Friday, 1 May 2009


English, some argue, is today’s world language. It dominates the commercial, the political, and the computer world. But, what and whose English are we talking about? English may be a precious vehicle for communication, but who is guarding it? Can it survive the barbarians who continue to assault it?

Homo sapiens cannot boast about his ability, or willingness, to communicate with his neighbours. The Tower-of-Babel curse remains an insidious part of our being. There is something cozy and aloof in formulating a language that only the chosen few can understand. Even children love to manipulate the spoken word so that only their small group can interpret the code. Tribes and countries do try to standardize language within their own boundaries, but associations create their own slang to exclude others. A bizarre sense of superiority is felt by lawyers, doctors, the military, sports enthusiasts, and others when they use their linguistic codes to the consternation of outsiders.

The creation of many thousands of languages for one species on one small globe could be excused during periods of low mobility and when rivers, oceans, and mountain ranges separated us. Such obstacles have been overcome if only for brief periods of time. For a few hundred years people could travel from Hadrian’s Wall to Asia Minor with one language and one currency. Roman might and organizational ability brought Latin to all of Europe and much of North Africa. The Church then carried it around the world. We let that blessing evaporate. The destruction of Roman power led to the resurgence of local languages. There were pockets of resistance, but even the Catholic Church succumbed in the 20th century by replacing Latin in its Mass with the vernacular, thus losing a sense of oneness among Catholics.

Our world needs one standardized means of communication. Latin, once so popular and compulsory, with Greek optional, when I went to school, have gone except in the roots of many of our modern words. The French remain nostalgic for the status they once held as having the world’s language of politics. Quebec takes strong measures to safeguard French and exclude English. Esperanto was a great hope for a universal language we could all accept, but that, too, has given way to the steady march of English. Even India, when granted independence, chose English as rivalries among their language groups could not tolerate one of their languages becoming the dominant one. When Indonesia became independent it selected what it considered the best from other languages to create a distinct Indonesian dialect. We, who were born into an English-speaking environment cannot feel smug about our good fortune because, like all languages that went before it, English is doomed unless we guard it.

This computer (using Word Perfect) actually asks me what English I want to use: Canadian, UK, or US. The rot is well established. It is ominous when people argue that language is an evolving medium and that we should keep up with the times - but whose times and in what places? If others have the right to change words, spellings, pronunciations, and meaning then we all do and a world language is a hopeless goal. Incidentally, I choose UK English because that is where it all started. When the United Kingdom, a union of about ten million people, by accident and design, acquired control over twenty five per cent of the globe they brought to many millions their language which was a mixture of Gaelic, Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian, Danish, and Norman-French. When its colonies grew and prospered the world-influence of English grew, but each colony or dominion added its own flavour. With its huge and dominant media the United States led the parade to diversify.

Spelling and Pronunciation: The British may be their own worst enemies. England is pronounced Inglun, Britain is Briten, Warwickshire is Wariksheer, Gloucestershire is Gloster. They use, and spoil, good French names such as beauchamp which they call beechum. They have enriched the language by adopting words from other languages, but often spoil them, like karky for khaki. Then there is the long list of mispronunciations which have grown over the years like knife, sword, mountain, and genuine.

The United Kingdom, with its long history, has retained numerous dialects from Cockney to Geordie and some Welsh, Scots, and Irish are unintelligible to someone steeped in BBC English.

Multiply this by colonial abuse of words. Who has not had difficulty interpreting Waltzing Matilda? We may understand “After we get some tucker we will pick up a few sheilas.” and we might even guess at the meaning of “G’Dye”, but are Australians so insecure that they must retreat into an isolationist language? The United States has been flagrant in developing its own language out of English and tries to force it on the rest of the world. First they dropped the ‘u’ in words like honour, then the second ‘l’ in words like travelling. Some publisher who wanted to save time and space shortened words and the new spellings took over. They are also afraid of French words. Cheque becomes check, centre becomes center, and Pierre becomes Peer. The latest trend is to admit they do not know the difference between adverbs and adjectives so they drop the ‘ly’. Many were never able to distinguish good from well, who from whom, shall from will, or between from among, so why bother? It is frightening how many pronunciations have changed in the U.S. and seeped into other countries since my high school days:

bin for been agen for again missal for missile hostil for hostile
agil for agile aging for ageing viril for virile mobil for mobile
changen for changing Merilin for Maryland Noofunlan for Newfoundland ta for to
When they talk of “missal” defence I wonder why they are afraid of prayer books. Hostel is somewhere to sleep. Hostile means something quite different. What is so difficult in pronouncing words the way the are spelled? Arkansas, Spokane, and solder helped in persuading our educators to drop phonetic teaching in favour of sight recognition of words. This has been a disaster. We have a generation of people who cannot spell, even incorrectly.

