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Is American English Bastardized (British) English?

By Farooq A. Kperogi Like other Nigerians, I was educated in British English—and taught to disdain American English as an inauthentic, ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Like other Nigerians, I was educated in British English—and taught to disdain American English as an inauthentic, debased form of (British) English. But is there any truth to this notion? The straightforward answer is no. As a matter of fact, in spite of appearances to the contrary, American English actually precedes contemporary British English. In other words, contemporary British English is worthier to be labeled “bastardized” English than American English is, as I will show shortly.

But, first, although Brits (and heirs of their linguistic tradition, such as Nigerians) cherish the thought that they are the custodians of the “original” English tongue, the idea that there is such a thing as “original” English as opposed to “bastardized” English is itself ahistorical at best and ignorant at worst. English, as most people know, has always been a mélange of several languages. In other words, it has been a lingual “bastard” from its very nascence.

The English language came forth when a vast multitude of West Germanic warriors called the Angles invaded what is today Britain in the 5th century. The Angles conquered and later commixed with an autochthonous population known as the Celts. Much later, other Germanic people, notably the Saxons and the Jutes, joined the Angles to further overwhelm the Celts. One of the consequences of these invasions and resettlements was that a language (which linguistic historians now call Old English) was born. It sprang forth from the linguistic alchemy of the tongues of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Celts. In this fusion, according to linguists, the Saxon dialect dominated and the indigenous Celtic language was marginalized. (The Celtic language, more popularly called Gaelic, has survived in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic with dialectal variations).

Two centuries later, another horde of northern Germanic warriors invaded what had by then become known as the Land of the Angles (which was later shortened to England) and brought to bear their own dialect in the lexis and structure of the emergent language. In the 11th century, people from northern France, called the Normans, invaded England, overthrew its Anglo-Saxon ruling class, and imposed French (or what some people call Anglo-Norman French) as the official language—for over 300 years. This historical fact radically altered the structure and vocabulary of English.

In the eighteenth century, the English (by now an ethnic and linguistic synthesis of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Celts, the French, etc.) embarked on imperial conquests in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and found themselves extensively borrowing words into their language from the several languages they encountered.

Numerous other influences were brought to bear on the language. For instance, many of the vocabularies we use in astronomy (nadir, summit, acme, zenith, etc.), mathematics (algebra, algorithm, zero, etc.), and other sciences are derived from Arabic. The modern vocabulary of scholarship and learning is almost entirely Latinate. And several common words we use in modern conversational English are borrowed from other languages.

According to one study, 29 percent of the vocabulary of modern English is derived from Latin. Another 29 percent is derived from French. Germanic languages (that is, the “original” tongue) account for only 26 percent. And 16 percent of English vocabulary is derived from a mishmash of other languages, notably Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, Italian, the Scandinavian languages, Hebrew, Yiddish, etc. (For the contribution of African languages to the modern vocabulary of the English language, see my previous article titled, “The African Origins of Common English Words”).

Now, a language that has borrowed this expansively from other languages (which has made the English language the most ecumenical language in the world) can’t legitimately lay claim to linguistic purity, although there are several misguided movements for Anglo-Saxon linguistic purism in Britain now. 

But let us, for the sake of argument, agree that there was indeed such a thing as the pure, pristine English language before its latter-day contamination by “horrible Americanisms” and by what George Orwell once called “exaggerated Latinisms.” Let us periodize this “pure” English from the mid-1550s to the early 1600s when what is called “modern English,” that is, the version of English we broadly speak today, emerged. This was the period during which the works of William Shakespeare, unarguably the greatest writer in the English language, appeared. It was also the time that the King James Bible, one of the most decisive influences in the current form and idiomatic universe of the English language, was published. This book’s supreme significance to the development and standardization of the English language is evidenced in the fact that it has contributed up to 257 idioms to the English language. No other single source rivals that feat. Not even Shakespeare’s prolific oeuvre.

Well, according to many linguistic historians, many of the distinctive features that differentiate American English from British English actually date back to early modern English. In their immensely influential book, American English: Dialects and Variation, Walt Wolfram and Natalie Shilling-Estes point out that, “Contrary to popular perceptions, the speech of the Jamestown colonists [i.e., the first English settlers in America in 1607] more closely resembled today’s American English than today’s standard British speech, since British English has undergone a number of innovations which did not spread to once remote America” (pg. 93).

For instance, during Shakespeare’s time, the most socially prestigious English speech had a rhotic accent. That is, speakers pronounced the letter “r” wherever it appeared in a word—like Americans do now. But contemporary British Received Pronunciation is now non-rhotic. Is that a “bastardization” of the language?
Similarly, many words and usage patterns that are now regarded as peculiarly American have actually been preserved from early modern English. A few examples will suffice: the American usage of the word “mad” to mean angry is faithful to how it was used in Shakespearean times. In contemporary British English, however, the word now chiefly means insane, mentally unhinged. That’s a British “bastardization.”

And “fall,” the American English word for the season when leaves fall from trees after the summer season, is more “authentic” than the British English “autumn.” In southeastern England, the cultural pacesetter of England from where the Jamestown colonists hailed, “fall” was the preferred term.

Many idiosyncratic syntactic structures in American English that contemporary British English speakers deride are also derived from early modern, Shakespearean English. For instance, such American past participles as “gotten” (as in: I have gotten my share of his troubles; British English: got), “proven” (as in: He has proven to be right; British English: proved), etc. are preserved from the “original.”

Similarly, in Shakespearean times “don’t” used to be the contraction of “does not,” NOT “do not.” This practice stopped only in the early 20th century. This sense is preserved, interestingly, in African-American vernacular speech (now fashionably called Ebonics) and in informal southern U.S English generally. When I first heard Michael Jackson sing, “it don’t matter if you’re black or white” in high school, it grated on my grammatical nerves, but that’s how people who spoke early modern English would have said it.

But the most important reason why American English is not a bastardization of the “authentic” English, ironically, is that only the American variety of the English language is continuing with English’s germinal “bastard” heritage. 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.

Think about this: Can contemporary British speakers of the language—or any other speakers of the language for that matter— imagine speaking their language without these words: “OK,” “movie,” “radio,” “teenager,” “immigrant,” etc.? Well, those words are distinctively American and were once derided as “horrible Americanisms” by supercilious Britishers.

After all is said and done, linguistic nativism is a treacherous betrayal of the intrinsic hybridity of the English tongue. No variety of the language is authentic. All English is bastardized.

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