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English Has Gone Global.

April 30, 2009

Roger Cohen from the New York Times uncannily summarized a conversation I had yesterday (except far more elegantly). Yes, English has gone global and no, differences between cultures have not been tapped out like nails which poke up a little too far in the parquetry. Read on…

A poet friend, Vincent Katz, was over for dinner the other night and asked me with a twinkle in his eye if I was “knackered.” Katz came to poetry via rock ’n roll, and to Oxford via the University of Chicago, and along the way he picked up some English vernacular.


The word — meaning more than tired, beat — transported me to the England of my youth, a place of hissing gas fires, metered hot water, contempt for “the Continent,” schoolboys in corduroy shorts, crows over the rubbish dumps, skinheads on the tube, Pink Floyd in Hyde Park, soggy leaves and solid fog.

Aging is like that. The memories pile up. More things are done for the last time than the first. It doesn’t take much to be transported.

Yes, I was knackered — and suddenly nostalgic for the churning clouds of London, the damp mustiness of pre-prosperous England, and the mist hovering in an Oxford dawn.

I dug out a diary I kept at university in the early ’70s and found this: “Sunday morning: the allotments dotted with stooping figures. Steaming water poured over gleaming cars. The papers. This England.”

And this:

Loose summer dresses catching in the crotch
The leather boys stick together
With coffee on the benches.
Tulips dying gape open-mouthed
At the fruit rotting after lunch.

That England’s gone, of course, it’s had its glossy makeover like everywhere else. Gastropubs shun bangers and lumpy mash and even Leeds is trendy.

But language is another story. Katz told me how uncomfortable he felt saying “loo” for the first time. The unthinkable alternative was to ask some bloke for the “bathroom.”

What for, mate?

Katz read classics at St. John’s College (viewed as a too-beautiful refuge of sporty underachievers by my own Balliol) and he summed up the experience this way: “I began to realize (what I should have known all along) that I was living in a completely different culture. It was just as alien to me as France would have been, or Spain, or Italy, or Germany. There is the illusion that we speak the same language, but we really don’t.”

Yes, the illusion is there. The United States freed itself from Britain in a revolution but had to opt for subtler forms of sedition when it came to the language.

I remember getting in a row with an editor and friend, Richard Berry, after writing “car park.” No such thing in American, Berry said. Come on! It’s where you put your car, Richard. Nope, he insisted, parking lot.

I was miffed. I was gutted. (Look that up, Richard.)

“Well done, love,” I told my 14-year-old son the other day. “Well done, love!” he parroted in that scorn-dripping tone teenagers reserve for their Paleolithic parents, weaving an English patter into his Brooklynese. “You mean: Good job!”


Jobs, the work ethic — no escape from them in the United States, where finishing a meal in a restaurant prompts the death-penalty-meriting: “Are you still working on that?” When I took an English test to become a U.S. citizen a few years back, one of the three sentences in my dictation was: “I plan to work very hard every day.”


America works, every day, its youthful ambition still boundless. England, having seen everything go pear-shaped, relieved of the burden of running a ropey world, boozes and says it’s sorry and prefers a lie-in.

“Oxford was the only place I’ve heard someone use ‘mayn’t’ completely casually,” Katz wrote. “I began to long for those usages — grammatically unimpeachable and stylistically extravagant — and be on the lookout for them. I had a friend who used ‘Crumbs!’ as an exclamation, something I’d only ever read in books or seen in movies.”

Crumbs! It’s been yonks since I heard that or peered through the windscreen over the bonnet at lorries on the motorway. I thought I’d left England behind — its rucksacks and trousers and chemists and fortnights — you know, the full Anglo monty — until I got too knackered to resist.

Katz continued: “After a year or so of tuning into the subtleties of the English language, something quite remarkable occurred — I began to perceive many different layers of expression in ways the British communicate. Where they are often criticized by Americans for being cold, I began to see endless expressions of warmth. Where they might be considered narrow-minded, I found instead some of the most open-minded, progressive minds I have encountered.”

English tolerance can be as uplifting as American idealism, that many-faceted and quizzical “quite” seeing U.S. “hope.”

Since my student walks to the Isis past the wet autumn leaves smoking rather than burning, English has gone global. In fact, the world’s lingua franca is now bad English. It’s strange then that a U.S. president who speaks good English, far better than his predecessor, seems able to communicate with that world. This may even be Barack Obama’s biggest achievement in his first 100 days.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2009 6:14 am

    What a wonderful article. Thanks for posting the link. I’m an Englishman living in Denmark. Over the past three years my speech pattern has changed remarkably. When I visit home, my parents ask why I speak so slowly, my friends look at me as if I have turned into a dullard with a very limited vocabulary.

    I attribute it to the fact that by limiting my use of colloquialisms and speaking slowly (some might say ponderously) the Danes understand me better. It’s discomforting to live ‘in between’ languages. Neither fluent in Danish, and no longer able to speak my own tongue with the fluency I possess. Unless of course I’m down the boozer having a few jars with my mates.

  2. Tim permalink*
    April 30, 2009 10:44 am

    Yeah, I know exactly what you mean about being ‘between languages’.

    I live and work in France and when I speak with my family they wonder where my native accent has gone too.

  3. April 30, 2009 2:41 pm

    My other half is from the other side of the pond, and I’ve caught myself saying “that’s brilliant” and “pass me my jumper” a few too many times.

    At least I haven’t let slip “what’s the craic?” yet…

  4. April 30, 2009 3:34 pm

    I can completely empathize with what Vincent Katz experienced when he discovered that the UK was, in fact, a “different culture.” (Or, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “two countries divided by a common language.”)

    I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Birmingham and imagined myself prepared, as an ardent Anglophile, for English living. Until I found out that it was, like, not just America with an accent and saying “lorry.”

    It took a frustrating, bewildering month or so before it all sunk in, I let go of my preconceptions, and I started to get the jokes in Viz.

    I never could pull off some of the slang, though. Some British terms just sound completely preposterous in an American accent!

  5. Tim permalink*
    April 30, 2009 5:18 pm

    “…and I started to get the jokes in Viz.”

    This is something I would hide if I were you (however you can talk about the Fat Slags).

  6. April 30, 2009 5:36 pm

    Oh, Viz! I keep finding copies of those under the bed.

  7. Tim permalink*
    May 1, 2009 5:16 am

    Then it’s probably time to give your bedroom a good clean.

  8. May 1, 2009 3:59 pm

    I’m scared of what else I’ll find under there…

    (The hubby’s mother STILL sends him Viz every few months. Yeesh!)

  9. Tim permalink*
    May 1, 2009 4:08 pm

    Oh dear.

  10. May 2, 2009 1:12 am

    Then I shouldn’t also admit that a British friend of mine from that year gave me a T-shirt of Buster Gonad? I never did have the, erm, gonads to wear it in public!

  11. Tim permalink*
    May 2, 2009 4:55 am

    Oh dear, oh dear.

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