English is a funny language, don’t you think? Funny peculiar, not
funny ha ha. Back before the turn of the century – the last turn of the
century, not the one we talked about when I was young – a rather
significant, if temporary, impact on our language was affected by a
bunch of pre-pubescent school girls in southern California. “Like
totally fer shur.” The media was, I’m sure, an unwitting tool in this.
Similar, if of less impact, influences happen regularly in English.
Have you ever noticed that about a year after some new term
becomes popular in the hip-hop culture, it begins to show up in TV
commercials. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does
demonstrate how dynamic English can be.
During my career in Information Technology one of the duties I had
was to attend meetings of an FBI user group. I recall one meeting in
particular which was to present an update on the progress of the
FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) project. I
was surprised to find that the FBI had discovered a new word.
“Robust!” No FBI presenter could get through a topic without
numerous uses of the word “robust.” Every piece of hardware was
robust. Every database was robust. Every program was robust.
Every procedure was robust. Even their meetings were…well, you
know. I think I read that word and heard it spoken more in those
three or four days than in all my previous life or since. It was also
remarkable to me that the word seemed to disappear from the FBI’s
lexicon after a few months. I’ve often wondered where it went?
About a year and a half ago I was listening to Charlie Rose on PBS.
His guest caught me by surprise by repeatedly starting his sentences
with the word “so” in, what I thought was, an inappropriate manner.
When would you normally begin a sentence with the word “so?” An
example would be in response to a question.
“Why did you open the pickle jar?”
“So that I could eat a pickle.” Of course, there is an implied phrase
“[I opened the jar] so that I could eat a pickle.”
I cannot recall the specific conversation between Charlie and his
guest, but I will offer a very accurate representation.
Q – “Tell me why you decided to direct this movie.”
A – “So, I was impressed by the book and by the writers who were
going to work on the screenplay.”
Q – “I’ve heard you say that this was the best book you’ve ever read.”
A – “So, I really believe it is. And I’ve read many great books.”
Perhaps some speech coach has encouraged this to replace the
traditional “Uh” to begin a sentence. “Uh, that’s right Charlie.”
Since that first observation it almost seems to have become endemic.
Everybody’s doing it.
Then, too, there is the new pronunciation. It seems to be almost
exclusive to young women. Actually, I should have described it as
the new non-pronunciation. It appears to involve pronouncing words
containing multiple occurrences of the letter “t” as if the word did not
contain one of the “t”s. The word “important” becomes “impor-ant.”
The first time I heard this in a store I thought the girl had a speech
impediment. After that I began to notice it being done by others.
Then, of course, there are our British cousins across the pond. The
often cited observation by George Bernard Shaw that the Americans
and the British are two peoples separated by a common language is
really right on the mark. When I was a kid I really enjoyed the
Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
Now Rathbone’s English was always impeccable. Dr. Watson, on the
other hand, was always kind of mumbly. But he was understandable,
except when he was supposed to be not understandable. That is,
when he was well and truly mumbling to himself. But the other
characters, despite their accents, were understandable. I think that
was done intentionally to appeal to the American audience. The
result was that a very colorful cockney accent was still
understandable to an American ear. The same can be said for other
TV shows and movies imported from Britain prior to World War Two
through the 1960s.
Things have changed. Despite the fact that PBS presently imports
many British TV shows I do not believe those shows make any effort
to appeal to American audiences as they once did. Two shows I
enjoy are Foyle’s War and New Tricks. The problem is that these
and other shows are made strictly to appeal to their British audiences.
One thing they do is use phrases or idioms that few Americans will
understand. “Stone’ah [the] crows!” Do you know what that means?
“He’s a tosser.” I hope you don’t know what that means. What I’m
saying is this: they’re British shows made for the Brits. That’s fine.
But if they want to sell their shows in the American market they
should consider American audiences. I suspect that is why only PBS
The second problem is how they speak. In these new shows you
better turn on captioning if the character has a cockney accent. If you
want to know what’s going on, that is. And again back to mumbling.
Do upper class Brits really mumble like that. I sure hope not. My
point is this: I like and respect our British cousins, but I have a
message for all of you across the sea –
You invented the language, for Pete’s sake, try speaking it ! ! !
At my age I don’t care much for change. Stores I used to shop at are
torn down and replaced with other businesses. People I care about
are dying off. TV shows I like come on for a few years and then end.
Magazines I really enjoyed have replaced substantive articles with
the printed equivalent of “sound bytes.” I could append a lengthy list
of bodily changes that are, to say the least, annoying. With all these
changes you’re probably thinking that some minor changes in
language are not a big deal. And you would be right. Except for one
little thing. Our language is the most pervasive thing in our lives.
When we aren’t being bombarded with it by our surroundings, we’re
thinking it in our minds. It even pervades our dreams.
So! Embrace the change. BTW, Im here 4 U!