Book review: ‘That’s the way it crumbles’ by Matthew Engel (September 2018)

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by Danielle Vecchio

 Engel book


Britain has been battling with America over words since the second British settlement at Jamestown in 1607. In Matthew Engel’s latest book, he calls for a ceasefire, suggesting that both should agree to disagree and keep the two forms of English distinct. This in itself is interesting enough; however, what makes this book more than just a case of bruised egos and inferiority complexes is Engel’s portrayal of the mutability of language and its function in forming the spirit of individual nations, their respective societies and, most importantly, the people who use it.

Language is fluid and mutable. According to David Crystal, it ‘has no independent existence apart from the people who use it. It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of understanding who you are and what society is like.’ It is also, therefore, a means of understanding others and their society. Where a language differs, so too do the people and their society.

American English was bound to differ from the British by default; the new environment, already inhabited by indigenous peoples, the French and the Spanish, called for new words, and these words were bound to make their way back to Britain.

The first new word to reach Britain from America was reportedly ‘tobacco’, which came via the Spanish from the Haitian Carib word for ‘pipe’ (perhaps then there’s a French influence?). Soon words like ‘corn’ become part of the British vernacular; however, it took months for news from America to reach Britain in the seventeenth century, so the arrival of new words at first was slow, and they were mostly nouns.

As America developed, the people began developing their own meanings for words. The British were, for the most part, appalled by these foreign terms and so the war waged on.

Eventually, a man of whom you may have heard, Noah Webster, pushed for a language that was based on American usage, not British, and so he compiled the first American dictionary. Yes, it’s all his fault!

Engel looks at various points in 400 years of history that accelerated the use of American English in countries like Britain and Australia. He even cites Neighbours as influencing the Brits’ ‘uptalk’, better known here as ‘high rising terminal’. Film, radio, TV and of the course the internet are the obvious villains; however, Engel also reveals other pertinent events, such as World War I, World War II and the enterprise culture of the 80s, as being definitive moments in America’s linguistic history.

What can be done to save British English? Engel argues that rather than whinge about the infiltration of Americanisms on their native mother tongue, the Poms should do something about it. Shakespeare was innovative with language, the Poms can do it again. If it doesn’t want to be swallowed whole by Americanisms, Britain needs to step up to the plate and take back control.

Perhaps the same can be said for Australian English. It’s difficult not to think of the similar situation here in Australia as you read about Britain’s experience. One cannot help but wonder if Australian English will survive the American invasion. I've been watching the TV program Prisoner, lamenting the decline of Australian rhyming slang and lingo. I know I’m not on my Pat Malone on this. Characters such as dear Lizzie Birdsworth, infamous for her love of grog and for using her dodgy ticker many a time as a decoy, are unforgettable and remind me of a bygone era. ‘Lagger’, ‘in the clink’ and ‘up the duff’ are fast fading from our unique lingo. Americanisms are taking over here also. Bugger.

I grew up in the linguistically challenging era of Sesame Street and Play School, where zee (for zed), trash can and sidewalk began infiltrating the system. My generation eventually worked out the difference; we say zed and use rubbish bin and footpath, but according to Engel the damage was done. America was not backing down; it would not change for anyone and it was here to stay. Just as the kids of the 50s and 60s were influenced through film and radio, American culture, and hence its language, was broadcast in almost every home with a TV throughout the 70s and 80s. And in the 90s came the internet, which is still wreaking havoc today.

I’m even more conscious of my Australian English usage as a result of reading this book, and I would love to see a resurgence of Australian rhyming slang. Although the tone is humorous, it can at times be a bit heavy, so I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading. Engel’s account is comprehensive and heavily embedded in history, so if you’re not a fan then perhaps this is not the book for you. If, however, you want a crash course in British and American history and linguistics, then you’ll find this book great reading.

That’s the way it crumbles: the American conquest of the English language by Matthew Engel, Profile Books, RRP $24.99.

Danielle Vecchio is a freelance writer, editor and educator. She is a member of the 2019 IPEd conference organising subcommittee and organises the Ballarat & Districts Editors’ Group, which meets monthly.