Lively Debate on English


Moved from Messages to People Currently Present in the Library 12/13 June 2003 by Tamsin

(For whatever its worth, new readers to this thread may want to skip down to near the end to read my comments regarding how the modern science of linguistics would view this discussion, before starting in on the ungrounded vitriol and cheeky nationalist humour that follows. Or they may not care, in which case read on. -adamzero)

ChessWhiz: The page AttackAndDefence is spelled wrong... Defense has an S, not a C. Somebody please fix it and all links to it -- I'm too lazy to do it right now! :-)

Scartol: Like 'colour,' defence is one of those words with multiple textbook-acceptable spellings. Most often, it's an England/US split, with English folks using "defence" and Americans using "defense". The English also pronounce things weird, and they make up words. (Pram? pedwalk? what the heck?)

Those are jokes at the end there.

Andrew W: Hey, it's not our fault Americans can't spell. :-) (Centre, colour, defence, and manoeuvre, not center, color, defense, and maneuver. Also, it's a pavement - though at least the American band got that right.

Yes, this is also just a mite sarcastic. Pavement were good though! (Incidentally, "pram" comes from "perambulator", and you push infants around in one. Also, it's normally referred to as British English - I speak British English, but I'm from Edinburgh, which last I checked wasn't in England...))

Benjamin Geiger: Since AttackAndDefense and AttackAndDefence are so similarly-named, and presumably confusable, I went ahead and added links from each to the other.

ChessWhiz: Wow, this is messier than I thought. We have an English spelling for the general term, and an American spelling for the book... yikes! It's going to be hard to fix, though. :-P

Tamsin Indeed, particularly when you discover that here in the UK the book is also spelled Attack and Defence.

WARNING! Beginning of rant.

I would like to comment here that I feel quite sensitive (alright then, somewhat chauvinistic) about issues of this kind. "English" is the language of England, and so IMHO the final authority on spelling and usage should remain with the English. That said, some of our spellings are based on faulty logic and etymologies, but - by George! - they're the ones that have been canonised through usage by English and British academics and writers. Still, it is largely thanks to the Americans that English has acquired its present value as a lingua franca, so I shouldn't be surprised to see American usages and spellings become more and more widespread. Just don't expect me to be happy about it!

End of rant. :-)

Charles I'll just comment that I (British) leave alternate US spellings as they are on SL (while I make copy-edits of a number of other kinds).

Hu: As someone who has used both spellings in my life, my advice is "get over it". Both are used here and both are readable. Differences such as "colour"/"color", "grey"/"gray" are quite minor in the larger scheme of things. Greater differences such as "lorry" versus "truck" are less likely to appear and should be avoided where possible, except of course in personal pages or personali(s/z)ed pages (ex blogs and rants). If you do see a word or phrase you find questionable or hard to understand, mark it with a WDYM flag. Those worrying about the common language that separates folk on one side or the other of the pond should bear in mind the greater and more frequent accomodations that many readers of SL have to make who have a language other than (Bri'ish / Scots / 'Murrican / Canajan / Strine) English as their mother tongue.

Tamsin Quite right, Hu. Of course differences such as the ones cited above do not affect intelligibility one iota and are therefore not important in the larger scheme of things, as you said. But two things do make me see red (WARNING: Secondary Rant coming up).

1) Americans and other non-English criticising British-English spellings. (Sorry guys, but it is our language ultimately and so at the last analysis our usage is the most authentic and the most proper.)

2) People calling the language "American". That really makes me want to commit violence! :-) Given 1000 years in isolation, and the American dialect of English may evolve into a language unintelligible to British people, but at the moment even a 17th-century Englishman would be able to follow most of what you say and write (perhaps even understand it better than a modern-day one given the fact that some US dialects derive from 17th-century British dialects brought over by settlers). There is no such language as "American". Yours is a great nation, but English is one thing you cannot claim sovereignty over and it never will be.

