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I’m not a fan of America. It has never struck me as a place I’d like to visit, and I have to admit that I find the accent a bit annoying. Unfortunately, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the influence that American English is having on British English. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) centre at Lancaster University, along with Cambridge University Press, are in the process of compiling a British English corpus of spoken conversation in order to see which words are falling out of use and which are becoming more common. The corpus already consists of hours of conversation and is set to be the biggest linguistic body of its kind in over 20 years. From the small pilot already conducted, it is clear that the word “awesome” is replacing “marvellous”, and that the most commonly used words now include “email”, “smartphone”, and “website”. Hardly surprising.
The concern is that our British English identity is being subsumed by America, and no-one is taking a particularly united stand against that. It’s true that “marvellous” is rarely used anymore purely because of the image that comes to mind: of an aristocratic man with a big moustache declaring “marvellous” in Received Pronunciation. It’s no wonder that people today are less than bothered about the decline of such a term – but is “awesome”, its apparent alternative, really that much better? Everything about it reminds me of America, and its current usage to describe something good has very little British about it.
The spread of distorted English also poses a problem for British dialects, which are again on the decline because of both Americanisms and a more widespread notion of Standard English. I don’t have a particularly strong Wigan accent, but even so you’d probably expect me to be aware of some of the dialect words associated with that area. In truth, more often than not I’m at a loss when someone uses dialect words when speaking to me. In fact, I’m far more familiar with words that are in common use halfway across the planet – words that hold greater prestige in wider society than using “reet” instead of “alright”.
When you compare our exposure to dialect or even British English with our exposure to American English, it’s easy to see why Americanisms are becoming more common. Our obsession with blockbuster films, box set TV shows, and YouTube videos often means that we’re far more used to hearing an American accent and American English on screen than British English. All the time we’re becoming that bit less “marvellous” and that bit more “awesome”. Even the influence of technology has rushed the introduction of Americanisms into our language, considering that most of the technological giants – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube, and Apple – are all American too.
The reality is, no matter what anyone thinks about America, that British English is becoming more Americanised and less formal. Very few consciously decide to stick to long, elaborate and old-fashioned words, and the result of such people’s choices can be infuriating. Will Self, a British novelist, has recently done the impossible and clashed with a dead author, George Orwell, over the use of elaborate words. Self argues that Orwell’s plain style is mediocre, and that he would much rather use longer words to bring his writing to life. Self says that he welcomes “living, changing language”, but he is actually doing the opposite. British English is changing, beyond a doubt, to become plainer, more modern, and more Americanised.
My gut instinct is that this change is for the worse, but in my heart of hearts I know that Americanisms are here to stay. The broader, contextual associations that words pick up over time will necessarily lead to the decline of “marvellous” and the increased usage of the cooler, trendier “awesome”. As our generation grows up in a technological world, even the likes of “marmalade” will be left behind according to the corpus’ current projections. It’s a shame that words characteristic of the traditional British image are soon to fall out of use, and it’s an even bigger shame that language is becoming less diverse. However, there is very little we can do to stop language changing. Perhaps in another hundred years we’ll be nostalgic enough to remember the days when “marvellous” was the best way to describe something amazing.