July 13, 2011

English English

A quick post on a subject of no genuine importance yet great cultural concern!

The English I speak and write is...well, English.  As opposed to American or Indian.  I do use Americanisms frequently, and occasionally switch from one dialect (is that the correct term?) to another.  But in general, my default English is of the English variety.

One thing every English-speaker will have noticed is how much variety there is within this language.  Many will also note how protective some groups or nationalities are of their language - be it English, Arabic, or any other.  So this article on the BBC website entertained me greatly.

From an English English perspective, I have wondered at the ignorant use of baseball terminology myself.  Not that I have anything against baseball beyond its inherent inelegance and crushing dullness.  But it is displacing gradually the proud tradition of cricket metaphors in English, such as "by close of play", "playing a straight bat" or "bowled him a googly" (the latter of course now replaced directly by "threw him a curve-ball").  I use both kinds, but I would hate to see the latter disappear.  At least Indians know their cricket, bless them.

Another difference is in pronunciation.  Ever since the Gulf War of 1990-1, English people have been pronouncing the word "patriot" in the American way, because of the American missile defence system with which the public became familiar at that time.  In the British pronunciation, "pat" rhymes with "fat",  In the American, "pat" rhymes with "fate" i.e. "pate-ree-ott".  It's been irritating me for twenty years so far, just because it doesn't seem to fit with English pronunciation in general.  The first time I heard an English newsreader use the American pronunciation in a context away from missile systems, I almost choked.  That one is well on the way to becoming standard.

But the emphasis of words is different too.  The Australian habit of a rising tone at the end of a sentence even when it is not a question, has invaded English English via afternoon sitcoms since the eighties (the "idiot interrogative" as I once heard it described by comic Rory McGrath, I think - he should get a knighthood for that).  But even more pervasive is the subtle change in emphasis:  For instance, "GArage" as used to be the English English, is now becoming "gaRAGE".  And for decades, the English have been saying "ICE cream" rather than the English "ice CREAM".

In fact, in English English people used to say "iceD CREAM", but the "d" has been dropped, as is popular in America.  Simplifying such words seems to be something of an obsession.  Iced tea is now "ice tea" (check your Lipton can - a British/Dutch company too!), which if you think about it, is as illogical as it is ugly.  One simply cannot make tea from ice.  Only make tea, and then ice it afterwards.  At which point, it has been iced, surely?  Although I'm told that "iced" now means "murdered".

Anyway, as Mr Engel's article concludes, the incomparable promiscuity of English is a large part of its success.  English has adopted words from Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and a hundred others and that's without even looking at European languages.  It seems that now English is being passed back into English.  And there is no point in worrying about it.  There are so many dialects of English now, both official and unofficial, that the pretence of any "original" or "standard" English is long destroyed.  Here in Oman, apart from English, American, Canadian and the all-pervasive Indian English, there is a local dialect too.  I maintain that it's simply wrong, but I am swimming against the tide:

- "out" instead of "outside" e.g."are you out?" meaning "are you waiting for me outside?" rather than the traditional meaning of "are you not at home at the moment?".


- "down" instead of "downstairs" e.g. "i am down" meaning "i am on the ground floor" rather than our metaphorical standard "I am feeling depressed" (is that American or English by the way?)


- "sleep" instead of "go to sleep" e.g. "did you sleep?" meaning "have you gone to sleep?"; the continuous meaning having been lost.

and my pet hate:

- A land.  Not in the sense of a country (e.g. "a foreign land").  Here, the indefinite article is added regardless, e.g. "I have bought a land close to the beach".  Which should be, correctly "some land", or "a piece of land", or best of all "a plot of land".

