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Separated by a common lingo
American English is no more a threat to us than the King's English, writes Kendall Hill.

THE Herald's Letters pages have been ringing of late with the outraged cries of loyalists desperately trying to preserve the purity of Australian English. It began with a taxi driver's rant against the slippery trend that has passengers calling him "buddy", casinos offering "slots", and cafes baking "cookies".

It then entered the realms of the bizarre when a Byron Bay radical called for a public demonstration against "take-out" food, video "trailers", and "butts" - against anything, in short, that smacks of having originated in America.

The angst about American English is a common, and cherished, annoyance in Australia. This correspondent would steadfastly refuse to use "noon" instead of midday (despite it being official Herald style) on the grounds that it was an "Americanism". Similarly, no self-respecting Aussie would dare dream of saying "fall" instead of autumn. They'd probably lose friends if they tried.

But the trouble with taking such a virtuous stance is that you need to make sure your facts are right. And, in both cases cited above, they're not really.

The great irony of all this breast-beating over the US's perceived linguistic imperialism is that the first Americans were very protective of their roots, too; when the Pilgrims landed in the New World they were (if possible) more rigidly attached to the King's English in 1620 than the citizens of NSW are to the Queen's English circa 2000.

"They preserved words with the diligence of archivists," says Bill Bryson in his excellent, painstakingly researched Made in America, a study of the origins of the American language.

In it he explains how fall and noon came across from England with the Mayflower. Their Puritan custodians clung on doggedly to this heritage to the point where - 400 years later - there are many cases where Americans are the only English speakers left in the world still in touch with their Middle English roots.

Fall, for example, fell out of common use in England in the late 1800s. (Autumn, by contrast, comes to us from Old French.) Other good examples of words that originally were exclusively English, but now are perceived as exclusively "American", are zero (instead of nought), bug (insect), hog (pig) and trash (rubbish).

Another thing that dawns on you in Bryson's book is that American English is no more insidious, or wrong, than Australian English.

Both were born of settlers's attempts to adapt their (often inadequate) mother tongue to a totally alien environment. The fact that Australians are now adopting some of these "Americanisms" (often by osmosis via television and/or the Internet) is less evil than evolutionary.

The thing to remember amid all the patriotic pennings of late is that only a very stupid country would adopt words from other cultures that are useless to its own. (Although very stupid people sometimes find it necessary to borrow, like, um, you know, meaningless expletives.)

We like the word pyjamas (from Hindi) because it perfectly describes our nightclothes (and we don't spell it pajamas - yet).

We are similarly comfortable with a Greek icon, a Japanese tycoon and a Spanish barbecue. And so long as we don't suspect they originated in the dreaded US, we're pretty grateful for battery, daylight saving, graduate, jet lag, workaholic, lengthy, splurge, talented and reliable.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of "Americanisms" in everyday use, and our own language would be much the poorer without them. That said, one of the recent correspondents, Kathleen O'Driscoll of Summer Hill, pondered how long it would be before Australians started speaking like Americans.

It's a good point - has anyone else noticed how many people stress the "r" in words such as year and here these days?


Yo! & G'Day! Have a great 4th of July, and remember we do share in a common language heritage. Naturally I must observe that us OZ dudes have a much broader grasp of the normal English language than you Yankee Doodle Dandy types, but even I must confess some surprise to find your common words were retained from such distant Middle English times...; thus I thought to share this revelation...

Regards from Down Under's Deepest South

-- Pieter (, June 30, 2000


Hi, Pieter!

Glad that you're still around. Your post reminded me of an article that I read a few years back where certain segments of French citizens were up in arms about "creeping Americanisms." The only word I remember now is "weekend" but they published a list of borrowings and were calling on citizens not to use those English words in conversation. I'm sure someone on the board knows the name of the committee that subsequently formed to monitor the misuse of the French language in the media.

My 4th will be a quiet one at home because I have to work that day.

-- (, June 30, 2000.

preserve the purity of Australian English

what a joke

-- richard (, June 30, 2000.

Ruh-Roh, we could have another spat brewing.

-- KoFE (your@town.USA), June 30, 2000.

Well, let's not be too hasty, KoFE. After all, the "current" spat around here (cpr vs. almost everyone else) is starting to wear thin. Perhaps a gentlemanly spat over the proper use of the English language (however you define it) is a much-needed respite for all concerned.

I believe it was sometime shortly after the Vietnam war when someone said that the US should declare war on England -- because at least then we'd be fighting someone who'd (probably) at least fight fair.

Besides, we can always paratroop some French soldiers in to help whichever side has the greatest oil reserves.

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), June 30, 2000.

Personally as a resident of Australia, I sedulously eschew from hyperverbosity and prolixities, so there!

-- Scarlet (, July 01, 2000.

The American term that has been borrowed the most by other languages worldwide is the word OK. OK was first used c. 1840 in the U.S.

-- America's most (popular@verbal.export), July 01, 2000.

...I sedulously eschew from hyperverbosity and prolixities...

You can get arrested for using language like that in certain states. Especially around children and small woodland creatures.

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), July 01, 2000.

Good grief Scarlet, did you have to utter such a jaw-crusher to tell everyone your specialty is saying things sparingly? Don't you know us OZ dwellers are on a minima emotional budget now that the dreaded GST tax struck and stuck 10% on illumination? Sheesh!

kb8um8, yup I'm around but a bit depressed at the sundry forum persiflage. Little gems do pop up regularly though, and I sure am a long-term forum junkie who comes to get the occasional fix.

richard, we speak purest strine and rhyme when calling on the dog-n- bone during smoko, and, unlike our Yankee brothers who try to sell their acronyms and their witty slogans to the highest bidder, we freely share (plus 10% GST)

I'm Here, I'm There, we have a car sticker in OZ that says "Keep Australia beautiful, plant a POM a day!"

Language fashions the ideas of people. In America there is found a range of languages tracing their roots to other lands and places. This link may be of interest to some of you...


Check out the American connections. You'll be pleasantly entertained.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (, July 01, 2000.

Thank you, Pieter. I've been wandering around the link you provided, and it's sobering to find out that not only do I not speak proper English -- I don't even speak proper American! (But, courtesy of The True Blue Aussie Slang Source, at least I know what a POM is now.)

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), July 01, 2000.

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