Britain's Loss of Language Sovereignty

There are now few remnants of British English remaining in Britain

In late 2002, I returned to the UK after 17 years in Taiwan and Hongkong. It was a move I had to make. There were various reasons for this, but the primary one was that I had to know if I could adapt back to life in Britain. If so, then I would then decide whether or not to move back there permanently.

Constantly reminded that I was not a Taiwan national by the formidable barriers the government placed in front of foreign nationals hoping to become naturalised Taiwanese citizens, and that ethnically I would never be accepted as a local no matter how many years I spent here, I also hoped to find a place where I could be accepted as the same as everyone else.

Unbeknown to me, I also harboured quite a few 'rose-tinted' memories of my last years in the UK, and this, compounded with the fact that I had become out of touch with life in the UK meant that by the time my plane touched down at Heathrow, I was ready for the unusual circumstances of 'culture shock' on return to 'my home land'...

In my previous visits to Britain over the 17 years since I had lived in south London's Streatham, I had travelled directly to my parent's home in the Isle of Man, and those visits - few and far between - were characterised by hardly having time to pay any attention to people or matters outside my immediate family and their acquaintances (I myself had long since lost contact with those people I knew as a teenager in England).

In my late teens, I had travelled England extensively on youth discount rail passes (the official names of which I can't remember), and on the 'return year' after my first few years of working and travelling in Europe and the Middle East, I had travelled to quite a number of places on a Eurorail pass. Sitting at a railway station, with a ticket to my destination, and no train in sight was an indelible memory for me; British Rail was infamous for tardiness. But even that hadn't prepared me for the spectacle which greeted me when I arrived at Victoria Station to find not one, but a whole bunch of rail companies, each with their own ticket counters. When I finally boarded a Brighton-bound train, it was not only every bit as unpunctual as a British Rail train, but many times more crowded and dirty.

Nevertheless, after a couple of weeks, I was happily ensconced in Brighton, on England's south-east coast. The rent was astronomical, and I was soon to find that the landlord (my own brother-in-law) intended to raise it every three months, in keeping with the flat's 'market value'. But then, everything else was orders of magnitude more expensive than when I had lived in the UK in 1984. Thinking that a pound could get me a coffee and a sandwich on the road, I soon discovered that one pound bought almost nothing edible in the Britain of the 21st century!

The first few weeks were difficult. I couldn't even open a bank account without references. I was even refused unemployment benefit (I was informed that I was not British, just someone who held a British passport). Even registering with a GP (mandatory, unlike in Taiwan) was complicated, as most doctors, it seemed, were now only interested in the more lucrative private practice, and the only one who would take registration on the National Health was in Portslade, over 2 kilometres walk away (no direct bus) from where I lived. Obviously, there had been huge changes to the structure of the economy since 1984.

But it wasn't the superficial economic and political differences between the UK in 1984 and 2002 that made the deepest impression on me. I soon got over these. There was something else which had changed, more surreptitiously, about the way people talked, and this escaped my notice in my first turbulent few weeks back in the UK. I first noticed it when I visited a video hire shop at a place called Seven Dials. With years and years of European films to catchup on, I inevitably fell into conversation with the assistant. I couldn't help but notice that he always used the term 'movie'. To me, a movie was specifically an American film, French or British (for example) productions were 'films'.

My own English accent had changed a lot in the time I had spent outside the UK, so much so that few people could have guessed where I had grown up. This was the result of living mostly in Taiwan, where the first foreign language was American English, known literally as 'American' ('Meiyu'). In the early days of Nationalist Chinese rule in Taiwan, Britain had become the first major country to recognise Communist China. Brimming with indignation, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government decided that British English was 'dead', and the island switched over to teaching 'American' in its place.

But the terminology I used was still British; only my accent had changed. I saw no reason to start calling cinemas 'movie theaters', pavements 'sidewalks' and so on. Yet I couldn't help noticing that many Brits had adopted American usage for almost everything.

At first I didn't realise how widespread this was. For example, one sunny spring morning, walking along the seafront in Hove (a town twinned with Brighton), I heard an instantly recognisable accent, and one I myself used to have: that of Warrington, Cheshire, where I spent most of my childhood. Two men, in their 20s, were trying to entice a third to take a swim:

“Gerrin the water, yu faggot!”, one shouted at his reluctant friend, while he sat on the shore, giving his two mates an obscene gesture (Not the usual British-style two fingers, I noticed, but its American one finger equivalent).

Of course, I knew that 'faggot' was the derogatory American English equivalent of the British English 'poofta', but to hear it coming from a Warringtonian was like hearing a cat barking. Curious, I decided to eavesdrop on them. I sat down on a bench, and began reading a digital design magazine I had just bought. I supposed the three may have spent some years in the United States, and just returned. But their subsequent conversation revealed nothing, apart from the strange (or so it seemed to me at the time) fact that it was peppered with Americanisms.

As they moved on, I continued reading the magazine, a UK publication, whose editor I knew from a previous issue to be a Scot. But I had to stop when i reached a sentence in the editorial in which he mentioned he had gotten some software the previous week in Glasgow. And again, it was like a cat barking to me. I re-read the editorial, sure that there had to be some reason for this usage. But there wasn't any. It seemed that this was just the way the man talked (or wrote).

