Notes on the here and now

American-English comprehension

Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep

My love of cinema began in my mid-teens. Back then, when there were only four television channels in the UK, the BBC broadcast a steady stream of old movies. My favourites were black and white American films from the1930s and 1940s. Everything from Dinner at Eight to Double Indemnity, 42nd Street to Foreign Correspondent, Bringing Up Baby to The Big Sleep. The version of America presented on screen, albeit by then a dated one, was seductive. Americans were smart, stylish, snappy in their speech. They were different from us — less hidebound, less hemmed in by politeness and class. But they were like us too — they spoke English and shared some of our cultural references. Sure, they had a different accent, but the American-English spoken in the movies, excepting the jesters and the hicks, was on the whole grammatically correct and had a recognizable vocabulary (excepting bits of slang, the occasional idiom, and oddities like ‘sidewalk’ and drinks that were ‘fixed’). Most importantly of all, it was clearly enunciated.

Now, when I watch contemporary American movies or TV programmes, say from the last ten years, it often happens that bits of dialogue elude my comprehension. To take one example, when I watched the box set of Mr Robot recently I was regularly rewinding and switching on the sub-titles to find what a character had just said. When I saw Tenet at the cinema I didn’t have that option and chunks of dialogue passed me by. A confusing film was made even more incomprehensible. Of course, this may be partly down to American films having a more diverse range of ethnicities and accents than they used to. But this opening up to other voices has happened on UK television as well and I don’t have the same problem. My impression is that American English, as it’s spoken, is just becoming less, well, English.

In one sense, this is nothing new. Though Raymond Chandler was born in America he spent his formative years in England and was educated here. When he returned to the States and took up writing detective fiction for a living, he soon realized ‘there is no greater mistake than to think that we and the English speak the same language’. Before that, there was George Bernard Shaw’s famous (though seemingly apocryphal) quip that we are two countries ‘divided by a common language’. I think that Chandler and Shaw (if he said it) were talking mostly about vocabulary, its denotations, connotations, and nuances. But I’m struck by how much American speech patterns, as instantiated in films and television, have changed in the last century.

Evolutionary biologists will tell you that the kind of genetic change that leads to new species only happens in small, isolated populations. I suppose that something analogous happens with languages too. After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, Latin eventually mutated into French, Spanish, Italian, and other regional dialects. Though these populations didn’t become totally isolated, the end of Empire removed the social and political institutions that held Latin together as a common tongue.

Could the difference between American and English eventually become as great as that between, say, French and Spanish? That seems unlikely in our highly connected world. The populations of the US and the UK are not small and certainly not isolated. And we do, broadly speaking, consume the same films, television and pop music. It’s probable that my own comprehension problems have as much to do with my age as with my nationality. My English, like my worldview, is very much of the past and not the present. Perhaps there will not be a great fragmentation of English. Perhaps the global media networks will actually cause a consolidation of its various forms into a single dominant strain, call it American-Pidgin, and the English spoken by me and the other old folks will gradually die out as we do.