of Mencken’s two-dialect hypothesis? Hellbent on keeping the two languages separate, they preferred a patriarch-to-stepchild view. In The King’s English of 1906, the Fowler brothers wrote: “The English and the American language and literature are both good things; but they are better apart than mixed.” And so late as 1997, Kingsley Amis in his The King’s English, after all sorts of apologies to big brother America, writes, “In his heart, and however he may vote, no Englishman readily allows linguistic equality to an American or anyone else born outside these shores. Not even this Englishman allows it readily, and I take that as evidence of a sound conservative instinct. Nevertheless it must bow to history and reality.”
The nevertheless hides a half century of British decline in global power. The special relationship of the two nations now seems like that of a prima donna to her pensioned-off lapdog. It’s capped by a lingua-franca English become the official language of the European Union to which the United Kingdom has blackballed itself.
All of which leaves today’s writer of English coming ashore on what he took for Atlantis. The first native he greets puts him straight.
“This ain’t Atlantis.”
“What’s it called?”
“Well, yes, for a start.”
“The English Language Motherland.”
“Homeland of any Mother-fudging English-derived word.”
“You don’t argue about whether pants means trousers or underwear? Or blue-pencil recognise written recognize?”
“Nah. As I said, any Mother-f……”
“No need to repeat so loud. Are both cricket and baseball jokes allowed?”
“Where do I sign up as an expat?”