Sorry if anybody doesn't like what I have written above. But I do feel very passionately indeed about this issue. We used to have the largest empire the world had ever seen, and now all we're left with is our language, while other countries dominate the world politically and economically. You have to excuse me clinging to that little piece of nationalistic pride :-)


ChadMiller: Sorry, Tamsin, you can't have it both ways. Either [ext] American is a distinct language that is judged by and subordinate to American thought or "English" is a common language that may be criticiZed by Americans because it's their tool too. Ancestory doesn't mean very much when it comes to language.

I also claim that American is perhaps better than English when it comes to integrating new words from other languages without also assuming the source language's spellings. Centre? Defence? Manoeuvre? I ask you, where's your Saxon pride when you won't fix the French-isms?!

Even with a cultural hegemony and instant worldwide communication (Internet anyone?), American's language is slowly diverging from the language from Britian of 250 years ago. (Then again, so is modern English.) Anyway, don't take it personally. Our descendants will be speaking Spanish or Mandarin or Cantonese in another 500 years anyway.

Benjamin Geiger: Well, since I grew up in the American South (Georgia), and currently live near a large metropolitan area (Orlando, FL), I -- by necessity -- speak something of an American/Southern/Ebonics pidgin. "Hey! Ain't y'all wearing ghetto colors? Y'all better step back 'fore I bust a cap, knowhutImean?"

By the way, I'm white, and yes, I do say "y'all" on a regular basis.

Tamsin Well you've got a point there Benjamin. As it happens, though, I think I understood what that phrase means ("I say you scoundrels, you are not obeying the dress code for this establishment. I request that you retire forthwith otherwise the regrettable consequence will be that I shall lose my temper. Have I made myself clear?"), but I could well be wrong...

But I'm pretty sure that American English is a long, long way from being a new language rather than a dialect...I had no trouble understanding people on my trip to the States earlier this year. And just in case anybody thought I was anti-American, I can say that I had a thoroughly brilliant time and can't wait to see the good 'ol US of A again!

Scartol: Beware of counter-rant..

Well, I don't think you're anti-American, but I do think that considering English as belonging to Britain is silly. English is one of the most mutt-like languages on the planet, with its main roots being equal parts Germanic and Latin. However, a great many of our words also come from African, Sioux, Cherokee, and Arabic languages (to name but a few).

Insofar as the language itself is such a Frankenstein creation, how can one claim sovreignty over either the British or American version as the "real" thing? (This also shows much of lie of "one language" ideologies in the US.) Yes, language is a key factor in culture (and therefore has much to do with identity), but we should also recognize that most languages derive from other languages, and that should lead us more toward the "small world" point of view, rather than the "purity / we own it" approach.

As for longing for the "good old days" of Rule Brittania, all I can say is: ask an Indian or South African or indigenous Australian about how great that was (and of course, we can ask the East Timorese and El Salvadorans about the glory of the American empire). If you want to brag about the supremacy of English culture, never mind about the spelling of defence; you've got Shakespeare, for crying out loud!

Tamsin Some good points, Scartol. Please bear in mind that some of my comments were a little tongue-in-cheek. Yes, as one who can also understand German and Latin I am well aware that English owes much to many older languages, and that it has picked up countless loanwords from many contemporary languages and neologisms from outside England. But that does not alter the fact that English is a discrete language, whose primary historical determining force remains the English people. That is, when a new word enters the language, it is then made to obey the existing syntax of the language - the grammar and style that originated in England. Moreover, while it is true that there are only a few hundred distinctively "English" words in the English lexicon, it also holds that these happen to be by far the most common words that are used -- all dialects of English share this core vocabulary, and this (plus structural consistency) make it possible for English-speakers to be mutually comprehensible. Take Japanese for comparison: that too as taken thousands of Chinese words into itself as loanwords, and has more recently adopted hundreds of English ones. Nevertheless, the language remains distinctively "Japanese" because these new additions to the language are accommodated to the existing rules of Japanese grammar and pronunciation, and because authentically Japanese words are employed to link them together intelligbly.