Over subsequent weeks and months, as I secured several menial jobs in Brighton, I came across so many Americanisms coming from the mouths of Brits that I even felt out of place using the British terms I had become habituated to.

The Special One-way Relationship

Of course, as a British national living abroad I was painfully familiar with the political reality of Britain's relationship with the United States at the turn of the new millenium. In the years since I had last lived in the UK, the British government had developed a reputation for its obsequious attitude towards Washington which had made it a laughing stock internationally. As a Brit, I was naturally also a butt of ridicule to many people once they discovered my nationality, and so usually I didn't reveal that fact to any strangers who didn't need to know.

Back in the UK, I didn't have to worry about this. Still, I could not help but feel embarrassed to see the British government falling to its knees and begging Washington to allow it to provide military assistance in the planned illegal invasion of Iraq, even as the US defence minister, Colin Powell, noting the depth of resistance to military action among the British population, indicated that America could go ahead with the invasion without British involvement. Unfazed, Tony Blair set off on an international tour to drum up support for an 'allied' invasion, his visit to South Africa inspiring Nelson Mandela's description of him as the 'American foreign minister'. Still unfazed by the failure of his campaign both internationally and domestically, Blair decided that Britain should go ahead with the invasion even if most British people were opposed to it, and while the majority may well have been against him on this, even in such an extreme example, there were also no lack of UK politicians every bit as unctuous and servile towards Washington as Tony Blair (and there still are). This embarrassing fact was highlighted for me by the fact that even Canada and Mexico opted against jointing the 'coalition of the willing'.

Since the Thatcher era, British politicians of all parties had waxed lyrical about the 'special relationship' between the United States and Britain. I knew from conversations with Americans that this was a British misconception. The United States has 'special relationships' with a whole bunch of countries; Japan, Mexico, Israel, to name but a few. In the case of the UK, this special relationship is essentially one-way in all respects from intelligence gathering to pop culture. So, it wasn't really surprising to me that language was no exception.

The British under-30s, enthralled with everything awesome (and for Americans, that means everything that doesn't 'suck') to come out of the United States could hardly be expected to talk any other way than as their music and movie heroes from the other side of the Atlantic do. What I wasn't able to discover in my time in Brighton, and still haven't, is how people of my age - people who were in their 20s and older in the 1980s - switched over to American English?

Did it happen suddenly, or gradually, over the 17 years I had been living abroad? How did people rationalise this transition?

Was there official encouragement, bills proposed in Parliament to bring the UK 'into line'? Or perhaps semi-officially, with government ministers posting videos on their websites, with words of encouragement like: "Hey guys, MOE (Minister for Education) here. Just wanna let you know a few cool tips for speaking awesome English…"

Or did it just happen spontaneously, with the population as a whole coming to feel it had to change the way English was spoken - perhaps with many people making New Year's resolutions each year, such as: "I vow I will not say 'mate' when I mean 'buddy': I will not say 'fellow' when I mean 'dude'; I will not say…", etc.

Was it mostly individuals who worked on their own English, or was there mutual encouragement among close people, such as: "Darling, please don't say 'nappies' in front of the baby. We don't want her growing up using all the wrong words!"

All these are questions I didn't know the answers to in the early 2000s, and still don't.

But when I saw videos with the veteran wildlife commentator, David Attenborough, already in his late 70s by that time, talking about birds "having all the bases covered", and conservationists "playing catch-up", I knew that this was not just a teenage fad.

All of that was now over a decade ago. The transition now is virtually complete. British English is still widely used around the world, but in Britain itself, apart from spelling words like colour with a 'u' and retaining an 's' (instead of a 'z') in a few words like realise, there are now few remnants of British English remaining in Britain (and some British publications have even dumped these spelling conventions).

A cursory survey of three British news media publications in one week in July 2015, revealed usages like: touch base with, headed for (instead of 'heading for'), reaching out (meaning 'contacting'), pull (meaning 'withdraw', as in 'the company withdrew the product'), huge (meaning 'significant'), the auto market, soccer (for football), photoshopped (edited in Photoshop), and backstory (background story), to name but the few Americanisms that happened to come up in the news reports I wanted to read (probably less than 5% of what was published on any day).

But just looking at different terminology is misleading; there are also many other, less obvious respects in which Britain English differs (or once differed) from American English. For example, the American practice of omitting the hyphen in words like 'anti-communist'. Or the tendency to put the accent on the first syllable in words like 'refresh', the tendency to use present tense when relating past events, making verbs from any noun, as in the 'photoshop' example above, the overuse of acronyms, and of course, the plethora of faddish, here-today-gone-tomorrow terms from the world of advertising and consumerism. All of these can be heard and read everyday anywhere in the UK these days, spoken and written by British people of all ages.

All this criticism isn't meant to imply there is anything inherently wrong with American English. Of course there isn't. But American English is American. South Africans, Jamaicans and other English speakers are not so ashamed of their particular characteristically local versions of English, or so enthralled with American English as to adopt it en masse. So why have the British?