No such thing as “American English”?

I received this afternoon the following email in response to my latest article for the BBC, “Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?”:

Sirs,

I am surprised by your article at BBC.com today. First of all, there is no country by the name of America. Secondly, if you wish to refer to Americans, you are including everyone who lives anywhere in North or South America. Here in Canada we have many English dialects, as they do in the U.S.A., but ours align with the British English usage. Yes, that U.S.A. stands for United States OF America, as it is a republic within North America. I am a Canadian who is also an American, as Canada is in North America.

Therefore your article is specious. There is no such language as “American English”. The habit of US citizens calling themselves ‘Americans’ is hubris at its finest. One well known example is the ‘World Series’ which is anything but.

However, you are entitled to your misguided views, as I am mine. {;-)

Gordon W. Sharpe

As you may expect, I did not agree with his line of reasoning. Here is the response I sent to him:

A good day to you, Mr. Sharpe. I have a few points to make in response to your email.

First of all: I am a Canadian. I was born here, I grew up here, and I am sitting in my residence in Toronto as I type this.

Second: In my world, a Canadian is not an American. Call me a North American. Every Canadian I know (I do not count you among my acquaintances) bristles at being taken for an American – we all grew up resenting the USA, just as you evidently did. You are, in fact, the very first actual Canadian I recall seeing insist that Canadians are “Americans” tout court; everyone else I recall who has said that has been from the USA or Europe. The word “American” by itself is well established as referring only to a citizen of that country to the south of us, and Canadians rarely want to be confused with them, as you demonstrate. The rest of us on this land mass are North Americans and South Americans.

Third: The short form for “United States of America,” established virtually from its inception and accepted around the world – and in Canada, among Canadians, as you cannot avoid hearing – is “America.” The globally accepted demonym is “Americans.” A few people have attempted to call citizens of the USA “USians,” but it has not caught on. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia are called Micronesians, even though the region Micronesia includes other countries; citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are called Congolese, even though citizens of the Republic of the Congo are as well; citizens of the Republic of Ireland are called Irish, Northern Ireland notwithstanding; and so forth. Back when our country was the Dominion of Canada – I am sure you remember when it was stripped down to one word, in 1982 – we were nonetheless Canadians and our general standard dialect was Canadian English.

Fourth: I am a linguist with substantial education in dialects and variation, and I know quite well – and said so in the article – that there is considerable variation in American English. Notwithstanding that, American English as a whole is quite distinct from British English as a whole, and each of the two has a standard variety that is the basis of dictionaries, usage guides, and textbooks. I made reference to that in the article as well, but perhaps you didn’t finish reading it before you started typing.

Fifth: I make the larger part of my living as an editor and expert on Canadian English, and I must correct you on your belief that Canadian English aligns with British English usage. In fact, although we prefer certain British-style spellings, the larger part of our vocabulary hews to the American. We do not have boots and bonnets on our cars, or park the cars in carparks; we do not send unruly chavs to gaol or eat ices at the weekend; we recognize “centre” and “colour” but usually not “recognise”; our accents are closer to American accents – in fact, the non-Canadian accent closest to a standard Toronto accent is from California. I had originally intended to make mention of Canadian in the article, but the BBC has tight length limits, so that was one of a few things I trimmed out in the final draft.

I won’t argue with you about the hubris of “Word Series,” nor about American cultural self-centredness in general. But they were being called “Americans” well before they had their own country. As far as I’m concerned, they can keep it. Amerigo Vespucci was no one really worth commemorating so much anyway.

If you are wondering why I, a Canadian, wrote an article on American English for the British Broadcasting Corporation, it is because (a) they asked me to do so, (b) they paid me to do so, (c) I know the subject, and (d) I enjoy writing about it. Should Canadian English merit a mention? I’d like to think it is worth an article of its own. We shall see whether I can convince the BBC of that.🙂

Thanks,

James Harbeck.

12 responses to “No such thing as “American English”?

  1. Chips Mackinolty

    I kinda sympathise with Mr Sharpe as I know many Canadians who resent having their accent (Californian or otherwise) being mistaken for that of USA varieties–though he is, as you point out, ignorant of Canadian Englishes and their connections to the US. I try to be scrupulous about listening to north American English accents, and avoid like buggery asking people with such accents “So whereabouts in the States do you come from?” So I ask where they are in fact from. Toronto–good on you!

