Cookies or biscuits? Data shows use of American English is growing the world over
The influence of American English has become so widespread that its reach is even felt within the UK. Perhaps that cultural shift is no surprise, but a new study documents the speed at which the English language has shifted across the world.
The Fall of the Empire: The Americanization of English analysed 15 million digitised books published between 1800 and 2010, as well as over 30 million geolocated tweets. The authors searched for differences in vocabulary (eggplant vs aubergine, or liquor store vs off-licence) as well as differences in spelling (estrogen vs oestrogen, or travelling vs traveling).
The findings varied by geography. In Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and other western European cities, American English has significant influence on vocabulary even though British English has historically been the norm. By contrast, in Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, sweets are preferred to candy.
In much of Europe, American vocabulary is even more influential than American spelling. That trend holds in the UK, too: British people might occasionally say rubber band instead of elastic band, but they’re unlikely to swap their moustaches for mustaches. The authors attribute those shifts to “American- dominated television and film industries”.
There are, according to the Indian linguist Braj Kachru, three circles of English.
There is the inner circle, where English is spoken as a native language (the UK and Ireland, for example), the outer circle, where it’s spoken as a second language (such as India and South Africa), and the expanding circle, where it’s spoken as a foreign language, often for business purposes (Portugal, Finland and Russia, for example). The researchers took 30 countries from all three circles and looked at how polarised their English was, from -1 (totally British) to +1 (totally American).
Using the Google books dataset, the authors were also able to study the evolution of spelling and vocabulary over the past two centuries. They noticed an interesting trend in their timelines, noting “a significant change of trend in the last 20 years of our dataset, corresponding to the period after the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, which left America as the world’s only superpower”.
But this data isn’t perfect. It’s skewed by the fact that Twitter users are younger, more educated and more politically active than the general population, while the authors also note that “books are typically written by cultural elites”.
Still, the study offers a great insight into the continuing linguistic battle over whether future generations will savor oatmeal or savour porridge.
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