One of the trends of the current lockdown has been an increase in online shopping, not only for groceries to avoid long queues and to self-protect (if one could secure a slot), but also to while away those sleepless hours which, too, have been a symptom of the pandemic experience.
During one particular online browse I was offered a free trial of Audible, the audio-bookseller. Since the arrival of podcasts (which enable me to multi-task), I’ve found my ‘books to be read’ piling up. Perhaps listening to a book might mean I actually finish it! I promptly downloaded my choice: Wuthering Heights. I’d always meant to read it (love the song/seen several film versions/thought I knew the plot). Fast forward and I’m obsessed with it. Joanne Froggatt’s eclectic range of accents to differentiate the dialects and characters is wildly entertaining. Her rendition of the servant Joseph’s broad Yorkshire brogue is just brilliant, although it did require particular concentration if I was to remotely comprehend what he’d said and follow the narrative. It could have been another language.
But it was when I heard that Joseph ‘brought out his pocket-book’ that I was really puzzled. ‘Pocket-book’? That’s an American term, surely, not one we Brits have ever used. I consulted my trusty OED. There it was:
‘A pocket-sized folding case for holding banknotes, papers, etc.; a wallet. Now chiefly U.S.’
‘Now chiefly U.S.’ Clearly then, along with those old chestnuts: ‘sidewalk’; ‘gotten’; ‘Fall’ and -ize spellings, ‘pocket-book’ used to be part of what we now term, ‘British English’.
And so began my deep dive into the study of English, a language which has become and will doubtless continue to be such a medley of variations on a theme – rather a family or a web of languages – that I wondered whether a more appropriate label might not be coined to better express its global texture and fluid nature. But of course, we already have at least two candidates: World English and Globish.
English is my mother tongue. It is also the lingua franca of 60-70 countries, spoken by an estimated 2.3 billion people (2018), either as their mother tongue or as their second or third language. As an editor, I strive to enforce consistency in terminology and spelling in any given manuscript, ensuring the author’s preference for either British English (BE) or American English (AE) throughout the text. But why do we only adhere to those two varieties? If there are two, should there be more? Why not Scottish English or Irish English, Australian English or Canadian English? Why not Singaporean English? Who decided the standard? And when?
According to David Crystal, the linguist guru, a language becomes a global one because of the power of those who speak it. Once Britain had established itself as an empire, English was adopted by those who aspired to be part of the elite groups associated with it. It may be surprising to read that access to learning English was expressly reserved for the colonial elite and was not imposed on indigenous peoples. Limiting access to it was a way to exercise control over them. With their own languages and local dialects being actively encouraged, this also had the effect of firmly segregating those peoples. And so English became the ‘gold standard’. Those who achieved a good command of it could strive for better jobs and enter the world of commerce, the arts, politics and science. Had the British followed a policy of linguistic imperialism, English might even have been resisted.
It was not until 1755 with Samuel Johnson’s authoritative dictionary that rules and standards were applied to English, although word lists had been compiled before. Sixteenth-century English was not as prescribed as it is today, and we find different spelling variations of the same words in Shakespeare’s works, for example, as evidence of that, such as ‘learnt’/‘learned’; ‘inke’/‘ink’; ‘hypocrisie’/‘hypocrisy’. Today we (still) talk of the ‘Queen’s English’. What we mean by that lofty standard is that those who speak and write that variant may be judged differently from those who do not. Even now, those who learn English around the globe are encouraged to acquire the haughty tones which might classify them as, perhaps, ‘better’ English speakers.
There is more than an element of kudos attached to speaking and writing English; it offers access to worldwide opportunities. When the European School of Frankfurt (ESF), opened in 2002, the English section was over-subscribed tenfold. Parents of German students preferred to have their children taught English as their mother tongue with German as their second language. In her final years at the ESF, my daughter was one of only two native English speakers in the English section of over 30. Two-thirds were native German speakers and the rest were drawn from various other nationalities. Such was the demand for English. There was no doubting the opportunities accorded to those who spoke it fluently.
To rubber stamp that, we know that academics simply must publish in English if they are to reach the widest possible audience, whatever their specialised subject. English is the language used at international conferences, the working language of many global organisations, and of the travel industry. I worked in France, Belgium and Germany for over 20 years and was fortunate enough to work with some iconic brands. The working language of all of them was English – British English.
