On American v British English: To queue or not to queue?   Leave a comment


The current US President has been criticised for using the ‘British’ English word ‘queue’ on his visit to Britain instead of the ‘American’ English alternative ‘line’. I’ve checked my Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture, which is very specific on these alternatives, and it confirms that the colloquial US use is indeed ‘line’. But why shouldn’t Barack Obama, with a multi-cultural Hawaiian/ Kenyan/ Indonesian/ mainland American background, show his flexibility in the use of international English, together with his awareness of audience? To assume that he is using a word because he is reading from a script written in Downing Street, as Nigel Farage and others have suggested, is both ignorant and insulting at the same time. What the ‘Brexiteers’ clearly didn’t like was the suggestion that the UK would have to join ‘a queue’ in order to get a trade agreement with the US outside the EU. However, the ‘Brexiteers’ recoiled in horror that an American President should use British English on a visit to the UK, in expressing his view on trade agreements between the US, the UK and the EU, now supported by the candidate most likely to follow him as the next President.

So I thought it might be useful to challenge the strange venture of Nigel Farage and others into the field of Sociolinguistics by quoting from a more expert, yet accessible, source. In 1992, J L Dillard, Professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, wrote his ‘History of American English’ for the Longman Linguistics Library. The book has since been re-published many times. In it, he deals with the suburbanization of the more affluent Americans in the mid-to-late twentieth century, leaving the inner city areas largely to minority users of highly nonstandard users of English. He argues that the suburbs is the locus of the most standard variety of American English. The well-educated products of the schools in these areas also show a greater tendency towards international interests, foreign travel and awareness of foreign languages and dialects of English. For such people of Barack Obama’s generation, he points out, British English may be less ‘foreign’ than the dialect spoken in the inner city:

“The very awareness of American/British differences may have worked towards a resolution of some of those differences, particularly in an international community. Almost everyone now knows about American ‘apartment’ and British ‘flat’… Americans are likely to collocate the latter with adjectives like ‘little’ and ‘cheap’. For Americans, anyway, the ‘sexy’ connotations of ‘The Apartment’ (the title of a film released in 1960) could not possibly apply to ‘The Flat’. In the case of words like ‘drugstore’ and ‘chemist’s’, it has long been the case that, as in a true language-contact situation, the American talking to the Englishman has wanted to use ‘chemist’s’ and the Englishman to use ‘drugstore’. Much the same can be said for ‘hood/bonnet’… ‘truck/lorry’ or ‘gasoline/petrol’… ‘on our own, where two persons can be alone, with no-one else around’ is familiar to American watchers of BBC programmes on public television, although intuitively most find the locution a bit strange and must remember to adjust for the British meaning. J K Galbraith had hardly coined the phrase ‘affluent society’ in his book in 1958 before British periodicals were using it. Most British would seem to have accepted the proposition that ‘American English is good English’ … there is really no more reason for Americans to defend their use of the language…

“Receptive control, at least, of many of the features of the English of both sides of the Atlantic has become fairly well established. If there is an accommodation because of the desire to reach an international market, still diagnostic features of each national variety are well established in the passive repertory of the other. In the case of ‘high tech’ there is virtually no difference; a ‘hard copy’ is familiar to computer-oriented Americans as much to British people of the same type…

“The spread of English, and recently perhaps especially American English, to become an international language – ‘the world’s second language’ in some presentations – can be accounted for rather easily in terms of military and socio-economic developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and not by any special linguistic qualities of English in general or American English in particular… Our language history unites us with Great Britain, it is true, and also with Europe; the contact varieties link us more than we had suspected with the so-called Third World. In the long run the linkage is simply with humanity throughout the entire world.”

The entire strategy of the leave campaigners has been to suggest that, outside the EU, the UK would be able to return to protecting its trade with its English-speaking ex-colonies in the Commonwealth and the US. In effect , they would like to revive a trading system based on a post-imperial view of Britain’s role in the world. Obama can see through this, and so should the British people. President De Gaulle rejected British membership because it would increase American influence in Europe, and French leaders remain sceptical of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ free trade model which seems to be winning the argument over the more protectionist Franco-German one within the EU.

So, what Barack Obama’s visit has shown us, both covertly and overtly, is that no-one in our twentieth-century world can expect to have a monopoly over either trade or language use. Those who, like Nigel Farage, indulge in phony linguistics, belong, with their politics of petty parochialism, to a world view of the 1950s. Whether they choose to ‘wait in line’ or ‘join the queue’, they deserve to be left out in the cold by more adaptable generations of humanity. Besides this, today’s English-Speaking world is very different from that of the 1960s, because the flexibility and diversity of the language as a ‘lingua franca’ has led to a situation in which the majority of its users are not isolated islanders, but interconnected users of it as a means of daily inter-cultural and international communication. In this world, the British (or rather the ‘Little Englanders’ among the Brexiteers) might have to accept that they cannot always be first in line!


J L Dillard (1992), A History of American English. Harlow: Longman.

Posted April 25, 2016 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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