My English Is as Good as Yours

Due to some very silly conversations I’ve had recently, I looked up this post that I had written for another blog a few years ago.

Since it relates tangentially to writing, I thought I’d post it here. If you’ve already read it, well, read it again!

Chaucer with an American accent

Some people seem to think that the English spoken in England is somehow more pure than the version spoken in the US. That it better represents the language that Chaucer or Shakespeare spoke, and is therefore true English, whereas the language spoken in the US has changed into a new version.

If they’re being kind, they’ll say that the new version is no less wonderful. But it is new and different, whereas the England version is pristine. This was Virginia Woolf’s take on the subject, for instance. “American” is great, but it lacks the history of true English.

Absolute, unmitigated nonsense.

Languages aren’t tied to countries, or to land. They’re tied to speakers.

Back in the day, we had a group of English-speakers who were all linguistically descended from Chaucer, let’s say, but who began to live in different physical places.

For example, some lived in Australia, or S. Africa, or the US, or New Zealand, or England.

Now, to be clear, even in England, English wasn’t (and isn’t) a monolith. You can’t swing a dead cat in England without hitting a few seemingly irreconcilable accents, and I assume this was even more true back in the day (before radio and TV and easy travel). But they all spoke some form of English when they decided to live in their different places.

Then time took its toll. All of these people (yes, even those in England) began to develop new slang, new pronunciations, and, to a degree, new syntax. They all did. Their individual versions of the language changed.

None of those groups of people retained the language as it was spoken when they separated. And none of them retained it significantly MORE than any of the rest of them.

For example, the English-speakers who were in the US retained the word “Fall” for the season before winter. People who were in England changed the word they used and started saying “Autumn” instead. People in the US retained the word “diaper,” while those in England changed to “nappy.”

The same thing happened with pronunciations. The people who lived in the US retained more of the pronounced R in words, while those who lived in England tended to lose the R.

This happened lots of times in lots of different ways, in each of the places that the English-speakers lived. Of course, some of the retention happened in England, but so did some of the loss. Some of the retention happened in Australia, but also some of the loss. Etc.

Now we have different accents from each other, and we all have different accents from Shakespeare.

Oh, and we have vastly different accents from Chaucer. Chaucer pronounced words almost completely differently from any living English speaker today. None of his linguistic descendants who chose to live one place or another have any claim to speak his language.

So I feel a small twinge when I see movies like “Shakespeare in Love,” in which an American actress (the extremely lovely Gwyneth P.) puts on an English accent in order to be more authentic.

Or when I hear people complain about Americans retaining their accents when playing Robin Hood.

For Shakespeare, Robin Hood, Chaucer, or even Queen Elisabeth I, a modern English accent is no more authentic than a modern American accent. Either way is wrong, in a sense, and either way would sound wrong to Chaucer or Shakespeare or the Virgin Queen herself.

Put another way, they’re both equally right, because Shakespeare is just as likely to be familiar with Gwyneth’s real accent as he is to be with her English co-star’s.

I’d like to see a movie, set in England several hundred years ago, with American accents. Or even American and British and Australian and more. They could represent the different accents that one would have found traveling around England at the time.

Of course, the ignorati would scream about how it’s not authentic, because Americans didn’t live in England in 1452. But we’d know better.

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6 Responses to “My English Is as Good as Yours”

  1. Wade
    July 25, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    Very interesting observation and opinion. I just think it’s just funny when people say their hair is ‘nappy.’

  2. Ellis Pratt
    July 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    >Or when I hear people complain about Americans retaining their accents when playing Robin Hood.

    Those accents often come with a complete misunderstanding of British geography. Kevin Costner’s “By nightfall, we’ll celebrate with my father” (a journey of 165 miles) is greeted by laughter in the UK. The Californian scenery and light, plus the mangling of our history, don’t help either.

    Kevin Spacey is able to play any part he likes at London’s Old Vic theatre, because he is a great actor. No-one complains about his accent.

  3. Ellis Pratt
    July 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    >I’d like to see a movie, set in England several hundred years ago, with American accents.

    We did have “Churchill: The Hollywood Years” – will that do? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0bZ6Idfqt8

  4. admin-Robert
    July 25, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Wade: I also laugh at some of the differences. For example, I remember giggling like a school girl the first time I heard a British person talk about using a rubber at school.

    Ellis: I think you’re taking the inaccuracies of the movies a little too personally. Movies don’t screw up your history and geography. They screw up History and Geography (and everything else).

    Movies set in America aren’t any better, though maybe they don’t get laughs in England because you don’t know how bad they are. And they’re almost never based on ignorance, but on choosing dialog and story over realism.

    When the movie Speed has a full bus jump 50 meters, I don’t complain that they’ve misunderstood MY physics. I just laugh at how silly it is.

    Incidentally, Costner’s Robin Hood was filmed almost entirely in the UK (the rest being in France) and not at all in the US. Of course, other films were shot in studios and elsewhere in California, but not that one.

    There’s an interesting conversation about “Americanisms” going on elsewhere on the Net right now:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3271
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/07/peeves

  5. Ivan Walsh
    August 12, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    Where I grew up in Ireland, we’d use the word ‘ye’ instead of you.

    But teachers beat it out of us as it wan’st ‘proper english’.

    Later we studied some of the great writers you mentioned above… who all used ye 🙂

    fwiw if you listen to a Yorkshire accent, you’ll get an idea of what Shakespeare (probably) sounded like

  6. admin-Robert
    August 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    English teachers. What else is there to say?

    I’ve heard that some of Shakespeare’s rhymes work in northern England. Though I’m sure that even there, there’s been a fair amount of evolution over the last half a millenium.

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