To an instinctive pedant like me, bad English is annoying and I do my best to fight it at every quarter.  And let's not even mention that in general, Omanis (if you'll pardon the Americanism), can't spell for shit.  At the same time, I can't help but notice that Arabic is absorbing English at an astonishing rate.  That doesnt' irritate me so much as it seems to be used more consciously, and people know that it is technical or colloquial rather than real Arabic.  Apart from the obvious "internet" etc., there are some real beauties coming through: recently a good friend of mine was very tired and described himself as "metkansel".  To non Arabic-speakers, this is a reflexive verbal noun derived from the English "cancel" and therefore meaning "self-cancelled".  What's more the meaning of "cancel" to which it refers is actually "written off" in English English e.g. "I crashed my car and it's totally cancelled".  So a new colloquial Arabic word come into being that is grammatically Arabic but based on an Omani dialectic usage of an English word.  Brilliant.

Not everyone thinks so.  In this globalised linguistic minestrone, by clinging in desperate futility to an impossible purity of the language, the French are gradually strangling theirs to death.  English is growing, French is shrinking.  And they can pass all the laws they like, but "le weekend" is in French to stay.  I think the rate of change and growth in modern English is unprecedented.  Sometimes it's annoying.  I'm told that split infinitives are now officially allowed (as opposed to allowed officially), depriving the obnoxiously grammatical of a stick with which to beat others.  I do resent that a little.  But language is a living, breathing thing that evolves and changes constantly.  There is no point in fighting it.  At least not for too long.

English and every other language will grow, shrink, import, export and most of all, change relentlessly (I simple will not say "relentlessly change"!).  There is no way back.  Today's bad English will become tomorrow's standard.  I think they now call that "pwnage".


Slim said...

Nice post (note the English expression 'nice' being used here!).

I'm a Brit and I have worked for American corporates most of my career. I tend to mix my pronunciation (schedule being a good example), but I do try to keep my spelling correct depending on the audience (work vs personal correspondence).

Two Americanisms which I find the most irritating are
- "My bad" Grr, your bad what?
- "I've been on a training" a training what?

In recent months I have been working with Japanese people, visiting Tokyo and generally learning to communicate without using expressions so they understand me. Not too hard to do. The Americans warned me about this 'challenge' and then they go ahead and use all kinds of synergy leveraging US corporate babble and many expressions without even realising!

Otherwise I find the English language such fun :-)

The Linoleum Surfer said...

"My bad" I actually didn't understand for a long time; I heard a non-native speaker say it and just thought it was a mistake. "Schedule" is another one where the English are being Americanised ("Sked" instead of "Shed").

"A training"? Americans say that? No wonder Omanis get confused...

This one really could go on for a long time....!

Tony Walsh said...

When was English actually English?
During the period of
Harold Godwinson, Chaucer, Shakespeare, King James Stuart, Edward of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Elizabeth Windsor ?

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Quite. I can only remember as far back as Barbara Windsor.

I'm told that American English is closer grammatically to what English English was a few hundred years ago, than modern English English. American accents have some English origin too as I understand it - a lot of it linked to the South West region of England from where many early immigrants came.

It's a good game though, isn't it?

Neil Roberts said...

Interesting post...

English is organic and will continue to develop and mutate ... as will most languages in this global world of ours.

Ciao :-)

♡ αmαℓ said...

Eh, I don't really think it's that big of a deal. Shakespeare probably would say the same thing about English now compared to how it was in his time. Every generation has a habit of thinking things are getting worse in areas such a music, language, movies, etc. Such is life...

Tony Walsh said...

certainly far better to change and be inclusive than to become a relic or fossil language and exclusive

Boxie said...

You Sr. Linoleum Surfer have gotten me to repeat your examples, all in the vain curiosity to see how my English is pronounced. Some fall into the English category, but a vast majority has an Americana influence, this sadly must be remedied. Though more then a few of your examples have resulted in neither, as I'm canadian. I grew up around Toronto (think of a wonderful place full of scurrying businessmen and "independent businessmen" on their way to do something that will undoubtedly and land them in hot water with the tax man.) then I moved to BC (Picture a vast forest and a mountain range full of old people, hippies (some who fled subscription in the states) and marijuana or commonly known as BC bud) and found people had a slightly different way of speaking. I will chuck this up to people being high and watching Monty Python on repeat. I found the slight changes vary irritating as I was being told I spoke like an American and was not English enough. God the horrors I would encounter if I had been a Newfie. When you gave the example of "I have bought a land close to the beach" I dropped the "a" altogether. I fully enjoyed your post, and as a person that spelling fanatics chase with a stick, I have let my computer spell check everything (lol) so they will only have to jog. Keep up they good work.