American English has, however, become the dominant standard since the American rise to superpower status after the Second World War. British and American English had been diverging ever since the two nations first separated and likely as soon as the first British settlers found animals and vegetation they’d not encountered before which they needed to classify. Perhaps divergence did not seem important then, given the geographical divide. George Bernard Shaw’s remark that Britain and America were ‘divided by a common language’ and Oscar Wilde’s quip that Britain had ‘everything in common with America nowadays, except of course, language’ make the point well.
When a country adopts English, it immediately adapts it, claims Crystal. It will use standard English for global purposes but it will reshape it and fashion it, manipulate it every which way in order to better express its own particular needs. The adapted version will encapsulate the local cultural identity and be a means of expressing solidarity, even to the point where it may even become unintelligible to other English speakers – which perhaps is the aim.
Webster’s 1783 American English dictionary sought to give every letter in a syllable its due proportion of sound which means that today we see ‘traveler’ and ‘honor’ in American English but ‘traveller’ and ‘honour’ in British English. Small matter perhaps because such minor adjustments are still understood. But evidently, over time, the English language has been used as a framework to create other versions specific to particular groups and communities. Such variants became languages in their own right, unique and particular to those who created them based on their own narratives. Take, for example, ‘Singlish’. The fusion of English and Singaporean is so highly stylised, it cannot be understood by most English speakers. Language expresses identity, solidarity, inclusion ... exclusion. Enslaved African Americans developed their own dialect from the English they learnt in order to conceal their intended meaning from their enslavers. Such a tactic created a new language community by manipulation of a forced second language.
Take, too, the various dialects that are drawn from multiple ethnic groups today, typically spoken by young people, often dismissed, even stigmatised, such as ‘Jafaican’ (fake Jamaican). What about the secret languages which emerge as a way to show belonging in a marginalised subculture such as the gay community? Not so long ago, its very existence was deemed so immoral its members were forced to develop a secret code to talk to each other as a form of self-protection. Urban dictionary, the online slang repository, may be denigrated by purists for its low-brow content but it is still a speech community with 65 million visitors each month! It is evident that such variants, anti-languages, used by subcultures often on the very edge of society, can become ‘cool’ and trickle into mainstream usage, even being adopted by those who originally deemed them to be socially unacceptable. Urban’s motto, ‘Define Your World’, is most illuminating, encapsulating the very essence of language. Are you ‘da bomb’/‘sick’/‘dope’/‘cool’? Delete as appropriate. Even these terms are probably out of date now, too.
The American melting pot into which Indian, Yiddish, German, Chinese, African, Italian, Caribbean, South American, Spanish and myriad other languages were poured, stirred and simmered over time has produced a version of English which caters to the needs of all those peoples. It is undoubtedly a compromise, but it does the job. Today we see the Yiddish ‘klutz’ (clumsy) and ‘schmuck’ (fool) in British English, both having been incorporated into American English during the great migrations of the last two centuries. American English certainly influences British English. But there are many differences, too. The American ‘cookie’ for example, from the Dutch ‘koekje’ is vastly different from the British ‘biscuit’ which is the same baked treat nevertheless. In American English, ‘biscuit’ translates to ‘muffin’ and is served at breakfast but which I would tuck into at afternoon tea! The potential for misunderstanding is rife.
My aunt was a G.I. bride in 1946 and moved to Virginia, USA. She provided much amusement when she regaled my mother with her stories. She’d introduced herself to a neighbour upon her arrival and was appalled when he’d said he’d stop by to ‘knock her up’ the very next day! It is estimated that 4,000 words in everyday use in Britain have a different meaning in American English. I find the vast plates of entrées (AE: main dish/BE: starter) available on American menus a little bewildering when all I’d expected was an appetiser. Consider, too, ‘pants’ for ‘trousers’ not ‘underpants’; ‘mad’ for ‘angry’ not ‘insane’ and ‘trash/garbage’ for ‘rubbish’. My husband was once alarmed to hear on an American flight that they would be landing ‘momentarily’. Would he even have time to disembark before they took off again?
Some transformations, however, can be easily identified. ‘Santa Claus’ derives from the Dutch, ‘Sinterklaas’. In that derivation we not only see the word morph but also the ‘sint’ (no a) himself. Traditionally he’s a Dutch/Flemish religious character, in crimson robes with a staff, who bestows gifts on children on 6 December. Santa Claus today is a corpulent, bearded, jolly fellow, in a fur-trimmed bright-red jumpsuit who rides the skies bearing gifts for all on 25 December/Christmas Day. In Britain he is known as Father Christmas but the American-English version of ‘Santa’ is becoming more and more popular as American English continues to influence and permeate its British forebear.