So, to summarise, although new words might appear every year, the underlying structure and core vocabulary of a language changes at a much slower rate. Perhaps, just perhaps, the time will come when a new language evolves from English. Maybe that language will be "American", maybe not. Really I was only trying to make the points that since "English" as a recognisable entity is originally the language of England, then English views over it ought to be accorded the most authority, and that I absolutely hate people referring to the language as "American" (as sometimes happens). (As for the British Empire, well, as one German memorably said, "The sun never sets on the British Empire because God would never trust an Englishman in the dark". Whether the Empire was more bad than good who can tell? But this is a go wiki...)

Dieter: I chuckled when I read Tamsin's part about the British empire. Really an invitation to knock the ball in - and while I am at the football analogy, why not start a rant over the true meaning of "football" ? As a reluctant non-native speaker, I'd say: please, please me and lock English into Great Britain so that the little Dutch dams finally get a chance of holding the flood.

Jan: I'll just chip in my two eurocents here... As much as I am a student of all things American, the language I was taught in high school (you know, like, just before university) was British English. I cheer up at the sight of 'color' spelled 'colour' - it just seems just more natural to me. Most of my reading materials are American English though. Maybe I'm bilingual as far as you can be bilingual in a single foreign language.

To return slightly on-topic, a lot of SL deshis are from neither America nor the United Kingdom (or Australia, Canada, New Zealand for that matter) so maybe it's not a real issue (read: we could care nothing less :-). If we are to have language wars, let them be over hane versus bend please! JF's postings show there is something go-related to be learned there...

Oh and Dieter, our dams are bigger than yours!!

Dieter: Oh well, some dams are bigger than others ...

Jan: Like Seigen said to Minoru :-) A Smiths fan as well? (or have I completely misinterpreted you?)

Dieter: You just haven't understood it yet, baby !

Hu: Language is a language does. Beware of becoming an entity like L'Academie Francaise. Their railing against creeping Anglicisms is like Xerxes trying to whip the sea to be still. Further, the owners of a language are the users of the language. The role of the English in synthesizing the world's largest and most inclusive language from many sources will never be forgotten, much as the Romans have never been forgotten with regard to Latin. Rest easy.

2003 June 10

Jan: I went to Tokyo and I, I booked myself in at the Nihon-Kiin, I said "I like it here, can I stay and do you have a vacancy for a Go player?"

Jan: What difference does it make - it's only yose :-) I'll shut up about the Smiths after this! Really! Let's break out those Talking Heads CDs... Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

DJ: May I venture to advise y'all to read a very good book by Bill Bryson: "Mother Tongue"? Bryson is an American who has lived in England for some 14 years, and the book is about differences and analogies of the British and American English, complete with funny anecdotes, ethimology and what ever. BTW, do you know why a famous area in London is called Elephant & Castle? The book explains this and other weird pub names...
Ah, and speaking about empires, do not forget that once we Romans ruled most of the known world... including England (alas, not Scotland: Adrian built the Wall not to intermingle with them...)

Tamsin Have indeed read Bryson's book and got a bit annoyed with him for various arguments. May I in turn recommend The English by Jeremy Paxman, which is an interesting examination of what it means to be English, and which includes plenty of discussion about our language.

Now, another matter: while it is in some ways extremely fortuitous for English and other English-speaking people that English has become the new lingua franca it is also a real bane. Since we can get by pretty much anywhere in the world, it means that many of us have lacked the motivation to learn other languages, which can make us arrogant and seem thickheaded abroad (we expect other people to learn our language but don't bother with their languages). It was only as an adult that I started to learn another language (German), and while I've gained a reasonable competence in that, I'm still embarrassed by my lack of polylinguistic fluency whenever I go abroad, in comparison with the people that I meet. Had I been born in Belgium, though, I'd probably have got pretty hot at Dutch, French, German and English before I was 10. Oh well.

(DJ: If what it means to be English, Englishness, Brithood and the like (marmite included) is your field of interest, I'm sure you're familiar with Godfrey Smith's ''The English Companion"... ;-)

Tamsin: I haven't seen that book, actually, but I will look out for it. By the way, "British" and "English" are not the same thing: Britain is an artificial country created by the fairly recent political union of four separate nations, England, Scotland, (Northern) Ireland and Wales. Each of these countries has a distinct and interesting culture and deserves recognition in its own right.

