"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: American English or British English?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

American English or British English?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A language columnist for a prominent Nigerian newspaper whom I deeply respect—and who is a fan of this column—recently called my attention to what he thought was my sadly inexorable drift toward American English. “I… know that you love British English,” he wrote in an email to me some days back. “[But] your writings… are now a blend of British and American English. You’ve consciously or unconsciously fallen in love with American spelling.”

He is right. My linguistic conventions—spellings, expressions, etc— are now decidedly American. Since coming to America, it has been impossible for me to nurture the British and neo-British grammatical traditions we were brought up to cherish in Nigeria. American English, if you must know, is one incorrigibly petulant and jealous little lingual beast; it has zero tolerance for dual or multiple dialectal loyalties.

This fact became obvious to me the first semester I started graduate school in Louisiana. I got my first taste of the zealous jealousy of American English in a public affairs reporting class I took with a journalism professor who is notorious among students for his almost pathologically compulsive allergy for even the minutest grammatical infractions. Not being too different from the man myself, we took a liking to each other very quickly.

But not for too long. In our first test in his class, I spelled defense as “defence,” and this man not only took off lots of points from my grade; he also made a big deal of “getting” this uppity Nigerian grammar buff. What did I do to get back my grades—and my reputation?

Well, I respectfully protested and told him that the “original” spelling of that word was “defence” before it was purposively “reformed” [I wish I said “bastardized”!] to “defense” by Noah Webster, the famous American lexicographer who systematized American English and consciously moved it away from its, er, English origins. He was persuaded. That is, after researching and confirming my claims. I couldn’t believe someone that deeply enthusiastic about grammar didn’t know enough to know this.

I won several such Pyrrhic linguistic victories on behalf of British English. I thought I would never ever bring myself to accept, much less internalize, American spellings, which grated on my nerves intensely. And I had deep-seated contempt for Nigerians I met here who had been converted to the conventions of American English spellings.

In time, however, I realized that the perpetual personal battles I fought to preserve the singularities of British English in my writings were not worth the trouble. First, my computers’ Microsoft Word programs would not allow me to change my settings to “UK English.” And I couldn’t stand the pesky red underlines that disfigured my documents.

Second, I once sent out a journal article and one of the reviewers viciously excoriated my paper for its British linguistic conventions, which his limited knowledge led him to think were “wrong.”

In one of his suggestions for the improvement of my article, he wrote: “Throughout – put closing quote marks outside periods [that is, full stops] and commas, not inside them. E.g., it should be ‘… answer to the competitors.’ Not ‘answer to the competitors’.” What the reviewer didn’t realize is that he was merely betraying his ignorance—or perhaps his intolerance—of British English stylistic norms.

So, in response, I wrote: “I’ve put the periods and commas inside the quote marks throughout. But I was under the impression that because the journal insists on authors using single quote marks (which is the British stylistic preference) it also requires authors to go all the way and put periods and commas outside quote marks (also the British stylistic preference).”

Third, one day, while teaching a news writing/reporting class, I got another taste of the churlish jealousy of American English. One of my students said in class that in spite of my fussiness and fastidiousness about grammatical correctness and completeness, she spotted three “errors” in the email I sent out to the class the previous day. And what were these errors? I spelled “learned” as “learnt,” spelled “spelled” as “spelt,” and spelled “practiced as “practised”!

I had a hard time convincing the students that “learnt” and “spelt” are perfectly acceptable British spellings and that “practise” is the only correct form in British English when the word is used as a verb.

So, I dramatized the difference between American and British spellings by calling their attention to this rather longish mnemonic: “An American will practice driving to gain a driving license. An American lawyer obtains a license to practice. An Englishman will practise driving to gain a driving licence. An English lawyer obtains a licence for legal practice.

The only British spelling tradition most Americans I have met are familiar with is the addition of “u” to some words (such as “colour,” “glamour,” etc). Every other deviation from American spelling is mistaken as a spelling error.

And so I said to myself: why should I keep fighting pointless personal battles on behalf of a language that is not even native to me? Why should I turn myself into a pitiful defender of the vestigial remnants of British linguistic imperialism? English isn’t the “world language” today because the Brits speak it; it’s the world language precisely because the Americans speak it.

So, over time, my resistance to idiosyncratic American spellings wore thin and finally vanished irretrievably into thin air. Now, British spellings have exactly the same effect on me that American spellings had on me when I first came here: they grate on my nerves!
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