Tip-toeing around a subject, doing one’s best to avoid causing offence, and taking a little longer than necessary to get to the point are all quintessentially British conversational habits.
But these are now becoming relics of the past, according to a major piece of research which identifies the “drastic erosion” of certain English words such as “quite”, “rather” and “fairly”.
The study, which analyses language trends over the course of the twentieth century, found that there has been a steep decline in “gradable adverbs”, a grammatical category of words that can be used to reduce the force of a phrase.
Gradable adverbs can also be used to add emphasis, so words such as “frightfully”, “awfully” and “terribly” are dwindling as well.
Instead, Britons are becoming increasingly economical and direct in their use of language, imitating the American way of speaking.
Professor Paul Baker, an expert in linguistics from Lancaster University who carried out the study, said: “Americans want to get to the point and say what they mean, whereas British people want to avoid conflict so use downtoners like ‘quites’ and ‘rathers’.
“We are more cautious and apologetic, but it can also come across as long winded and means we take a bit longer to get to the point.
“My academic head tells me that it is an interesting change. But with a British person’s head, I think it is a bit of a shame as it is a mark of identity.”
He said that a possible reason for the decline of gradable adverbs is that they are now seen as a middle or an upper-class way of speaking.
“There is an awareness of that…people don’t want to be associated with the upper classes, so they level out their language,” he said.
Prof. Baker said that classic films such as Brief Encounter are “absolutely packed” with gradable adverbs. The decline of gradable adverb is most pronounced between the early 1930s and 1960s, and then levels off up to 1990s before entering a further period of steep decline from 1990s up to the present day.
Prof Baker examined trends in British and American English by compiling huge bodies of published writing and using a mixture of human analysis and computer software to spot changes in spelling, grammar and styles over time.
The published writing that he used were taken from a range of sources including newspapers, magazine, works of fiction, academic journals, government documents and reports by retailers such as Marks and Spencer.
He said he was not examining the most cutting edge changes in language, adding: “You’d need to go to a playground in Hackney and see what teenagers are saying”.
Instead his research centres on language trends that have firmly entered the mainstream and are being used by “fuddy duddy middle-class people”.
He found that American English is at the forefront of changes, with British English around 30 years behind. The decline is gradable adverbs is just one aspect of a broader trend which Britons have imported from the US which is speaking in a more direct, compact way.
It includes using shorter sentences and words, combining words with apostrophes – ‘do not’ becomes ‘don’t’, and using more acronyms. Shorter possessive forms are now more common, for example we would now say ‘the king’s hand’ rather than the ‘hand of the king’.
The research is published in a book titled American and British English: Divided by A Common Language, published by Cambridge University Press.