Grauniad: I thought Britain consists only of England, Scotland and Wales, and that the United Kingdom includes these three nations plus Northern Ireland.

SAS: Great Britain means England, Scotland and Wales (or, sometimes, the island which forms their mainland). But Britain is often used to mean the UK (which is probably just as well, otherwise we might have to say UKish or United Kingdomish instead of British).

SiouxDenim Tamsin, at least us Brits get to laugh at the publisher SlateAndShell - something you do to your enemies. It's not funny in American dialects. As the English spoke English first, I think it's only fair we get to call our language English, with other variants being dialects. 'British' English is tautological. We don't put UK on our stamps because we thought of them first, much like Yanks don't put .US on the end of URLs. I couldn't care less about spelling, but I think the way UK examining boards now mark 'Sulphur' and 'Phosphurus as wrong because the US dominated IUPAC has deemed them wrong is cultural imperialism. Also, 'Gotten' is creeping back into English after 300 years. Superfluous then and now.

Hu: "Phosphurus" is wrong, even in "English English". You invoke "cultural imperialism" as a value judgement, forgetting that the British were cultural imperialists of the first water from way back. The implication is that the British did more chemistry or earlier chemistry than anyone else. Probably there is a greater claim that we should use "Schwefel" (German) or "kibrit" (Arabic), if not "Sulfur". Get over it. Language is as language does. The use of "they" as third person singular neutral pronoun is older than the 18th century grammarians who almost successfully outlawed it. Thank goodness it is making a comeback.

On the other hand, I do sympathise and I do fight rearguard actions myself. For example, note the pseudo-erudite people who say "erry-uh-dite". Or the folk who are supposedly people-centric (anti-globalization, almost neo-Luddite, warm-and-fuzzy types) who say things like "the waiter serviced the diner"[2], perhaps because of a slavery-phobia so common in America that the idea of "serving" someone is repugnant. They forget that one "services" machinery such as automobiles, not people. -- Hu.

[2] Bill: Where I come from, a waiter who serviced a diner (customer, not establishment) could be arrested. ;-)

Deebster: Sioux, you didn't mention that the Americans now have to standardise to aluminium. A fair trade I think.

Tamsin: To introduce a new thread in this debate, I would like to point out that many of the words supposedly invented by Americans are simply words that already existed as less-frequently-used alternatives in Standard English (e.g., "trash" was sometimes used for "rubbish" in Elizabethan poetry) or are merely novel combinations of words drawn from, you guessed it, Standard English ("bath-robe" is not an "American" word, as H. L. Mencken dubbed it, but in fact nothing more than two ordinary English words, "bath" and "robe"put together and used as an alternative for "dressing gown"). Furthermore, many words, phrases, and pronunciations that appear to be uniquely "American" turn out to have derived directly from the speech of 16th- and 17th-century English settlers ("gotten", for instance).[1] You might say that it does not matter, but is that really true? Should international conventions on English usage be based on American English or some other regional dialect or should they be based on native English? Should we ignore it when people refer to American English as "American", as though it were a language in its own right? Please don't misunderstand me: the USA, Australia, Scotland, India, South Africa and other English-speaking nations outside of England have indeed contributed many words and have enriched the possibilities of the language, and I would sooner applaud than decry this. Moreover, the language has changed in vocabulary and style over the years, even as spoken in England, under the influence of new dialects made important by politics. Nevertheless, the language remains "English" (it has not altered so much that a present-day Californian and Dr Samuel Johnson could not communicate with each other, with a little effort, were they somehow able to meet up) and I find it mildly offensive when people in an international forum suggest replacing English uses such as "defence" and "colour" with alternative ones, even when the alternative ones are aguably more logical!

Charles Tamsin, I think you'd better just say 'the name of the language is English', stick your thumbs significantly in your braces or waistcoat, declaim 'I rest my case' and sit down. Further advocacy may not gain you anything ...

Tamsin: Hah! You're right, Charles. But I enjoy discussions like these.

