}

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Don’t say

The English language evolves wherever it exists. New words are coined, old words are ignored or take on new meanings, fads and fashions come and go, taking their slang with them—all that and more. But sometimes words cans shift within a culture because of the influence of another culture. I’ve seen that happen here in New Zealand over the past two decades.

Most of the change I’ve seen has been predictable: The ordinary rise and fall of words as fashions change. For example, when I first arrived in 1995, many Kiwis used the word “heaps” to mean “a lot”, as in, “I saw heaps of stars last night”. Use of that word has become rarer over time, but it’s still around. Less so the phrase “shout out” to mean special greeting, as in, “I’d like to give a shout out to all the mums visiting from Palmerston North” or whatever. That phrase was already largely gone by the time Americans started using it.

But a lot of the change to New Zealand English has gone the other way: Americanisms replace Kiwi words and phrases. Critics often call this “creeping Americanisation”, and it’s used to criticise everything from American slang, the attempts to impose Halloween on Kiwis, and what is perceived as US-style politics. The list is seemingly endless.

I have two examples. The first was a more recent one: Talk radio replacing the Kiwi talkback radio. I actually only noticed this a couple weeks ago in a piece in a NZ newspaper about online commentary I shared on Facebook. I don’t listen to that sort of radio, so I don’t read about it, either, and that means that I didn’t really have any reason to notice the shift.

When I shared the article on Facebook, I commented on that shift, and wondered whether the change happened “before or after the common Kiwi words 'toilet' and even 'loo' were replaced with the banal American word 'bathroom'". This is the other main change I’ve noticed over the past year or two.

When I first started work in New Zealand and my workmates would say something like “Be right back. Just going to the toilet”, my American ears were surprised. I quickly learned that the word was common, and so was the more delicate (to American ears) British word loo. But nowadays, I often hear radio and TV presenters refer to “the bathroom” when they mean the toilet (as in “public bathroom”, as well as the phrase I first heard more than 20 years ago). But the use of the banal “bathroom” is most common, I think, among younger New Zealanders. Critics would argue that they’re immersed in American culture, from movies and TV shows to music to YouTube videos, but, apart from that last one, that’s been true for decades. What’s so different now? I don’t have an answer to that—maybe it simply has to do with speech that’s acceptable within their peer groups. If so, that would make it similar to a fad, and it might go away, much as the Kiwi slang I encountered when I arrived here has faded.

Whether Kiwi-isms prevail or not isn’t something that anyone can guess. If I were to bet, however, I’d be inclined to wager on the side of “bathroom” taking root here because it’s constantly reinforced in NZ popular media. The “talk radio” v. “talkback radio” thing, however, is probably one that nobody much cares about.

But for me, the worst part of this shifting of language is that I’ve become so used to the adoption of Americanisms that I don’t even remember that the words used to be different. I can sometimes notice it if I read something published before the shift and see the old word or phrase, a bit like reading a novel from the past and noticing all the odd phrases or slang—except in this case it’s noticing what used to be not so very long ago.

It’s worth noting that sometimes Americans’ adopt of words or phrases that originated in this part of the world, like the phrase, “at the end of the day” (which was popularised by NZ rugby commentary and is still commonly used here). There have actually been many times when a friend has made a comment on Facebook and I have to stop and think where I first heard the particular word or phrase they’re using (because at first I think it’s Kiwi).

I don’t think most New Zealanders ever think about this sort of stuff. Americans don’t, either (unless it’s to complain about Spanish words entering common use…). I think the fact that I notice at all is probably because I’m an immigrant and it’s words and phrases from my homeland I see being adopted. So, I may have a sensitivity to change that someone born here just wouldn’t normally have.

The one thing we know for certain is that the English language evolves wherever it exists, in New Zealand, in the USA, everywhere. Occasional petty annoyances with some adoptions aside, I think this is a really good thing, overall. It keeps the language alive and fresh and always moving toward the future. I do wonder, though, if we’ll still understand each other when we get there.

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