Friday, 1 May 2009

Same language, different countries

Roger Cohen writes in the NYT about British English.

A good read, that piece, and one that I see is very popular on the NYT website. Americans love Britishisms. So much so, I suspect that many of the words Roger Cohen pointed out affectionately will seep into educated, American middle-class usage.

Meanwhile, the youth of Britain have become more and more at ease with the various youthful Americanisms that they see and hear in the popular media. There used to be a generation of British people that scorned any American usage, they hunted for it and shot it down in contempt. But the young people of Britain, certainly here in London, they're "cool" with it. Like, totally. Duh!

I detect this subtle age-gap thing, where younger English people adapt to, and find cool, any exotic use of their language. Particularly, when inflitrated with Americanisms: the Noo Yewark intonations, the Black-American rhythms of speech, "The Wire" drug-dealers-and-cops talk, mafiosi speak, Al Pacino fuck-you-you-owe-me-a-cadillac explosive delivery, ... these are all welcome, these are signs you're tuned-in.

It's perfectly normal to hear a 20-something in London have a conversation on his mobile (cell, if you must) that goes like this:

- Hey, Andy.
- Wassup dude?
- Cool man, awesome.
- Was just wonderin if you wanna hang out at my place tonight, play some Wii shit.
- Nice, man, nice. Ahahahaha.
- Okay, well sweet, mate, catch you round 8 at my place then.
- Byebye, bahbye, bah.

On the other side of the ocean, I detect an increasing influence of British pop culture. British The Office is seen by many Americans as infinitely more pleasing than the American version. Before there was an American version, Gervais and Merchant had to start a special section of their website to translate the various Britishisms of the show to an ever-so-keen American audience.

Jeremy Clarkson's "Top Gear" is probably as popular in America as in Britain - who'd have thought (I can't stand him)! Clarkson is very contemptuous of popular American culture, but American audiences laugh with him and love him for it. Simon Cowell - need I say more?

A friend who lives out in San Franciso dropped by London recently. We spent a few hours together. He was very complimentary about London, and the "cleverness" of British opinion. To him, reading an article or essay written by a British author, is a more pleasurable and intelligent exercise than one written by a typical American author.

In the past, Britain was seen as a fading power. It was listened to only amongst the elite of the US. But it has regenerated its image. Now it's seen as a thriving livewire of talent and sophistication. And whereas in the past, it sought to separate itself from the US - because it thought itself superior, now it freely mingles with US culture, able to communicate with it, use it, learn from it, and deal with it as an equal, a wealthier, bigger equal.

On the plane from Seattle to New York a few months ago, I sat next to two American guys of about 17 and 19. They were both keen followers of British culture, able to discuss Jeremy Clarkson, Ricky Gervais, Tony Blair with ease and fluidity. Likewise, I keep meeting young British people who have travelled America up and down and are extremely familiar with its popular culture.

It seems to me the cultural divide that Roger Cohen writes of is receding.

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