American English

I have often wondered how W. D. Fowler, the famous lexicographer, composer of “Oxford English Dictionary” and author of “Modern English Usage”, would have reacted to the way the English language is spoken in the United States, particularly in California.

Almost half of the people living in California are first or second generation non-white immigrants or speak as mother tongue a language other than English. Such liberties are thus taken with the puritan Fowler that he must be turning in his grave outraged at the violence done to the language he cherished and to its niceties and catholic use he preached.

Sir Winston Churchill, a hybrid of an English father and an American mother, had once commented that Britain and America were two nations divided by a common language. Another British writer and wit had observed after a visit to the US: “We have many things in common with the Americans except the language.”

When President Ronald Reagan visited London, the then British PM, Margaret Thatcher, had mocked, of course in a lighter vein, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

The famous Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir, according to Azad’s Aab-e-Hayat, had once to share a bullock-cart with some village rustics on a lengthy journey. Throughout the travel, he would not talk to his companions lest he contaminated his chaste Urdu from Lakhnow.

Since America has already emerged as the supreme power of the world, the leader in science and technology, and the seat of the biggest world economy, the intellectual or cultural arrogance of the type manifested by Mirs and Thatchers is simply ignored here by the people more concerned with the production of goods and services.

Noah Webster, the man who gave America its first homegrown dictionary, argued that in order to win true independence from England, Americans needed to invent their own language, related to English but distinct from it. His contribution to this has no doubt been monumental. But the process had started much earlier and quite naturally.

American English, like Urdu, is the product of the inter-mixture and cross-fertilization of various ethnic groups inhabiting this vast and varied country. The inflexibility of the puritans had thus to yield to the need for quick and easy communication. Waves after waves of immigrants from all parts of the world came to this land seeking freedom of action and pursuing their dreams of achieving something or another. Quick expression with a minimum vocabulary became the norm, not the exception. Yet, it takes time for the ears of people like us, who speak English as a second language, to get used to the nasal drawl, the twang, and sentences like these:

“I ain’t gonna take no chances”.

“That car there is no good for nothing”.

English is by no means an easy language. But, the extremely fast tempo of life in this country and the need to adopt and communicate in the language of the majority, have smoothed out many angularities of the language and produced a basic vocabulary serving purposes far beyond what Fowler would have permitted.

Similarly, the spellings of many words have been simplified by cutting out unnecessary vowels and other letters; for instance honour becomes honor, favour becomes favor, programme becomes program. One wonders why the decorative ‘P’ in the word ‘psychology’ has been allowed to hang on like a parasite to the expression the way it is pronounced. A plausible explanation is that it portrays the pompous nature of the subject. More often than not, one comes out of a psychiatrist’s coach considerably disoriented but hanging on to the decorative ‘P’!!

The spoken language revolves around the major activities of the common people. First, there is the ‘need’ for some thing, then you ‘make’ something to meet that need, and then ‘sell’ it to the person, the guy, who needs it. Therefore, the words ‘need’, ‘make’, ‘sell’, and ‘guy’ are repeatedly used in senses beyond Fowler’s comprehension or acceptance. Here are some examples.

I need to know the address of é.

I need giving him some money.

I need to say goodbye now

Expressions such as ‘I should’, ‘I have to’, or ‘I ought to’ have all yielded place to ‘I need to’. Next in frequency of use comes the word ‘make’.

If you go to a grocery store and buy say tomatoes, this is how you can describe it:

“I made to the grocery store in the afternoon, made my way to the vegetable counter, placing some tomatoes in the bag, made quickly to the cash register, made payment, rushed home making it in fifteen minutes, my watch was making ten to six leaving me ten minutes to make to my next job, to make a little extra money to make my budget balance and make both ends meet.”

Same is the case with the word sell and its derivatives. The beauty of salesmanship lies in convincing the potential customers that they are saving while they are spending. Sale and savings have become almost twins in the commercial jargon.

How much businesses care for their customers may be gauged from the way the word ‘economy’ is used. A large box of cereal or of toothpaste is called the ‘economy size’, while this very expression applied to a car means a small car. The customer is led to believe that he stands to save something either way. It is another matter that after saving this way for decades, he finds himself in debt up to his neck – a sardonic culmination of all the savings and economies.

The word guy used to stand for a man and that too in a pejorative sense, as it had probably originated from the name Guy Fox who wanted to set the British Parliament on fire and whose grotesque effigies are paraded in streets on Guy Fox’s day in England. The word is now used as an innocuous alternative for a human being, both male and female. Not only that, it can also be used for inanimate objects. Pointing to some fishing rods, the sales girl said to me: “Those guys there make a great buy.”

The expression “You are welcome” in response to “Thank you” has its origin in business too. You thank the sales person who in response says “You are welcome” meaning you are welcome to this store.

Slangs have further enriched the language and made communication much easier. So many slang words are freely used by even American men of letters that often it becomes difficult to differentiate between a literary or slang expression. Example:

On a visit to America, an old British lady, wary of slang words, asked her American-born granddaughter: “Promise me that you will not use two words while I am around. One is swell and the other is lousy”.

“Why sure, grandma”, replied the girl “what are the words.”

As a slang word, “hip” stands for sophistication and for fashion, hipper and hippest being its superlative forms. If a lady is referred to as being the hippest in her group, don’t think that someone is referring to her substantial behind but to her sophistication, her excellence in fashion.

“Waste’em” means kill them in military slang. After thousands upon thousands have been so wasted, one may refer to the event as “no big deal”. Good examples of “no big deals” are the massacres in Mai Lai and in Kosovo.

Even the most finicky about the use of slang would run the hardest to grab someone else’s loose “buck”. One elected leader in Islamabad stole it while the other robbed it. You may, if you like, put it the other way round. Both are abroad, having “hell of a time”.

If you want to praise some thing, you may use either of the words ‘hot’ or ‘cool’. You may call a deep-freezer as hot and a room heater as cool – both words stand in slang for good and attractive. If you are really much impressed, add the word ‘way’ to either. You may say: “That is cool, way cool, man”. Or, you may call it “groovy – real groovy”. Isn’t that expressive and convenient?