The United Nations adopted English as the universal language for air traffic control. This has led to many misunderstandings when pilots on international flights try to raise control centres by using phonetic pronunciations. We have no right to demand the use of English when we refuse to standardize its use.

Abbreviations: Some say this is a natural trend towards simplifying a language, but does “MP” mean Member of Parliament or Military Police? Does the postal code “MI” belong to Missouri, Mississippi, Michigan, or Minnesota? Does “CO” mean Commanding Officer or company? Does “USA” mean United States of America or Union of South Africa? Thoughtful authors give the meaning with the first use.

How many of these commonly-used abbreviations can you explain: Spad, Lanc, Flak, UNICEF, MSDOS, ROM, RAM, Eg, Viz, etc, VC, VD, CAA, RAAF, DcinC, ECG, PhD, SEATO, MB, MG, GDP, TGIF, BCE, CC or CB, UNMOGIP, PNG, AU, DOA, DUI, CU, ATC. And this is just a small sample.
Changed Meanings: Wartime slang is a prime example with its explicit new sexual meanings for innocent common words, like screw and suck. Unfortunately, these two words, with altered meanings, have become part of the language in place of “taken advantage of” and “highly undesirable”. The original meanings remain but are now shared, making the language less precise, and somewhat vulgar. Other wartime expressions, like “pukka gen” (accurate information) have faded. The word “Cool” originally referring to temperature now encompasses “good”, “fine”, “acceptable”. The word “wog” once meant “Wily Oriental Gentleman”. “Wop” meant strong, robust, handsome, and was a compliment to Italians. The word “gay” described a buoyant spirit and many girls were named Gay. Now we have permitted homosexuals to take and monopolize the word to the extent that many Gays have changed their names to Elizabeth which is yet to be corrupted. Considerable shame is shared by writers, speakers, and publications who blatantly misuse this word, apparently to appease the homosexual community, or to save seven letters on the printed page. The same is true with the misuse of Lesbian, an inhabitant of Lesbos.
The use of words can be misleading or insulting. Too many say “England” when they mean the United Kingdom, thus insulting the Northern Irish, Scots, and Welsh. America has a score of countries but one of them is arrogant enough to use it to describe only one, unable to find a polite, unique name for itself. It is obvious that the French have never forgiven Julius Caesar for conquering their Gaul when they insist on Nouvelle Ecosse instead of the Latin, Nova Scotia.

Some languages use additives to letters to clarify pronunciation. These are awkward and a nuisance. Cannot vowel and consonant combinations serve the same purpose as á, â, ä, à, ç, è, ñ, ü, ğ, ė, ŗ, and others? The letter ‘c’ is pronounced ‘s’ or ‘k’, so is surplus and could be used as a vowel. The Germans spell Kanada correctly.

Spelling and speaking this sentence give us two distinct languages:
Could enough agile swords protect the eight charming women on the mountain from genuine hostile missiles?
Kud enuf agil sords protek thu ate charmen wimin on thu mountin frum genuin hostel missals?

Survival: The entire world uses English, so all need to contribute to standardizing at least a core portion of the language for universal use so that spelling dictates pronunciation. And, let us not have the same word meaning different things. We could also be honest. We dread to admit we use toilets so we call them washrooms, restrooms, loos, johns, or WCs. (In WWII the Germans called them Winston Churchills) The media and educators must conform. Either that or lose universal use and let some other, more disciplined, language take over. Computer language, with its penchant for brevity and abbreviations, is, in its present form, not the answer.

English and German take two years longer than Italian or French to learn. Finnish words are pronounced phonetically. Should we adopt Finnish? The US came very close to adopting German after 1776
Numerals? This scribe still prefers 0123456789 and objects to the German one and seven which can be confused with a seven and four. The computer zero can be mistaken for an eight.

This lazy scribe, who wants English as a world language, will keep using UK spellings and phonetic pronunciations. He will accept changes only if approved by the entire English-speaking community and endorsed by the United Nations. I do not mean to excuse the superior-than-thou attitude of Anglo-Saxons in declining, as unnecessary, the learning of other languages. Diversity adds lustre to life, but who can learn 2,000 languages? To communicate with our fellow humans we desperately need one language that is shared by all. You may have as many others as you wish.

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