Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Whose English Is It, Anyway?

So, you think you speak English, do you? But which English do you speak? American English? Scottish English? Abu Dhabi English? The fact is that there are more varieties of English in existence than there are brands of honey available at your local supermarket. So which one is the real thing, the one you can trust?

Some people see this great diversity as a problem and insist that only their English is the definitive version. For example, many Americans claim that their English is the only one that matters, as America leads the world in technological and economic matters. Therefore, American English should be the world standard. However, others might equally claim that British English is the sole heir to the throne, as it is somehow ‘purer’ and ‘better’ than other variants, especially transatlantic ones. In fact, this curious tradition of diversity and challenge within the English language has always existed, since the very beginning of the language, some 1500 years ago.

So let’s take a brief look at this English of ours, and see just how it’s got on over the years. In truth, even just a few centuries ago, no single standard of English existed. Back then, the English language consisted of a wide variety of dialects, spoken only by a small monolingual population within the shores of a small island off the coast of mainland Europe. Contrast this with the present situation, with English being the international language of a world community!

But let’s stay in the past a while. Back in those days, long before the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries, there were many variant spellings and pronunciations of even a single word. Anyone who has tried to read Shakespeare in its original English will remember coming across words that looked like a modern recognisable thing, but which differed somewhat in their spelling and often needed translating. Examples such as ‘idoll’ spring to mind: could it be ‘doll’, ‘idol’, or even ‘idle’? Or just the wordsmith Old Bill playing with words?

Moreover, Londoners of the sixteenth century were particularly snobby about informal regional dialects then. How Shakespeare must have suffered for his Midlands burr - no wonder he gave up acting! A group of school inspectors noted, upon inspecting a school in London, that the school’s northern teachers were at fault for “failing to teach their children to speak distinctly and to pronounce their words properly”. Such prejudices still exist today, of course, whether it’s a cosmopolitan New Yorker laughing at a simple Texan’s drawl, or a (half-)educated Englishman aping an Irishman’s tuneful dialect.

Around the same period of time, the following notes on social etiquette appeared. How many non-standard spellings can you detect in the following piece of advice? “If we speak to ower inferior, we must use a certayne kind of modest and civill authoritie, in giving them playnely to understand ower intent and purpose” (from The Enimie of Idelness, by Sir Thomas Fulwood). In fact, ‘ower’ Sir Thomas was debating whether to use ‘you’ or ‘thou’ when addressing (not undressing, mind) the lower orders. “Who’s ‘thou’?” I hear you exclaim. Well, it’s the same as ‘you’ actually, except we don’t use the word anymore, save in a few of the more obscure and colourful dialects of the tongue.

Moreover, the common word ‘such’ had at one time no less than a dozen different spellings, and probably just as many varieties of pronunciation! There was such, soch, sich, swich and sech in common use in London and the south of England, whilst in the Midlands swilk, swech, swich, sich, such and soch were being used. As for the north of England and Scotland at that time, don’t even ask! In some cases there were several different spellings to accommodate a single pronunciation. Even our most revered word ‘queen’ was spelt variously as cwene and quene, in recognition of our Germanic and Latinate roots.

So why exactly did and does so much diversity exist? And how did this ragbag of peculiar dialects evolve into the international language of modern times? All these questions I hope to answer over the coming months ... so watch this space!

Just to keep your appetite whetted for the next issue, take a look at the following examples of non-standard Englishes, and try two little exercises. Firstly, can you identify the particular dialect; and secondly, can you give a reasonable translation into modern English? Good luck! Answers in the next entry...

A) The X Language Society offers prizes for scrievin in the X tongue. Entries maun be original and ne’er afore prentit. Ilk entry maun be signed wi a byname, and the byname should be prentit on the outside o a sealed envelope.

B) Our religion so many different kinds of God. Shiva was destroy god, and Vishnu was power, and Brahma was creator. But that is only for totally bluff. This is not so many God. God is one.

C) Syemagen kidder! Broonsalroond! The tyebel’s claggy!

D) Bilong paitim liklik nil yu ken holim han bilong hama klostu long het bilong hama na paitim isi.

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