British English vs American English

I think it is high time that I write about my views on this matter, since this afflicts me every day. The British influence on India and Indians cannot be denied. They left India in 1947, but they also left their largest cultural footprint back in India – their language, where it evolved as official language of Union of India (constitutional sanction) and of various (almost all) states within the Union of India from the language of its struggle for independence. I have already written a brief essay expressing my gratitude for this sweet, brilliant, intelligent and mother of all languages of modern world – English. English, in essence, is owner’s pride and neighbour’s envy in whole of the post-second-world-war world.

Since we gained this language from the English, “Indian English” is largely (almost 99%) based on British English. If not for afflicting the language with ridiculous words such as “pre-pone”, Indian English is de facto British English. As far as I remember, ever since my childhood days, I have always spelled the property of an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light as “colour” and not “color”. My teachers trained me so; so did my father, who would wake me up at 5 AM in mornings of cold North Indian winters to teach me English grammar from Wren and Martin’s.

Therefore, the “British English” is my natural “home” in communication. I subconsciously use words such as amidst, whilst, amongst, etc. and find words such as awesome, airplane, counterclockwise etc. awkward because I had not heard of them before I completed my high school.  I am so rigid in my rules of English communication that I take it as offence if someone, in professional capacity, corrects my understanding of English; for example, if a client points out that advice be spelled as “advise”, I go great lengths in telling that “advice” is noun and “advise” is verb as per British English and that is the standard that I follow. Even the minutiae such as use of  “Dr”  and not “Dr.”  is by default set in my mind due to strong influence of British English on my education.  When a client pointed out to me, around 4 years ago, on this “error” of not putting a “period” (I prefer calling it “full stop”) at the end of “Dr”, I put up an argument that both are acceptable [that’s the argument in vogue now], but since you are client, I would condescend to address you with “Dr.”. But every time I addressed him, it gave me a feeling of incompleteness in my communication, despite their being an extra “period”. And I am pretty sure that the client was oblivious to these niceties between British English and American English, like most of the world is.

It is not that only I am rigid about language rules. When I send some draft responses to US patent attorneys, they would often send back their feedback with document all red with American English (AE) words and spellings. At that time, I do not raise much of an issue, since the document is to be filed in the US, and therefore the preference of US jurisdiction has to be followed. Given the way the American technology firms such as Google, Apple and Microsoft have entered our lives, the British English and its subtle beauty is getting lost in their “default language setting”, which is always “English (US)”.

British English (BE), to me, is much more logical as well as poetic. Why call a vegetable “egg plant”, when you already have a better word like “aubergine”? And why have “check” for something called as “bill” in AE? BE has further made distinction between “check” and “cheque”, AE has obliterated “cheque”. The word “cookie” doesn’t remind me of “biscuit”. To me image of “cookie” is either of a dish made of cuckoo bird or the awful melody: kook-kook-kookie, from an outrageous Punjabi song. David could have killed Goliath only with a “catapult” and not a “slingshot”, which sounds like a name of a toy for kids.

How can a word as dry and confusing as “bi-weekly” replace a beautiful, poetic and exact word such as “fortnightly”?  I object to travelling to any part of the world if it is without an extra “l”, even if it leads to excess luggage (not “baggage”). AE has made the language very routine and very predictable. No wonder that we are left with totally non-romantic, dry and bland words such as “selfie” awarded as Word of the Year of 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries. At least, in modern world AE has laid imagination to rest, which is ironic to me, since some of my most favourite authors are from the US – from Mark Twain to Edgar Allan Poe to JD Salinger, who have added to the lexicon of the English language with their brilliant wit and charming use of the language.

I would like to explore on why the Americans felt the need of coming up with AE.  Why couldn’t they just keep the English as it is (or was), like the Indians kept it or other colonies of the British? No doubts about the cultural impact on a language [for example, the most –ou spellings are French influenced], but most of AE looks artificially influenced, mostly for purposes of political and cultural hegemony. Increase in AE spellings, words, and patterns is telling of cultural and political hegemony of the US in modern world. This hegemony is seen through success of “American English” and not “English”.  Some other weird questions that I often ask are: How much of economic advantages it has if we do not write a ‘u’ in colour, or an “l” in travelling? How much money is saved if the extra letter is not printed? How is saviour a better saviour than a savior? Actually, my last three questions take debate to another issue.

I know that there are many experts in the English language who would shut me up with theories such as  -ou  spellings being incorrectly lifted into the English language lexicon. My argument is that howsoever obnoxious and devoid of imagination, the word “selfie” may appear and sound, it is a product of natural evolution of communication and not an artificial construct for political and cultural hegemony [I would like to remind the readers about the Michel Foucault’ s theory on discourse analysis on how language plays a significant part in power and politics], and is therefore still good by its standards. Think, if the British and the anglophiles were to up the ante, and force their artificial versions of “selfie” (which, in my opinion, is by all standards “too American”) down our cameras (and throats) with words such as ownsnap, ownograph, ownicture, selfgraph, narcisstograph, narcissticture etc., how would you react? For the record, I would completely loathe this attempt too.

Not that I am completely in awe of British English words only. I prefer to take my luggage in a truck than in a lorry, which to me give an imagery of as an old rickety vehicle of early 20th century with the advanced technology of that era enabling it to collapse under its own weight. Tow truck is better than “breakdown van”, which (the word) I saw so very often during my days in London. A “cling film” makes no sense when compared to “plastic wrap”. When I first heard “cling film”, I thought it refers to a film (not “movie”) that clings on to you and makes you weepy and clingy.

And to be honest, I too am quite done with making these subtle distinctions between AE and BE, which would largely go neglected to large population. I suggest that a huge conference be held every year to reconcile the differences in the various versions of English language and a “Global English” be raised, where only natural words of the language are honoured in the lexicon. Too far fetched? Yes. Therefore, until then, I will “confront” AE with all my spirits. And at 28, it is tough to change your language patterns, spellings, words, vocabulary, and all other intrinsic and extrinsic of a language, which you have so ardently learnt (not “learned”) since childhood days. Unlike many Indians, I refuse to let my hold on the English language be drowned in the deluge of ubiquitous AE.


About Rahul

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