"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 05/06/11

Friday, May 6, 2011

Of Origins, American English, and British English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

My article “Is American English Bastardized English?” generated a lot of interest from readers. While the reception was generally positive, one reader was dubious of some of my claims. His disagreement was anchored on two points. First, he wondered if it wouldn’t be more accurate to assert that American English and British English “descended differently from a common ancestor” than to claim that much of contemporary American English predates modern British English.

He also says it seems more credible to argue that “the American variety would have traveled further from the 'origin' because of the influence of the millions of immigrants from all over the world as well as Native American languages and this is most manifest in its vocabulary, not just the coining of new words to express new ideas but particularly the creation of new words to replace extant ones” than to argue, as I did, that contemporary British English is younger than American English.

Well, healthy skepticism of any knowledge claim is always a good thing. But note that my central thesis in that essay is actually that there is no authentic, pristine English and that all English, to the extent that it's always been a mishmash of several languages, is "bastardized." But I also pointed out that American English is more proximate to the "proto-language" if we hold up early modern English as the standard historical reference point for authenticity. 

And this is not strange, either.

The Yoruba that is spoken in the Caribbean Islands, for instance, is more “authentic” than the contemporary “standard” Yoruba spoken in (urban) Nigeria, although Caribbean Yoruba was transplanted from Nigeria in the 16th century. The reason is simple: because the island is isolated, many Yoruba expressions and syntactic structures that have either evolved or lost currency in the homeland since the 16th century were frozen there. Prof. Wande Abimbola did a fascinating study of this. This phenomenon is also broadly true of the Hausa language. The Hausa spoken in Kumasi, Ghana, for instance, is closer to the "prototypic" Hausa than the contemporary, “standard,” highly Arabized Hausa spoken in Nigeria, although, like Caribbean Yoruba, it's derived from Nigerian Hausa migrants to that part of the world eons ago.

(I am not, of course, discounting dialectal variations in these languages. In the Hausa and Yoruba examples, I am only using the most socially prestigious dialects as the basis for a contrast of contexts.)

My dad went to school in Kumasi and speaks Kumasi Hausa in addition to many languages. His younger brother, who worked in Kano for many years, married a Kano woman. Each time the woman visited us in my hometown, she was always fascinated by the Hausa my dad spoke; she said my dad’s Hausa always reminded her of her grandparents’ Hausa. For instance, in Kumasi, the word for sky is "bisa." In contemporary, urban Nigerian Hausa, however, it is "sama," which is an Arabic loanword. "Bisa," one might argue, is closer to the "original" than "sama."

This is also what is happening between American English and British English. But my whole point is that since languages are in a perpetual state of flux, it makes no sense to talk of "authentic" or "bastardized" dialects of any language. That is why I inserted quotation marks around authentic, original, and bastardized.

It is true that many words that had never existed in the English lexicon emerged in American English both because early migrants to the new world had to invent new words to account for the new material realities they encountered and because the immense racial and cultural diversity of the emergent nation ensured that different groups contributed to the vocabulary of the English language. I acknowledged that fact in the article when I said, "In more ways than any other variety, it is pushing the semantic and lexical frontiers of the language and enriching it in the process. Many international borrowings into the English language now come by way of American English, precisely because America is the world’s most racially and culturally diverse country."

The invention of new words to reflect changing material realities is intrinsic to all progressive languages. But when linguists want to map glottochronology (i.e., the determination of how long ago different languages evolved from a common source language) they depend upon what is called "basic vocabulary," not loanwords and neologisms (i.e., new coinages).

The only area that American English is decidedly revolutionary is in its spelling convention. The famous American lexicographer Noah Webster purposively changed the British English spellings that Americans inherited from England. But spellings are never used for mapping glottochronology. In addition, even British English spellings have changed radically over the years. But the abridged evidence I presented in my article (abridged because of the pressure of word limits) isn't my imagination; it's the conclusion of many experts, including British English experts.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to assert that American English predates contemporary British English, but that is what the evidence says. I must add, however, that we are only talking of the "standard" varieties of British English and American English. There are ("non-standard") varieties of British English that are very close to contemporary "standard" American English just as there are ("non-standard") varieties of American English that are close to contemporary "standard" British English.

For instance, the Boston dialect of American English is non-rhotic. That is, Bostonians don’t articulate their “r” wherever it appears. This is also true of much of New York accent and of African American Vernacular English. On the other hand, certain parts of England, chiefly West Country, the Corby area, Lancashire and areas that border Scotland are rhotic, i.e., speak like Americans. But these outliers in both countries suffer from a prestige deficit.


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