As I moved around Europe with my family, we mastered the different languages as best we could but also borrowed from them so that now, we often find ourselves mixing them all to arrive at the best sense of what we might mean. I still use German words of command for my dogs even though one of them didn’t even live with us in Germany and came from Greece. And, for my sins, I admit to cursing using a particular French term. Such mixing and borrowing, or code switching and code mixing, is common behaviour. Language transfer can be just the ticket if you can’t remember or don’t know a word in a particular language, or if you know that your interlocutor knows the foreign-language word which expresses a concept better than the language you are using. Our daughter coined the term, ‘I blaguise’ by which she means ‘I’m joking’ using the French noun ‘blague’ (joke). There is no verb ‘blaguiser’ in French. The verb Is ‘blaguer’, ‘to joke’ or must be constructed using ‘faire’, (to make) to arrive at ‘faire une blague’ or a different word altogether, ‘plaisanter’. Incidentally, she also concocted ‘cahootian’, meaning one with whom she is in cahoots! Both terms are part of our family-speak now.
I’ve always marvelled at how other nationalities could speak English so well. As an expat I did my best to learn my host country’s language but I could never equal my colleagues’ linguistic abilities; those who flitted from their mother tongue to English so effortlessly. Indeed, for many of them it seemed as if English was their second first language! Nevertheless, it was common to articulate more clearly in their company and to speak more slowly, avoiding jargon and word plays. My daughter always remarked how my accent changed when I was with my neighbour! Brutt-Griffler claims that such changed behaviour should not be seen as ‘talking down’ but rather as a way to accommodate. She asserts that the price a world language must be prepared to pay is that it will be transformed and adapted. It will inevitably become a hybrid and purists will simply have to hold back.
English may be the world’s lingua franca now. It may not always be. In the meantime, it will continue to evolve, be shaped and moulded to suit the purposes of its many users. Whatever has been, English, or World English or Globlish will have to be more flexible than ever and take account of genders, race, new and emerging cultures and lifestyles if it is to continue to dominate. If American English persists, perhaps, too, we might see 'pocket-book' in use in British English again!
Photo credits: Unsplash (Books: Priscilla Du Preez; GB flag: James Giddins; US flag: Ben Mater; Europe flag: Christian Wiediger; Cool: Collin Armstrong; Globe: Fotografierende)
Taking time out recently took me from my desk in Sussex to Luxembourg and Germany, places I’ve lived and worked in and still visit often. But from Frankfurt I flew to the Southern Hemisphere where the northern sun was high in the sky and summer time was in full swing.
My travels took me from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia and Patagonia in Argentina, then on to the legendary and notorious Cape Horn, Falkland Islands, and Montevideo in Uruguay to the very end of the world … the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent, the frozen continent, the loneliest continent … Antarctica.
I followed in the illustrious footsteps of explorers like Magellan, Valdés, Columbus, Darwin, Shackleton and many other pioneering spirits ... albeit in a somewhat more sedate and far less intrepid fashion. Along the way, whilst drinking in the breath-taking views, delighting in the wildlife at rest and play, and marvelling at unfamiliar cultures, I also took the opportunity to explore language, admittedly on a superficial level, and how it has been influenced over time by different communities and trends.
There are more than 700 native languages currently spoken in South America. Linguistic and cultural diversity is a reflection of its modern society. The great wave of European migration to Argentina took place in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, mostly from Italy and Spain, introducing yet more rich cultural diversity into an already brimming melting pot.
First stop: Buenos Aires (or BA as I often heard it called) literally means “Fair Winds” or “Good Airs”. It was not long before I termed it “Good Airs and graces” for I found it to be a fabulous city full of friendly people. It is so called because of the pleasant winds and breezes which blow through it, keeping it pollution-free, no mean feat when it has the greatest number of traffic lanes in the world: I counted 18 across the Avenida 9 de Julio alone! With glorious green parks full of parakeets, art pieces and monuments, grand boulevards flanked either side by stunning architecture, and a theme park about the life of Jesus, the city was a real delight.
I took the bus, hopping on and off at regular intervals. Stopping at the Parque de la Memoria, one of the city's sites of memory, I was left speechless by the thousands of names engraved on the walls. Names of the disappeared, those who fell victim to Argentina's brutal dictatorship of 1976-1983. Its proximity to the river and military airport is significant since it marks the spot where those poor souls met their end. The military airport was used for "flights of death" during which the victims were thrown from the planes into the river.
