‘Collywobbles’ and the great debate: Who speaks English?
A guest column by James Harbeck

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 22, 2013

This is the second in a pair of guest columns by my sons, this one by Toronto-based writer/editor JAMES HARBECK, creator of the popular blog for lovers of the English language, Word Tasting Notes.

This week’s topic was inspired by longtime Cochrane resident, UK-born John Cotton. Over coffee at A&W recently, John said that something or other gave him “the collywobbles.”

“Collywobbles”? Had John just committed another of his delightful Britishisms? I mentioned the conversation to James, and here’s his contribution to the great trans-Atlantic dialect debate.

Several years ago, I was on a cruise ship that was full of Americans but had an international crew. A British fellow was conducting the bingo game one afternoon, and when he referred to the balls in the bingo machine with his British accent (sounding to American ears more like “bows”), one or more persons shouted, “What?”

He said it again, a bit more clearly. Someone shouted, “Speak English!” He said, half under his breath, “I thought we invented the language.”

Well, they did. Didn’t they? It’s English, and they’re English.

But the people who came over to North America and brought English with them were also English. Is there some superiority that comes by not having ancestors who emigrated? Are the Brits speaking the language of Shakespeare while North Americans speak some debased colonial dialect?

Linguists who have studied the history of English know the answer. The noted scholar David Crystal has reconstructed in detail the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time (Early Modern English, by the way – English existed, in evolving form, for a millennium before then) – see pronouncingshakespeare.com. If you listen to his recordings, what you hear will strike you as rather different from standard modern British English. Americans might think it sounds like Irish or “pirate” speech. Brits may think it’s from the farther southwest of England, but somehow not quite. But many of the signal features of standard modern British, such as “r-dropping,” are missing.

Well, what do we expect? Language changes, everywhere and all the time. Pronunciations shift – that’s how different accents evolve. Vocabulary changes too. Many words and turns of phrase that seem to us to have been around since time immemorial were “horrible debased innovations” a century or less ago.

After all, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian all started out as Latin. They grew apart.

The various dialects of British, American and Canadian English have been growing apart for four centuries – in pronunciation and in vocabulary. Many words we think of as quintessentially British or American have come into being in that time.

If a chap from England says “That set-to with the lorry driver gave me the collywobbles! I’m right knackered,” he’s using Britishisms that came around well after America went its own way: “set-to” in the mid-1700s (American “run-in” arrived in the late 1800s); “lorry” in the early-mid 1800s (American “truck” in that sense only in the last century); “collywobbles” about the same time as “lorry” (we might say “freaked me out” – from the 1960s – for “gave me the collywobbles”); “knackered” meaning “tired” about 50 years ago (Canadians might say “bagged”).

In short, two roads diverged, and they went through different scenery after diverging. So which of them is the truer road?

Or think of it as like family trees. Are your cousins somehow less grandchildren of your grandparents than you are?

Cultures grow apart, too. Canadian and American cultures are both grown from the same rootstock, but from different branches, and with different grafts. The various branches of any given religion have the same issue: they came from the same place but grew apart.

So we and the British are like two cousins who grew up in different places with different influences and different personalities, similar in some ways but very different in others. We can still talk to each other . . . maybe. But if we listen, what we’ll hear is that neither of us speaks better or more original English than the other.


© 2013 James Harbeck

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