Fall and Autumn – Which Is the More ‘Cultured’ Way To Say It?

January 23, 2009

A discussion with my wife this morning about the use of “proper” language conventions (yes, I know what that sounds like, spare me) led to me to try to put together a brief post on the subject. I’ll write on this at greater length some other time when I can do it, because it’s important. The whole thing started with Steven Pinker’s (Harvard psychology professor) NY Times column on – of course! – the oath-of-office flub, and how Roberts could have unconsciously been rewriting the Constitution to fit with his ideas of “proper” grammar and syntax (I’ll write on that later, too).

Anyway, it got me thinking about one example in particular. Here in America, to refer to the season between summer and winter, most Americans use the term “fall.” In Britain, the preferred term is “autumn.” Without a doubt, on both sides of the Atlantic, “autumn” is seen as more proper, formal, and literary. Most Britons and Americans would also guess that “autumn” is the older, “real” English word, while “fall” is an American bastardization (this fits with the common notion that British people speak the “original” version of the English language, and Americans speak an adapted form of it – in fact, a sort of dumbed-down version of it). Not to exaggerate, “fall” appears to be a more literal, easier, more obvious way to describe the season: the leaves FALL off of the trees. No higher thinking necessary. Americans are more simple-minded and therefore need to describe the season in such an in-your-face and literal-minded way. Soon we’ll be calling winter “snow.” And, of course, this all fits in with the stereotype that Americans are simpler, more ignorant, less cultured people than the British in general. We have a young country and therefore not-fully-developed minds. We have no serious respect for language tradition and therefore adopt Tarzanesque words like “fall.”

This all sounds extremely facetious, of course, but I don’t think it’s actually that much of an exaggeration of what goes on unconsciously with English speakers, regardless of where they are from. Some Americans may be resentful of this, some may become Europhiles who freely drool over any British accent, but they all share the above unconscious beliefs, even if may never articulate them quite that way.

Of course, it’s ALL ENTIRELY WRONG.

Before the 15th century, English speakers said “harvest” for the season between summer and winter. This makes intuitive sense – most English speakers were rural and worked directly in agriculture. During the 16th century, however, enormous social changes were under way in Britain, and rural people began to migrate into Medieval towns. This social change led to a linguistic change – new words were adopted to describe the season called “harvest.” Two words – both “autumn” and “fall” – entered the language during the 16th century. They have separate origins. “Autumn” is borrowed from the romance languages (the Latin is “autumnus”). “Fall” comes from the Germanic languages (the Old English “fiaell” and the Old Norse “fall”). English has roots in both, and it is not uncommon for words to be borrowed from either. In the 16th and even into the 17th century, both fall and autumn were roughly equally used. The connotations we attach to them today did not exist – one was not considered more cultured or more sophisticated than the other (Latin worship – for lack of a better term – which would become important later, was not yet as solidified in the culture).
English colonization of the New World began at the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries, just as “fall” and “autumn” were both in roughly equal use. You can see where this is going. In North America, autumn fell out of favor and fall became the dominant name for the season (although both remain in common usage). In Britain, the opposite happened. “Fall” fell out of favor. In fact, “autumn” became more or less exclusive in Britain, while “fall” never achieved exclusivity in North America, as “autumn” is commonly used.

There really is no explanation for why this occurred. English went through unusually rapid changes in the 17th century both in America and in Britain. And, of course, change, while slower, persisted up until today (that’s simply what languages do). Change occurs both because of environmental factors and simple randomness. It is only to be expected that in the US and Britain, separated by an ocean, those changes would take place differently (and would be different across regions in both countries). For no particular reason we know of, “fall” fell out of use in Britain, while “autumn” was reduced in use in America but nonetheless remained common.

More explicable are the connotations the words carry today. “Fall” is seen as less sophisticated not because of any innate characteristic of the word but because of the way Americans are perceived vis-a-vis Europeans. There is no reason to believe that if the opposite occurred, and fall remained the common term in Britain while autumn predominated in the US, that the connotations wouldn’t simply be reversed, and fall would be seen as the more cultured and sophisticated term (perhaps elegant in its simplicity? perhaps more “consonant” or “musical”?).

The bottom line, however, is this: we perceive words and language structures and carrying innate meaning. This, though, is not true. We assign connotations to words and structures based on social prejudices. Words and structures, accents and languages, are not, CANNOT, be better, more musical, more sophisticated, more cultured, smarter, more attractive, more righteous, than one another.

And to rationalize the prejudices that we assign to words we construct false narratives, in this case mythological etymologies (“fall” is babytalk taken from the the act of falling leaves, while “autumn” captures the grandeur of history and tradition; “autumn” is ancient, “fall” is a recent invention). The differences in the way we perceive the words “fall” and “autumn” explains nothing about anything inherent to the language. It only explains the way Britons and Americans view one another. The fact that Americans tend to reserve “autumn” for more formal speech says a great deal about the way Americans tend to view Europe in general. The way Britons are quick to assume that “fall” is a bastardization of an ancient language says volumes about the way they see themselves in relation to the “New World” (or would like to see themselves).

So much can be learned about our culture by examining these hidden symbols and underlying assumptions in the way we use language. And these things have real effects in everyday life (would you rather a lawyer who said “autumn” or “fall”? would you prefer a brain surgeon with an accent from London or an accent from Alabama? would Barack Obama have been elected if he had speech patterns more like the average African-American resident of the Southside of Chicago?).

Anyway, enough on that for today. More later (so I can go from having a handful to readers to none!).

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