A merry storm in Radio 4 land circles was created by FT journalist Matthew Engel in his BBC broadcast on what he claims is ‘the dramatic growth of Americanisms in British conversation, public and private.’
He believes what he calls the terms of trade are ‘notably unfair’. There’s been it seems, the equivalent of a phone hacking of our very language, and ultimately, our cultural identity.
Arguing that American English, bulked up byUSdominance of the entertainment industry, makesBritainpeculiarly vulnerable, importing, often unconsciously, US uses all the time.
Some 3 million blog posts later and the debate still rumbles on with Engel warning that 51st statehood – culturally, if not politically, beckons.
In his later FT article (Saturday July 30th) he draws a parallel to how fifty years ago, the Welsh language was dying, but since then there has been a cultural revival of both the language and Wales’ sense of self.
I would extend Engel’s rallying cry further and argue that Brand UK can indeed take valuable lessons from the Welsh – but also from a greater understanding of memes.
I have a particular interest in the subject of ‘Brand Britain’: I organised a conference in Leeds in 2005 called, ‘Rebuilding Hope After the Bombings’ prompted by the July bombings earlier that year and inspired by my dear friend Robert Webb who tragically lost his sister in the attack. (I had missed the Aldgate bomb by 12 minutes, but argue all of us missed the bomb by 12 minutes.)
I believe there is a critical need to assert a British Brand based on values of security, tolerance, equality of opportunity, upholding social justice, and a schism of respect and disrespect of order
Now if BrandUKis to thrive it needs to address how Americanisms are the cultural equivalent of hypothermia. There is an analogy of a frog and boiling water: if you place it directly in the boiling water it will immediately jump out. If however, the frog is placed in water which is then gradually heated, it fails to respond to its eventual deathbath of boiling water.
I now live inWales. While the cause of promoting the survival of the Welsh language is not perfect, as someone proud of BrandBritain– I also take great pride in what has been accomplished in nurturing Welsh.
I have a keen interest in my innovation and creativity teaching on the subject of memes and how ideas are spread.
Here, I suggest, are the key lessons which need to be addressed to curb the growth of Americanisms.
- Recognise there is a problem. Like the frog in the about-to-be-boiled water, we need to be aware. Engel’s call is timely. We need even more powerful voices to go once more to the breach.
- Recognise the links with your wider cultural values. Language is not an esoteric issue for lexicographers – it is at the very heart of your identity, your badge of membership of your club. Lose your language, and you are left with just an echo of what makes you distinct.
- Take concerted action to promote your core interest. In 21st centuryWales, the middle classes send their children to the Welsh-medium schools, and the language is redolent on every public service sign. It all provides a visible re-inforcement to non-Welsh speakers of the language. By its presence, it plays its part in creating a wider, distinct identity.
- Understand the limitations of your position. As the French have discovered, you cannot erect cultural barriers to keep out les undesirables.
The only chance for our sourced memes to survive against theirs is to focus all our efforts on our strengths.
The only viable solution is to adopt a niche strategy: you seek to conquer a smaller part of the agenda.
So, rather than have a situation of the BBC World Service being cut back, and BBC reducing its radio drama output by half, you invest in the niche you can possibly dominate in – the premium, cultural elite.
By trying to dominate in the top 10% of cultural production in the English language, the essence of ‘English English’ (as opposed to American English) has a chance to survive, and indeed flourish.
Sure, we may still witness a juggernaut of American English scripted memes permeating our culture. But perchance, they may be a chance that the language of Shakespeare, Austen and Andy Green (just teasing) may survive – but let us all on this Sceptered Isle learn a lesson from the Welsh – and that is not just how to say “Bore Da!”