SiouxDenim You could always 'table' your thoughts on the US/UK split :)

MarkWirdnam: Hey, Tamsin! Reading all this I couldn't help thinking how much the hamburger has to do with the city of Hamburg...

SiouxDenim Ich bin ein Berliner. Bist do ein Frankfurter? Shall I start a [Lively Debate On German] page?

Hu: Found this gem in Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926, 1965, 1983):

sceptic The established pronunciation is sk-, whatever the spelling; and with the frequent use of septic ... it is well that it should be so for fear of confusion. But to spell sc- and pronounce sk- is to put a needless difficulty in the way of the unlearned. ... America spells sk-; we might pocket our pride and copy.

Tamsin: Hmmm. I've never found "sceptic" to be particularly confusing, myself. In fact, I've never had any difficulty with it all. For us to adopt "skeptic" would simply lead to confusion when new English-speakers eventually and inevitably encounter "sceptic" in older books and papers. For the same reason, I doubted it was very sensible of the German government to declare that the double SS symbol (it looks like a funny kind of "B" but I don't know the ascii code for it) should be replaced by "ss". People would still need to know the old letter anyway in order to be able to read books printed before 1996 (or whenever this decree went out).

Deebster: ß? When did they decide that?

Tamsin: I read about this about 6 or 7 years ago in the newspapers. That said, I have no idea whether they actually implemented this plan or not. I would not be surprised if they had abandoned it for the very reasons given above.

mgoetze: Funnily enough, it has been implemented as part of the Great German Orthography Reform, but only when the ß is after a short vowel sound, not a long one. So Kuß becomes Kuss, but Fuß remains Fuß. What's the point then? Nobody knows. Personally I'm much more annoyed be the decree that the plural of "baby" shall be "babys" henceforth... (And the most fuss was made about something else entirely: the introduction of triple consonants, the canonical example being "Schifffahrt".)

[1] Bill: From what I hear, the most conservative dialect of English, closest to Elizabethan, is that spoken in the hills of Tennessee. Royal Shakespearean, take note! ;-)

Over the past few centuries, both British and American dialects have evolved from the common dialects once current on both sides of the Atlantic. None of the later dialects can claim primacy. There is no regional dialect vs. native English. They are all dialects.

Tamsin: I disagree: common sense says that a dialect evolved on home soil is going to be more "authentic" than one evolved overseas.

Hu: By that logic, the French have no right to call their language a legitimate language because it was developed as the Franks migrated from areas that are now in Germany. Try telling that to the French!

Tamsin: You're twisting my logic, old bean. All I was saying was that an English dialect evolved in England would be more "English" than one evolved in America.

Bill: You're confusing two senses of English, one pertaining to the English language, the other pertaining to England. An English dialect in England is only more English in the second sense.

mgoetze: I don't quite see the point of discussing whether languages are "authentic" or "legitimate". These words don't really have a useful meaning in this context. Maybe you guys need to read more Wittgenstein.

Tamsin: Do you mean the Philosophical Investigations, clever-clogs? :-) Admittedly, though, my use of "authentic" was a bit sloppy.

mgoetze: Yes, that would seem to be the most pertinent work, though I love all of Wittgenstein, really. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the word "clever-clogs" in my dictionary...

Rich Lancashire I understood that Boston American is the closest to 17th-century British pronunciation. All of the colonies have a drawl compared to modern, clipped British English. We had a great vowel shift before Elizabethan times, and they've probably been getting shorter ever since.

Bill: I think that the pronunciation of the modern Boston dialect is closer to that of some *modern* British dialects than other American dialects. I do not know about 17th century English dialects.

Fwiffo: Entirely aside from the all important discussion of which dialect is right and proper (obviously the American one :-P ), is the whole issue of practicality. Within a given project, it makes sense to pick a standard and stick to it. Sometimes it can really save a lot of headaches (e.g. spelling of variable names in some large software project). In the case of Sensei's Library, I think searching is probably an issue. Would it be most sensible to make aliases wherever appropriate?

adamzero Several points, from the linguistic point of view.

