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Brits can get rather sniffy about the English language – after all, they originated it. But a Google search of the word “Americanisms” turns up claims that they are swamping, killing and absorbing British English. If the British are not careful, so the argument goes, the homeland will soon be the 51st State as workers tell customers to “have a nice day” while “colour” will be spelt without a “u” and “pavements” will become “sidewalks”. The two versions of English are intelligible but have long had enough differences to inspire Oscar Wilde to claim:

说到英语,英国佬们往往会变得非常自命不凡,毕竟,英语从他们那儿发源。但上谷歌搜索单词“Americanisms(美国腔)”,会发现许多人主张是英国人自己陷英语于泥沼,是他们自己在杀死、吞噬英语。如同论点中说的,如果英国佬不小心一点,英国本土会很快变成(操美式英语的美国)第51个州,在那里,工作人员会告诉顾客“have a nice day(译者注:“祝您过得愉快!”,典型的美式问候语)”时,拼写“colour”时会去掉“u”(译者注:英式英语中的colour不省略u),还会把“pavements”变成“sidewalks”(译者注:表示人行道时,英国用pavements,美国则用sidewalks)。英语的这两个版本是易懂的,但它们之间始终有着足够多的差异,激发了奥斯卡·王尔德作出如下断言:

(译者注:奥斯卡·王尔德(Oscar Wilde,1854年10月16日—1900年11月30日),出生于爱尔兰都柏林,19世纪英国(准确来讲是爱尔兰)最伟大的作家与艺术家之一,代表作《道林格雷的画像》)

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.


My research examined how both varieties of the language have been changing between the 1930s and the 2000s and the extent to which they are growing closer together or further apart. So do Brits have cause for concern?


Well, yes and no. On the one hand, most of the easily noticeable features of British language are holding up. Take spelling, for example – towards the 1960s it looked like the UK was going in the direction of abandoning the “u” in “colour” and writing “centre” as “center”. But since then, the British have become more confident in some of their own spellings. In the 2000s, the UK used an American spelling choice about 11% of the time while Americans use a British one about 10% of the time, so it kind of evens out. Automatic spell-checkers which can be set to different national varieties are likely to play a part in keeping the two varieties fairly distinct.


There is also no need to worry too much about American words, such as “vacation”, “liquor” and “law-maker” creeping into British English. There are a few cases of this kind of vocabulary change but they mostly tend to be relatively rare words and they are not likely to alter British English too much.


The British are still using “mum” rather than “mom”, “folk” rather than “folks”, “transport” rather than “transportation”, “petrol” rather than “gas”, “railway” rather than “railroad” and “motorway” rather than “highway”. Words to keep an eye on, however, are lawyer, jail, cop, guy and movie – all of which are creeping into the lexicon more and more.

英国人仍在使用“mum”而不是“mom”, “folk”而不是“folks”, “transport”而不是“transportation”,“petrol” 而不是“gas”, “railway”而不是“railroad”,“motorway”而不是“highway”。是该对词汇密切留意了,然而,像lawyer, jail, cop, guy and movie,所有这些词越来越多地混进了词典。 

But when we start thinking of language more in terms of style than vocabulary or spelling, a different picture emerges. Some of the bigger trends in American English are moving towards a more compact and informal use of language. American sentences are on average one word shorter in 2006 than they were in 1931.


Americans also use a lot more apostrophes in their writing than they used to, which has the effect of turning the two words “do not” into the single “don’t”. They’re getting rid of certain possessive structures, too – so “the hand of the king” becomes the shorter “the king’s hand”. Another trend is to avoid passive structures such as “a paper was written”, instead using the more active form, “I wrote a paper”.

美国人使用的省字号也远比从前多,它的效果是将两个词“do not”转成单一的词“don't”。他们也正在抛弃某些所有格结构,于是“the hand of the king”变成了更短的“the king's hand”。另一个趋势是避开被动结构,比如不去写成“a paper was written(一篇论文被写成了)”,而是写成更主动的形式“I wrote a paper(我写成了一篇论文)”。

And some words are starting to be drastically eroded from English – especially a grammatical class called gradable adverbs which consists of boosters like “frightfully” and “awfully” and downtoners (words or phrases which reduce the force of another word or phrase) like “quite” and “rather”.


If anything marks out the British linguistically, it’s their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise – so “the worst day ever” is “things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be”. As the American critic Alexander Woollcott once said: “The English have an extraordinary ability for flying into a great calm.”

如果有什么是能在语言学角度上辨认出英国人的,那就是他们以结构复杂的方式使用副词,尤其是作为一种有礼貌的镇定或平静的形式时,那么“the worst day ever(迄今最糟糕的一天)”就变成了“things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be(情况可能不如它们可以达到的那样十二分美妙)”。如同美国批评家Alexander Woollcott曾说过的:“英语有一种超乎寻常的能力,它能够瞬间滑入一种宏大的平静。” 

Classic films such as Brief Encounter are absolutely packed with gradable adverbs. Americans, on the other hand, tend to communicate in a more straightforward manner, telling it “as it is”. However, and here’s the thing, in all these aspects Brits are changing too – and in exactly the same way as Americans. They’re just about 30 years behind the trend that Americans seem to be leading.


So this raises a question, is British English actively following American English – copying its more economical, direct use of language – or is this something that is simply a global trend in language use? Perhaps we’re all just on the same path and the British would have gone in that direction, even if America had never been discovered? I’d like to think the latter but due to the large amount of American language that British people encounter through different forms of media, I suspect the former is more accurate.


These stylistic changes generally make for a more user-friendly version of the language which is accessible and easy to follow so they’re hard to resist. Except for the loss of those gradable adverbs, though – I’m slightly annoyed about that and would like to advocate that we keep hold of them. They’re a linguistic passport and also a marker of national character, so it would be rather lovely if we could hold on to them.