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Is British English Doomed? The Rise of American English in the UK

Have you noticed how American our language has become recently? I know that there are more important things going on in the world, but as a proud Brit, there’s something particularly annoying about hearing American English gradually taking root on these shores. I actually heard a little boy in a shop use the word candy the other day. Not sweets or sweeties or chocolate, but candy. I honestly felt like crying.

I don’t believe we’re choosing to sound American. I think it’s a subconscious shift. Most people use language as a mere tool, not stopping to think about it too much. As we become increasingly exposed to American English we are picking it up and using it automatically. It’s the same as when someone from up North moves down South and their accent softens a bit without their realising it (and vice versa). 

American English doesn’t strike us as being particularly foreign, because the words are, after all, still a form of English. It’s not like when French words came into our vocabulary in previous centuries. I’m sure that when terms such as “faux pas” and “cliché” and “ennui” came into the English language, nobody was surprised to learn that they had come from across the Channel. They sound so patently French that they might as well be wearing a beret and a string of onions. American terms, on the other hand, creep in undetected. Most people don’t hear “take-out” and think, hang on a minute, that’s just a foreign version of “take-away”. It simply doesn’t register.

Let’s do a quick vocab quiz. Do you watch a “film” or a “movie”? Do you have a favourite “TV programme” or “TV show”? If you go to a gym, do you do “press-ups” or “push-ups”; “star jumps” or “jumping jacks”? When you ask for something in a café or restaurant, do you address the waiter or server? And when you address them, do you say “Can I have x?” or “Can I get x?”? If you chose the latter answer in any of the above questions, then you used the American term. The Establishment is at it too. I’ve noticed the BBC using “airplane” instead of “aeroplane”. And did you notice how the Government came up with a “Roadmap” to get us out of the pandemic? It’s not just the vocabulary but the grammar too. Gotten is becoming ever more commonplace here. And at the swimming pool the other day, a broken locker had a sign on it saying that they were “waiting on” the repair man (as opposed to “waiting for” him). People also love to “swap out” things now, instead of just swapping them.

So what is the source of this increased exposure to American English? What first springs to mind is that we are now watching more US television and film than ever. But I don’t actually think this is the major contributor. After all, we’ve been lapping up Hollywood’s output for decades, even going back to post-war Britain. And hit American sitcoms have long been broadcast on the box without turning us all American. I certainly enjoyed Disney films growing up, and as a teenager I loved things like The Simpsons and Friends, but they haven’t undermined my mother tongue. I think the really potent influence today comes from online content. With platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, you not only get an immense volume of content, but also a more intimate form. There isn’t that same dividing line that you have with television and cinema; you’re virtually in the company of influencers in their domestic settings, effectively spending time with them in their homes, in their cars, in the supermarket and so on. Not only that, but it’s a two-way channel because you can actually communicate with them by leaving comments and creating a dialogue. I could certainly never do that with Bart Simpson.

Is it really such a problem, then? If we are becoming more American in our language, does it really matter? Well, I think so, yes. I’m not just being a stickler for “proper English” here. I know that there isn’t really such a thing as “proper English” and that language is constantly evolving. It always has evolved and it always will. It has to change because we change. In order to serve us, it has to let us communicate our developing ideas and talk about our new technology. It’s not the fact that our language is changing that bothers me; it’s the way that it’s changing.

Worldview, manners and mind-set are all manifest through language. If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language as an adult you’ll know how, after a short time, you start to gain this great insight into the national culture and outlook. Learn French and suddenly you begin to grasp this curious thing of “French-ness”. You’ll probably even find yourself acting and thinking more like the French without realising it. You might find yourself giving a Gallic shrug to show a bit of indifference, or perhaps find yourself taking much more care over the way you plate up your dinner because the way the food looks matters a bit more than it did before.

So if we start to talk like Americans, then we also start to act like Americans and see the world like Americans. And why would anyone want that? I simply don’t see the appeal of taking on American ways. What’s so fantastic about all that gun crime? What’s so wonderful about maniacs like Trump? What’s the great charm of all that obesity?

We are a mature nation with a sophisticated culture and outlook that reflects our age and experience. America is a young nation with a culture and outlook that reflects its youth and naivety. We in Britain know that less is more, that bigger is not always better and that we don’t all need dazzling white teeth to feel good about the way we look. You see the difference in our humour. Compare the classic sitcom The Office to its American counterpart. The original British version was so subtle that when it was first broadcast in the early noughties, many viewers didn’t even realise it was a sitcom and thought it was a genuine fly-on-the-wall documentary capturing the daily life of an office. The American version, in contrast, is as subtle as a custard pie to the face.

More profoundly, you see the difference in our attitudes to war and killing. British soldiers, be they polished Guards officers, squaddies, or the lean, mean fighting machines of the special forces, nearly always speak about their battle experience in a composed, respectful manner. Their American counterparts tend to speak in interviews, on podcasts and on television, as though they’ve been playing a computer game. They celebrate the number of kills their top sniper has made as though he’s a sportsman. They speak simplistically of good and evil, with no apparent grasp of the complexities of international relations or the underlying motives of governments. I’m certain that Prince Harry’s badly received comments about eliminating baddies in Afghanistan were due to the influence of American English. He was just slipping into American and talking exactly the way American soldiers do. An American audience wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but for us, for now at least, this sort of talk isn’t acceptable. It probably won’t be long before it is, though. It’s a perfect example of the power of one’s everyday vocabulary. It shows so clearly how it reflects and affects one’s outlook on life, one’s values and subsequently one’s actions.

It has been predicted that regional dialects in England could be lost in 45 years as Southern pronunciations spread North. ( At the moment, it feels like British English is threatened in exactly the same way by the spread of American English. I know a lot of people don’t find it easy to be proud of being British these days. Since we’re so multicultural, even knowing what exactly Britishness is can be difficult. And since the days of Empire have come to be seen by many as a thoroughly shameful chapter in our history, we have an awkwardness to overcome here, too. But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we are to keep our distinct character, it is imperative that we keep our distinct language.

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