September 2016

Tidbits on the English Language - No. 4: The Many Faces of English

A Universal Language

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if a universal language existed?" This idea harks as far back as the 17th century - toward the end of the Age of Discovery - and although our backgrounds are different in many ways, we seem to have shared the notion that the world must be approached from a global perspective.

This thought gave birth to the concept of constructed languages, i.e. international auxiliary languages (also known as IALs or interlanguages) devised to be easily remembered for people with different mother tongues by removing the complexities of natural languages. While Esperanto - advocated by Doctor L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 - is the most renowned, there are many more IALs including Novial, Glosa and Interlingua, all of which were conceived on the basis of natural languages. However, none ever transcended its auxiliary status nor supplanted any natural language.

Nowadays, English can be considered the real common tongue: the English-speaking world encompasses a wealth of countries, including two great powers, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. As discussed in previous issues, both their forms of English have become prominent and spread across the world through mass media such as radio and television broadcasts. Besides, with the risks of miscommunication having been reduced by the standardization of vocabulary and writing, English is now considered an immeasurable asset.

American and British English

Be that as it may, many differences in pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary can actually be observed between these American and British versions of English. This is a fact that every English learner has to deal with. As a student who studied and got used to listening to American English, one may be taken aback if a listening comprehension test is carried out in British English. On the other hand, being capable of distinguishing U.S. and U.K. words/expressions such as "apartment vs flat," "buddy vs mate," "candy vs sweets" and "diaper vs nappy" is no small feat for non-native English speakers and, therefore, a good reason to feel proud.

As a result of these numerous differences, news articles undergo rewrites depending on the targeted area, and news agencies in the U.S. and U.K. are said to have lists of words that need to be substituted.

Still, these differences go way beyond the scope of newspapers and broadcasts; they also affect and apply to administration, justice, education, industry, and family. This has a very widespread impact, even when compared to French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Sanskrit, etc.

Although this somewhat underpins the influence of the language, English remains taught throughout the world. The used curricula, textbooks, audio material, educational apps and such generate enormous revenue which certainly benefits the American and British economies. This also creates jobs for native speakers who are involved in English education activities. All in all, it can probably be said that English represents, for both nations, an ideal exported good that does not require any workers, production lines, parts, stock or transportation.

The English Language's Role as a Common Tongue

English used to exist as a sort of second language in former British colonies, but it has now become an inherent part of everyday life and is often treated as an official or semi-official language. This applies to countries such as Singapore and India in Asia, as well as Nigeria and Zambia in Africa. Likewise, The Philippines was not a British colony but was influenced by America and became one of the leading English-speaking countries in Asia.

Furthermore, in India, where about 200 languages coexist, English holds the role of a common tongue. Soon after India had achieved independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, its first Prime Minister, was quoted as saying that the use of English would waver along with the new generations, but in reality the exact opposite happened: the English-speaking population in India today exceeds that of the U.S. and the U.K. combined.

Another phenomenon that accompanied the English language's establishment around the world is the new ways in which it evolved, developing into unique local expressions that stem from outlooks that don't exist in America and the U.K.

- Examples of Indian English:
Himalayan blunder (huge failure)
As honest as an elephant (extremely honest)

- Examples of African English:
A knocking-fee (bribe)
Snatch boys (pickpocket)
Where there is dew, there is water.
Wisdom is like a goat skin bag - every man carries his own.
Eat each other's ears. (To talk in a secretive manner.)

A similar thing happened in Australia, where distinctive English expressions were also born.

- Examples of Australian English:
Your blood is worth bottling. (To be thankful beyond words.)
Have a (kanga)roo loose in the top paddock. (To go crazy.)

These phenomena come to prove that a language is a natural, living organism. There may be differences between American and British English, but the strong standards they set forth have allowed people from any country to communicate harmoniously. It's an inestimable gift.

Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department