1. Language vs. Dialect. It was once said, and said well, that a language is simply a dialect with an army and a navy. As any sociolinguist can tell you, language is a folk term. It has no strict definition of any sort. Really we should be speaking of dialects, registers, or denotational codes. In any given nation, speakers have a verbal repertoire of such denotational codes, coupled with a repertoire of pragmatic norms (i.e., speech genres, broadly construed, following Bakhtin). I include England and American here. There is no such thing as a unitary so-called English language, in England or anywhere. By language, as used here, we're really just talking about a dialect with institutional support. And even here, it's an ideological fiction: American Standard English is really highly stratified and regionalized. And, in our particular British and American cases (unlike, say, France), there actually is no authoritative body to rule on spelling, pronunciation, nomination, or borrowing! Our dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. Folk theories of language- all essentially Herderian- take for granted a correlation between lexicon, grammar, historical derivation, ethnicity of speakers, geography and mutual intelligibility. In fact, ALL of these things are separable, and can be discovered to exist separately. Basically, you guys are putting forward nationalist language ideologies, and that is all. (See, for example, Gumperz, John, The Speech Commnity, in Giglioli, ed., Language in Social Context, pp.219-31. Hymes, Dell, Linguistic Problems in Defining the Concept of Tribe, in Baugh and Sherzer, eds., Language in Use. 1984. Silverstein, Michael, Encountering Languages and Languages of Encounter in North American Ethnohistory, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 6:2:126-44. Gal and Irvine, The Boundaries of Languages and Disciplines: How Ideologies Construct Difference, Social Research 62:4. Woolard, Kathryn, Introduction, in Schiefflin et al. (eds.), Language Ideologies. Silverstein, Michael, Whorfianism and the Linguistic Imagination of Nationality, in Kroskrity (ed.), Regimes of Language)

2. Phonetic realization vs. orthographic convention. Center vs. centre. The two are phonetically identical, if we choose the right populations in England and America. That they are 'different' is merely due to respective institutionalized orthographies, which, being standardized and fixed, no longer have any connection with phonetic realization. (In contrast, when orthography is not fixed, the connection is, by convention, maintained. For instance, 'right' maintains a spelling from when there was an unvoiced stop before the final consonant.)

Ellbur - As a language expands and is spoken by more people, the only way that language may 'belong' to the location of its origional speaking is by its name. In every other way the origional speakers have lost ownershyppe of it. That People in America speak English with their own dialect means that that dialect is the correct American English dialect. As English and its derivitive dialects are spoken by more people, those people now have an equal right to claim the language as 'theirs.' Language is an evolved method of communication assuming no existance of linguistic athority. All those dialects of English that people consider to use incorrect English grammer may then be a language of their own, equally as 'correct,' regardless of the orgional speakers.

Velobici: If one group speaks a language that the other can not understand...they are speaking two different languages. If they are speaking in a manner that is not substantially similar, they are speaking a different dialect (at least if not a different language). Think of how the Romance languages developed from Latin...would you say that Spanish and Italian are equally as 'correct,' versions of Latin as the langauge used by Virgil and Cicero? Of course not. Another reductio ad absurdum is: provided that all people come form a single genetic pool, and that people had langauge before the single genetic pool was dispersed (this could be a streach...) then all people speak equally as 'correct,' versions of the same language.

Ellbur: You have distorted my intended point. I did not mean to say that all languages with a common ancestor are 'equally correct versions of the same language.' I wanted to say the exact opposite of what you interperated: Different languages or dialects sould not be considered to belong the the location where similar languages were origionally spoken. There is no linguistic authority.

Velobici: I must have misunderstood your statement: All those dialects of English that people consider to use incorrect English grammer may then be a language of their own, equally as 'correct,' regardless of the orgional speakers.. I dont understand how it reconciles with your statement: I did not mean to say that all languages with a common ancestor are 'equally correct versions of the same language.' . I'll bow out of this discussion. It seems that I do not understand enough to participate meaningfully.

Lively Debate on English last edited by tapir on June 24, 2008 - 19:17
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