Mind Your Language

I am lucky. My native tongue is English. British English to be precise – and that does matter.

By accident of birth, I am most comfortable speaking a language that is the third most widely spoken native tongue (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish). Around 25% of the world’s population claim to speak at least some English.

I benefit from the spread of the language by the British colonial empire, reinforced – or reinvigorated – by the American cultural/commercial empire.

However, there are many versions of English – British, American, Indian… And even these can be broken down into regional variations and dialects, each reflecting a deep linguistic inheritance from sources other than Dark Age Anglo-Saxon.

In America, long-term immigration by non-English speakers brought repeated overlays in vocabulary and grammar. In India, where 22 indigenous languages are officially recognized even today (although only English and Hindi are official languages), English was enriched by the underlying, pre-existing local languages.

Languages always drift in isolation. But the World Wide Web brought an end to linguistic isolation. Initially, all web sites were in English, mainly American English. I firmly believed that this would extend the domination of English and support greater standardization, leading to better communication across the planet.

It takes a big man to admit he was wrong. I am that big man.

Step 1: As the available character sets expanded, websites appeared in all languages, relaxing English’s strict and total domination.

Step 2: The young and the scientific and business guru communities are forever inventing and inverting words and expressions. Most have a short shelf-life, but given the increasing ubiquity of the web and social networks, such novelties spread like wildfire across the world. Even new usages quickly mutate or even reverse their meanings. More than ever, it is hard for a middle-aged person to use contemporary teenage slang without embarrassment. That is probably the whole purpose of fast-mutating youth-speak…

So the internet HAS fulfilled its purpose of aiding communication, by distributing evolutionary linguistic changes to specific target groups, rather than suppressing them.

But the dominant version of everyday written English understood by adults and young people alike is still the American brand. When I submit my stories for publication, or write my blog posts, I am well aware that the largest readership audience will speak American English. Before I click that “Submit” button, I always remember to set my spell-checker to American English for a final run-through.

So my luck at being born an English speaker is moderated by inheriting a minority version of that tongue. Oh, well – vive la difference!

Image courtesy of VLADO / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 comments on “Mind Your Language

  1. Portugese underwent the same out-sourcing process. Just as there are more English speakers in Britain’s former out-post colony than there are English speakers in Britain, there are far more Portuguese Speakers in Brazil, Portugal’s former outpost colony, than there are in Portugal.

    • As I understand it, “ex-colonial” Portuguese has developed in its own ways as did English and so the form spoken in Brazil is distinct from that now spoken in Portugal, although they are mutually comprehensible. I’d be happy to have that understanding confirmed or corrected.

  2. I know I have more American readers but I prefer to use British English simply because it looks right. Logically speaking though, because the British colonised so many countries I would imagine that there are actually more people who are comfortable with British spelling (but perhaps not choice of words thanks to American imperialism).

    Philippines and Taiwan are the only countries I can think of that where I have seen signs written in American English.

    • Welcome to my blog!

      I use American English in my science fiction stories, as I know where my biggest audience is likely to be and I don’t want to scatter stumbling blocks in their paths. I think speakers of other English-types are more familiar with American English than vice versa: I certainly see ever more “Americanisms” in everyday use in Britain.

      The second part of my science fiction series will be a far-future reboot of the Bhagavad Gita, but I will not attempt the rhythms and intricacies of Indian English… My excuses are that it is about the Gita’s timeless themes, not contemporary India moved forward in time and that everyday spoken language will have changed over the millenia anyway. I am uncomfortable reading stories featuring 21st Century speech patterns and slang on the lips of our far descendants. The problem is how to make speech sound natural without using anachronisms or clumsy, invented slang. So who said writing was easy?

      By the way: WordPress.com offers only US-spellchecking, so I post in American, by default.

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