Oh Puhleese – the Americanization of English
(Even the process is spelt with a Z not an S)
Munya Andrews| December 2016
Those of you who know me, will know that I’m an absolute stickler for correct spelling and proper grammar. Not only am I a ‘word Nazi’ or ‘guardian and defender of the English language’ but an Aspergic linguistic teetotaler whose ordered world cannot function at the mere hint of dis-assemblage let alone utter and complete linguistic chaos. On the other hand, in my heart of hearts, it’s true to say that somewhere deep within the recesses of my soul there lurks a poetic anarchist who can appreciate that language like all other cultural phenomena is a living entity that can be changed, shaped, reformulated, given new meaning and born anew as it were.
I of all people should know this because of the creative way that Indigenous people have kriolised English to create ‘Aboriginal English’.
So if Canadian crooner Katherine Dawn Lang (like other creative souls in history) chooses to dispense with capitals as is required of a proper noun and signs off as k.d.lang instead (all lower-case letters), then okay, I get that. It’s chic, fashionable, one might even say somewhat ‘mysterious’.
But there does come a time when it is appropriate to draw a line somewhere, and for me that somewhere is the Americanization of the English language and its concomitant affect – the Americanization of Australian, Indigenous and other world cultures. As we know language is culture. Unlike space, language does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of the cultural psyche, milieu, make-up and identity of a speaker. It not only creates common understanding that enables communication between a group of people but it forges a common identity that is shared with all members of that group that sets them apart from all other peoples in society. The need to share and express a common language and identity is a fundamental human need to wit the diverse spread of languages and identities throughout the world, be they social, political, national or whatever. So while I support the human right of individuals or a group of people to self-identify and call themselves by whatever names they choose (even how they spell or pronounce their names) what really BUGS me the most (now there’s a culturally loaded phrase if ever I heard one) is the sheer ignorance surrounding the etymology of words, names or phrases and ultimately, the cultural awareness of it’s background, usage, practice and so on.
Hall Passes, Zees, Homeboys and Homegirls
While pronunciation is dependent on one’s accent and place of origin (which accounts for regional and national differences such as American or Australian English) many young Australians are using American words and phrases without consideration or understanding of their cultural context. For example, you may already have heard them talking about giving up their ‘hall pass’ for someone they’re sexually attracted to or else to give someone (usually their husbands, wives, boyfriend or girlfriends) a hall pass or ‘sexual license’ to be with other partners. To each their own. My beef is not about the morality of the phrase or its practice but it’s unfettered use by impressionable young Australians and the promulgation of all things American without critique or consideration of cultural cringe.
When I attended high school in the United States in the 1970’s, a hall pass was a permit that you were given that allowed you to be out of class during school hours. It still has that meaning today but has since taken on a sexual connotation in American slang. While they well have been used as an excuse for amorous encounters by some American students, we don’t have educational hall passes as such in Australia. So why do young Australians use this term?
The widespread endorsement of American popular culture throughout the world through music, movies, social media and television is enormously influential not just on young people but adults alike.The sexual use of hall pass was popularised in the 2011 romantic comedy of the same name starring Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. The lead characters, Rick and Fred, are having difficulty in their marriages and are given hall passes by their respective wives for one week in which they can do whatever they want.
While there are many positives that can come from shared cultures there are dangers as well. In an increasingly smaller world, our uniqueness i.e. what makes us ‘special’ and distinct from others, may suffer a perilous fate.
Bemoaning the pronunciation of the letter z as ‘zee’ by Australian school children instead of ‘zed’ (as it was when I was growing up) or the widespread adoption of American slang terms like ‘homeboy’ and ‘homegirl’ might appear trivial in the grand scheme of things. But it is precisely these seemingly innocent cultural adaptations which in their wholesale, unfettered cultural import that ultimately contributes to the erosion of our cultural and national identities. While that may not seem to matter to most people, there are some of us, myself included who will lament such loss.
(c) Evolve Communities 2017.
Australian Cultural Awareness | Sociolinguistics | Cultural Change