The park remembers students, workers, men and women, including the unborn (as shown in the image below; “embarazada” meaning pregnant), ordinary people who had a social vision at odds with that of the ruling elites and military dictatorships. The memorial acts as the nation's promise to rebuild a democracy and safeguard universal human rights. It is a place of peace and contemplation. I took time to walk the site. It was heartening to see couples and families resting in the shade of the trees by the shore. It has perhaps become a place of sanctuary too.
I visited another memorial – Monumento a los caidos en Malvinas - the memorial to those who had fallen during the Falklands conflict of 1982. It is a beautifully kept site with guards on duty standing in tribute to their fellow countrymen. I concluded it was no coincidence that it stands directly opposite the Torre Monumental, formerly Torre de los Ingleses (the Tower of the English), which was a gift from the local British community in 1909 to commemorate the centenary of the May revolution. It was also not surprising to see “nuestras Malvinas” referred to on some official signs as well as graffiti. However, as a British tourist I only experienced friendliness. When the subject arose, I was surprised to hear people say to me “the Falklands, no problem”. No doubt the reality is much more complex.
Taking the “subte”, or underground, I sped to La Recoleta cemetery, so-called after the Recollect monks on whose gardens the cemetery was built. It is a veritable labyrinth of stunning Art Deco monuments looming over the dead resting in their marble crypts. Strolling around the narrow lanes in the sunshine, the towering angelic sculptures provided shade and respite from the heat of the day but finding oneself locked in after closing time might prove to be somewhat unsettling for like any cemetery, ghost stories abound. La Recoleta's most famous resident is Eva Perón. There's no doubt Argentina still cries for her. Two immense steel portraits cover the north and south facades of the city’s Ministry of Health building and illuminate the Avenido 9 de Julio at night. “Evita” was quite simply the “abanderada de los descamisados”, the standard-bearer of the shirtless ones, and an absolute powerhouse for female suffrage. Her tomb is heavily fortified for fear of her remains being stolen.
No one can spend a night in Buenos Aires without a tango experience! It reflects the very fabric of modern Argentine society, portrayed as an authentic national product. It is ever popular, involving dance, music, poetry, song, narrative, gesture and drama and is simply mesmerising to behold. The tango partnership, with its clearly defined roles of leader and follower, are perhaps stereotypical but the dance ritual continues to capture the imagination and entice the audience into a world of romance and sexual promise. I went to the Teatro Astor Piazzolla in the Mirador Guemes Gallery, with its gorgeous art nouveau decor, and was spellbound and captivated by the intricate movements and poise of the dancers, the milonguero and milonguita, and transported into a world of tango fantasía.
If I had to tango to truly experience Argentina then equally, I couldn’t pass up an authentic Argentinian steak either! La Estancia on Lavalle was a triumph. It was a tourist restaurant but no less charming for that. I had the T-bone, the bife de costilla con lomo, the biggest steak I'd ever seen and the most succulent I’ve ever tasted along with bottles of refreshing Quilmes Cristal, the locally brewed beer.
I joined a local tour group. Our guide, Vera, was a rather ancient lady, full of banter and not remotely afraid to reprimand any tourist in her party. She took us to the Tigre Delta, just 25 kilometres north of the city where she had spent her weekends and holidays as a child. Her father, an immigrant from Spain had longed for a rural life after leaving his beloved homeland for the hubbub of Buenos Aires in search of work in the 1920s. Vera's tales of taking the over-crowded train from the bustling city to the delta, with its lean-to shacks and “clean muddy” waters into which she would dive and play (quite unlike the “dirty muddy” waters of the city) recalled a very different time and place to the swanky marinas and mansions which dot the delta today.
The Tigre Delta region - so-called because of the big cats which used to roam the area - comprises over 5,000 islands and is one of the few deltas in the world that does not lead into open waters. It empties instead into the Rio de la Plata which at its widest is 200 kilometres across and separates Argentina and Uruguay.
We hopped aboard a catamaran to catch a glimpse of life in this maritime suburb and gaze at those fishing and bathing outside their colourful stilted dwellings with their speedboats and kayaks moored alongside - there are no roads and thus no cars at all on the islands. The local inhabitants - born and bred here - refer to the “mainland” as the “continente”. These idyllic, tranquil, picturesque islands, the lagoons, channels and pretty gardens really do seem a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. And even the rusted steamers and abandoned sailing vessels which dot the principal channel lend a certain charm to this delightful place.
Next stop: Tierra del Fuego [Land of Fire!]