The Fall of the Empire: The Americanization of English

July 21, 2017

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including physicists from IFISC (UIB-CSIC) and a UIB linguist, has mapped the global use of the British and American varieties of English analyzing the process of Americanization of this language over the last two centuries.

In the late nineteenth century people used to say that "the sun never sets on the British Empire". From Australia to Canada, through India, Egypt, South Africa and the Caribbean, British territories spread across the five continents. A legacy of this vast empire is the indisputable role of English as the global lingua franca, serving as the default language of politics, science, trade and even culture. However, the emergence of the United States as a world power during the 20th century has led to a change in the use of oral and written English across the world, giving rise to an "Americanization" of English.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers including scientists from IFISC (UIB-CSIC) has published a study analyzing how British and American varieties of English are distributed spatially and temporally. In order to do this, they explored a corpus of more than 30 million geolocated tweets as a basis for their study. This is especially useful for examining the spatial distribution of the varieties. Additionally, they examined the Google Books database in order to observe the time evolution. Linguistic variation was investigated at lexical and orthographical levels, employing a suitable selection of British and American alternates.

Then, they elaborated a list of countries ordered by their level of 'Americanization'. On both ends of this list are the United States (as the country with the greatest use of American English) and Ireland (as the country with the most British English tweets). The process of "Americanization" flourishes by observing that twenty-three out of the thirty countries on the list use American English forms more frequently than the corresponding British ones. Even in countries with a greater number of tweets that follow the British orthographic standard, the vocabulary belongs mostly to the American variety. Only in the UK and Ireland are British English forms found to dominate both in spelling and word choice.

As far as the time evolution of written English is concerned, it observed how books edited by British and American publishers have undergone this Americanization process, accelerated after the publication of the first American dictionary in 1828 and during the Cold War, when the United States secured its position as the world's leading power.

This study nicely illustrates how the use of Big Data allows us to analyze and characterize the way in which languages evolve in space and time, both in formal and colloquial registers. In the same way, the article shows how certain historical events are hallmarks in the evolution of languages.

 The Fall of the Empire

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