Learning about American English from Alistair Cooke

By Ray Bennett

The BBC has made more than 900 of Alistair Cooke’s radio reports, Letter From America, available online and I am reminded of the one time I got to talk to him.

Cooke was one of my heroes in journalism and I listened to his impeccable weekly BBC broadcasts from a very young age. Not only did I learn from him more about the US and the world than from just about anywhere else, but his work also demonstrated what it is to be a good reporter.

My chance to interview him came in 1978 as I prepared a cover story for TV Guide Canada on the dire state of the English language as it was broadcast. The headline was “English in ashes” and I spoke to people in Toronto and England, where I learned about the BBC’s Advisory Committee on Spoken English, which functioned from the mid-1920s to the late ‘30s. 

I discovered that Cooke had served on the committee in the mid-1930s and he agreed to talk about it. He told me that he had developed an interest in linguistics while on a post-graduate Commonwealth Fellowship to the United States from 1932 to 1934. At Cambridge, he had taught in the English school, edited the literary magazine Granta, and set up the Mummers theatrical troupe. In the US, he went first to the Yale School of Drama but left after the first year. He said, “It didn’t work out very well because I would have to sit with a class and hear how to spell Sophocles. I felt the time was going so I switched to Harvard.”

There, he had a fine old time directing the Harvard Theatre Club and the Hasty Pudding, and he formed his own group. But even Cambridge graduate students were expected to sign up for something on an academic basis, so he joined the class of Prof. Miles Hanley from the University of Wisconsin.

Cooke said, “He was the American Henry Higgins. He could spot influences in people’s speech; he was absolutely uncanny. His course wasn’t literary at all; it was linguistics. It was about the kinds of languages taken across the Atlantic and how they were modified. I was fascinated.”

So fascinated, that just before he returned to England to become the BBC’s film critic, Cooke broadcast from the US a sketch history of English and what had happened to it in America. H. L. Mencken said it was the finest 3,000-word summary on the topic but it created quite a stir in the UK. As a result, he was invited to join the Committee by then chairman, linguistics professor Arthur Lloyd James. It was a move of no small import, Cooke said, “This was a sign that the British had decided American was here to stay. To most English people then, American was a bastard form and not to be noted under any respectable circumstances.”

A terrific BBC reporter named Paul Ferris had researched the committee and he provided excellent background for my story. Poet Laureate Robert Bridges was Chairman when the Advisory Committee held its inaugural meeting on July 5, 1926 (it was disbanded in 1939 along with other advisory bodies). Ferris reported that it was founded because BBC Head Lord Reith, who was then simply J. C. W. Reith, wanted the Beeb to be identified as a patron of culture and learning. Its members, all men of letters, began immediately to disagree.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw became Chairman in 1930 after Bridges died, and as the committee began to grow so did the dissent. Oxford English Dictionary Co-Editor Dr. T.C. Onions was upset over a decision to pronounce “Edwardian” so as to rhyme with “guardian”. In a letter Ferris unearthed, he wrote: “Had I, as an Old Edwardian, been present at the meeting, I could have informed the committee that we make it rhyme with ‘Gordian’.”

Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Director Kenneth Barnes fretted over whether it should be “cue-cumber” or “cucumber”. Zoological Society Secretary Julian Huxley argued that to omit the “uh” sound between “zoo” and “logical” made a travesty of the word. Writer Rose Macauley insisted that the pronunciation of “sausage” should be debated but Ferris said she later sent a postcard to say simply: “I withdraw sausage”.

Cooke joined the illustrious circle and, as he said, kept his trap shut until it was required to point out such things as that in the US the military rank is “lootenant” and never “leftenant” or “lewtenant”. He said, “Shaw was very interested in this and thought it was absolutely right. I recall one tremendous to-do that provoked more passion than a summit meeting was the question of how to pronounce the London street name Conduit Street. The received standard – which used to be called Oxford, Cambridge and the Church, that is to say, the upper crust – was ‘Kun-dit’. But should it be ‘Kon-dit’ or ‘Kun-dew-it’? To lighten things, I suggested that a New Englander would assume it was an Indian name and say it was ‘Kon-do-it’. It was not well-received.”

Cooke recalled much discussion over pronunciations familiar to older British generations that were being lost such as “forrid” for “forehead” and “weskit” for “wastecoat” in favour of what he said his old headmaster used to call “lady’s maid” English where every syllable is pronounced as it’s printed.

The biggest argument Cooke heard before he returned to the United States in 1937 was over the the word “canine” and whether it should be pronounced “can-ine”, as it usually was in England, or “cay-nine” as it was in the US.

Cooke said: “Shaw always took a vote when there was disagreement, but as a typical Shavian democrat, he was a democrat only as long as he could run things. So, he called for a vote on ‘canine’. If there were 13 people there, I’m sure the vote was 12-1 for ‘can-ine’. Shaw said, ‘No, no, no. It’s ‘cay-nine’!’

“Well, then they exploded. On linguistics questions, people either say they’ve never heard it in their life or they’ve never heard anything else. I believe they put down ‘can-ine’ with ‘cay-nine’ noted as an alternative. But they asked Shaw why he was so insistent. He said he believed in using the regular pronunciations of people who use a word all the time. He said nobody used ‘canine’ unless he was a dog breeder but his dentist used it every day of his life, and he said ‘cay-nine’.

“At this point, one of the Committee members, Logan Pearsall Smith, the Philadelphian essayist who was a raging Anglophile, said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Shaw, you must have an American dentist!’

“Shaw stared at him and said, “Well of course! Why do think I still have my teeth?”

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