An independent businessmen is a person that belongs to a friendly organization that is able to find things that have fallen off the back of trucks. like a hole shipment of flat screen tvs.

The fastest way to bug a Canadian is to refer to them as an American. We have a separate culture though we cant agree on what (as Canada is really like little countries working together ... Quebec is the 16 year old kid that hates spending time with the family and wants to leave constantly) it is.

A Newfie is someone who is from Newfoundland. The right way to say the name of this Provence is New-Found-Land, though I personally butcher it in an except able manner. Ne-finD-land.

For a better understanding of Canadians I recommend a wonderful book by the author Will Ferguson called "Why I Hate Canadians".

Anonymous said...

From yesterday's BBC news blogs:


Anonymous said...

I am sorry to say, but the examples you cited do not cut the mustard, and are giving American (English) a bad rap. Most of the examples you cited are quasi Americanisms used by non-native English language speakers who speak neither English nor American very well - a result of Teachers being certified to teach a language that they do not master, and day to day exposure to movies (film for the Brits??) using the spoken word in the streets (from leafy suburbs to the gritty back alleys, depending on the movie's theme). As for your regrets at cricket aphorisms being substituted with baseball ones, my guess is that most people are unfamiliar with either Baseball or Cricket, and learn the meaning of one or the other from people who might or might not know it correctly (like myself).
When I first learned English, I took pains to read a lot, trying to find Magazines and Newspapers that were known for having rigorous editing. That was easier then than now. Now we have a global culture, where expressions flow much more freely, where Arab, Indian, Chinese, Rumanian speaking immigrants to America bring along their culture, and are connected much faster to others through social media. Never mind that a form of English is used in many non-English speaking countries as the lingua franca and evolves freely.
It is up to us, when faced with written communications, to edit reports, letters and other written drivel to turn it back, assist the writers in editing and improving. Or we can do what happens all the time, be nice and go along, not wanting to "offend", and heap praise on the drivel landing on our desks with the results we see and hear every day.
I personally find that new ways of using the language enrich it. What makes English so attractive to many is that you can communicate relatively quickly. The 50 page report in English takes 80 pages in French to say the same thing with less clarity. English is a living language - more power to it. I would hate to have to speak Latin . . .

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I suspect there are one or two examples above of how heavy drinking might affect English usage...

Thanks all :)

xanthippe said...

My personal favorite "Omanism": referring to all white people as 'European' - which, as an American, I admit I always found rather flattering!

Omani Princess (not Omani LOL) said...

Boxie: Victorians would find your BC comment offensive, you know they still (the older generation anyways, or anyone who grew up without TV), speak English-English. How many a Brit has though us OPNOs from there were from Kent, or landed gentry from Scotland, or the very least, South Africans of old family repute lol;)?


But then U.K friends always say Victorians are more English than the English sooooooo;)

Boxie said...

Not all Victorians lol, I know of some old grannies with a few plants that would make most stoners gawk in aw. Terns out you can grow them (like upto 2 or so) as a garden plant if you do not pic them. Explains a bunch of things now, I was always like "how the heck have they not been arrested?".
Oh you bring the socks with sandals here eh? I will have to prove you wrong with pics :P , though most of the socks and sandals people have moved onto toe shoes these last few months.

LOl hahaha

Omani Princess (not Omani LOL) said...

I am talking about TRUE Victorians, not just the people that migrated there for the weather;p

Like the 3rd-5th generation ones.