    Likewise when Sicilian friends ask where one of their restaurant guests is from–if I know the answer I will distinguish between Canadese and Americano … and there you have it. The description of citizens of the USA as “Americans” is a reality, as unpalatable as it may be to some people north and south of that country’s borders.

    And here caffè americano has a specific meaning and recipe. Caffè canadese? … never heard of it!

  2. i had to read the beginning about seven times but he he. good on you. i wouldn’t want to be trapped in a dark alley with you and no dictionary.🙂

  3. You wrote: >> Amerigo Vespucci was no one really worth commemorating so much anyway.<< This is true. Naming two continents after Vespucci is really "over the top". So this raises the question: Why did early European map-makers claim to do so?

    I suspect they made this claim to avoid persecution by the Church, which would seriously object to naming the New World after the pagan god Mercury. Mercury is a reversal of kHermes (spelled with a het in Hebrew). Mercury & Hermes are different names for the same god with essentially the same attributes.

    I also suspect that the New World had been discovered but not advertised by the Phoenicians sailing Tarshish ships before it was (re)discovered by Columbus. If so, Brazil would be named for Semitic BaRZeL (iron ore) and not Brazil wood from which violins were later made.

    It seems Hindu mapmakers knew that "Turtle Island" was on the other side.
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Body_Part_Maps/Turtle_Island.doc

    Determining that North America had a turtle-shape is much easier when making portolan charts from ship-board observations than from land-based observations. The fact that both American Indians and Phoenicians used anthropomorphic maps is some evidence for their cultural contact. See the Blackfoot map description at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Body_Part_Maps/BlackfootMaps.doc
    and the Hermes & Aphrodite map descriptions at
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Body_Part_Maps/BodyPartMaps.docx

  4. So much fun to play — and battle — word games with people who know enough to be dangerous, eh? My logical winning choice is sometimes to try and say less, yet mean more…

  5. In the past I have asked Canadians “Are you American?” and the answer was always that they were not American but Canadian. I now stick with “Where are you from?”. My experience with people from South American countries is rather different. Whenever the issue has arisen, I have found that they consider themselves to be both South American and American and correct me when I use America or American to refer exclusively to the USA or people from the USA. As a result, these days I would choose the term US Citizen over American Citizen, although part of my brain’s muscle memory tells me they are one and the same.

    • I agree. I found that in South America, their dislike of the term “American” and “America” as referring to the USA stems in part from the fact that in school they teach that there are 5 continents (Asia, Oceania, Europe, Africa and America), and thus they identify themselves as “American”. They insisted that I (a Canadian) was also “American”. In addition to this, the adjective for the USA, or a person from the USA, in Spanish is “estadounidense” – much like the “USians” that James mentions.

  6. Well, Sir….I did love your snarky answer! I, personally, am an American from the U.S. although I sometimes say I’m a North American. This is because I have lived in Central America and I’m more sensitive to the fact that they, and others, are also American. I did not know that Canadians don’t consider themselves to be North Americans. Anyway, I do not know enough to be “dangerous”. I do enjoy your blog.

  7. I enjoyed reading this exchange – particularly as one outside of the debate, in a country with its own (considerable) peculiarities in the use of the English language. We in South Africa, like the British, leave the lift and wait on the pavement for the (unlike Brits) robot to change so that it can sommer stop a bakkie.
    The irony with sniping at ‘American’ spelling and usage is that theirs is often an original form which has been adapted or warped in countries more British-biased.
    As for who are Americans – the ‘Native Americans’ certainly aren’t. They were around before Vespucci or his ilk were ever dreamed of.

  8. English is English! I’ve never understood why there has to be a form known as “American English”. It is spoken the world over with PLENTY of varieties in its usage – even in England and the UK. Yet there is no such thing as Australian English, Scottish English, Indian English etc. So why do the American’s insist on hijacking a version that they must call their own?

  9. Pingback: What about Canadian, eh? | Sesquiotica

  10. I really liked that BBC article about Canadian English. I knew I was reading a master when you got some of the fine details right. I was interested in your assertion that there is some regional variation in Canadian (beyond the distinctive Newfoundland accent). I grew up in Vancouver but moved to Ontario when I was 26 (I met a girl). I always was struck by how uniform the accent is across the country. Sure, some people around here use “youse” as the plural of “you”. And I am one of (I am sure a rapidly shrinking) group of British Columbians who know what and where the “saltchuck” is. But other than that, I didn’t notice any difference.

    By the way I long ago gave up on trying to explain to Brits the difference between Canadians and Americans. Funnily enough just saying that there is no difference seems to annoy them. Good.

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