Does English need colour and glamour?

Color Abstract

For that matter, does English need favour, honour, flavour, savour and so many more -our words? Before our Australian, British and Canadian fellow English speakers panic – relax. This is just a point of discussion. From the standpoint of communication, it does seem that color, glamor, favor, flavor, honor and savor are satisfactory. Yes, these are the American spellings, but please note, US English generally prefers glamour. Thus the US -our/-or spellings are also not clearly defined.

Moreover, outside the US, the spellings are honourable but honorary (not honourary) so English in the UK is equally inconsistent. I must confess that I am a bit OCD and this type of untidiness is somewhat unnerving. While it is not going to end world hunger or solve world peace, I can’t help but ask whether we can come to some agreement on the lack of consistency and find some common ground. To add to this situation, some derivations of these words have already begun to lose the extra “u“ in the UK spelling. Note that the derivations of glamour and humour in the UK are glamorous and humorous, respectively. The combination of –our plus –ous appears to be a bit too much for all English speakers.

Noah Webster is basically responsible for many of the reforms in English spellings such as color ~ colour, center ~ centre and defense ~ defence. There has not been a real reform since then, in the early 1800’s, so it may be time to rethink some of these inconsistencies and redundancies. One argument for a reform is economic: producing text in all varieties of English can be very expensive.

Clearly there is a good argument for retaining the cultural flavo(u)r and historical development. English is richer for these details. Therefore I would like to ask you, do we really need “u” in our “our” words, or will “or” suffice for communicating on a worldwide basis?

Our native language is a very personal and emotional subject; language is identity. We all want to keep our individual identity and cultural perspectives. To quote a great observer of human nature on tradition and innovation:

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven’t been done before. Mark Twain

English neutral

Matrix worldWelcome to the matrix: English in binary form?

During several decades of teaching English in international settings, particularly academic English, I have encountered non-native speakers who are uncertain of the regional written varieties of English. In fact, there are also many native speakers who are just as uncertain. As the Internet exposes all of us to more and more markets, the lines continue to blur.

Many books have been written about the vocabulary differences between American and British English; many humorous stories circulate on the Internet. But the differences go beyond vocabulary; English also varies regionally in spelling, punctuation, slang and even grammar.

Generally speaking, most writers already know the guidelines when they approach a publisher and have prepared their manuscripts accordingly. However, there are times, especially for academics, when they would like to submit articles to American, Australian, British or Canadian publishing houses. They certainly increase their chances of being published, but only if their language conforms to the specific norm.

One solution I suggest is to embrace “English neutral” … to find the overlap in English varieties where we all agree and avoid the specific regional markers. Easier said than done? Yes. However it’s not impossible.

First there are the obvious spelling differences like center or centre, organize or organise, theater or theatre, etc. Often a synonym provides a quick solution: middle, order, play/film, respectively.

Then what about punctuation: the Oxford comma (also called the Harvard or serial comma), punctuation (period or full stop) with honorifics and abbreviations including Mr/Mr., Mrs/Mrs., Dr/Dr., etc, etc. Well, the serial comma is in dispute on both sides of the Atlantic, honorifics and other abbreviations can be dropped (or as I did above with et cetera,  placed it at the end of the sentence.)

Next slang, but we can skip this one. In formal writing, just drop it. So we now come to grammatical differences. One of the most obvious differences is what linguists call notional concord — that is, the “notion” of what is meant in making the subject and verb “agree”  – I agree, you agree, but she agrees. Brits can regard family and government, for example, as either singular or plural: the family are, the government are.  The principle is what “notion” of the family and government is meant – as a single unit or as individual members. My solution has been to suggest that we always write using an indisputable plural: members of government, family members when the plural is intended.

There are many more details to consider; I truly welcome input, more examples, and especially solutions. Moreover if anyone can think of a neutral synonym that can equally replace color/colour, I would consider posting a reward!

But to return to the original premise: English in binary format. Unfortunately it’s not very workable. To begin with, binary code is based on letters, and thus the original spellings … so unless we change the original forms, we are back where we started  — variations.

Note: except for the contrasting American/British examples, this entire blog has been written in English Neutral.

¡Spanglish spoken aquí!

EspanglishThe latest US census shows 53 million native Spanish speakers living in the US. That’s a population bigger than many developed countries in the world, and more than Spain’s 2014 population of 47 million. The largest concentration of Spanish speakers in the US are mainly in California and Florida, although they can also be found far north where some occasionally work as migrant field workers.

New Mexico has been a bilingual state since the area was first colonized by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the US and the second oldest European-settled city after St Augustine in Florida, which was also established by the Spanish in 1565. Thus speaking Spanish in the US is no new trend.

In fact the English language is full of words that originally entered through Spanish: abalone, adobe, aficionado, albatross, alligator, alpaca, armada, armadillo, anchovy, avocado, banana, barbeque, barracuda, bonanza, burrito, burro, bronco, cabana, cafeteria, cannibal, canyon, cigar, cockroach. And the list goes on and on.

There are television and radio stations as well as newspapers in Spanish. And telenovelas – Spanish-speaking soap operas.

Adiós is used as often as ciao or sayonara; and let’s not forget hasta luego and hasta la vista, with a nod to Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. In fact the film Blade Runner from 1982 hinted that a language based on Spanish, Japanese and German would evolve in Southern California. (But they hadn’t yet anticipated the flood of post-shah Persians who also play into the mix as parts of LA are informally called Little Teheran.)

Spanglish has become such a staple in the US that a movie of the same name was made in 2004. Then in 2006 the amazing and brilliant 2015 academy-award-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu included a bilingual family in Babel, his tale of communication, noncommunication, miscommunication and discommunication. Basically, Culture Clash 101 were it to be included as a university course.

Many of the words that are now being included in Spanglish are new to English too like Googlear or gugulear (to google), clickear (to click), taguear (to tag), and tuitear (to tweet).

So Spanish enriched English with vocabulary and culture. And Spanglish, or Espanglish if you are a native Spanish speaker, is realizing the latest inflow or influx, or actually incursion, of English into Spanish. Again. And so the circle continues.

From Spanish Mid 17th century: from Spanish, alteration (influenced by avocado 'advocate') of aguacate, from Nahuatl ahuacatl.avocado: Oxford Dictionary (online) Mid-17th century: from Spanish, alteration (influenced by avocado ‘advocate’) of aguacate, from Nahuatl ahuacatl.

Common ground

Common Ground

If you live in Indiana or Tennessee, it may never occur to you to use the spellings organise, colour or oenology. Actually you might never use oenology, or the American counterpart enology for that matter, unless you are a true wine enthusiast. By the same token, if you live in London or Dublin, you would never consider using color or flavor. You may however use organize instead of organise, especially if you are an academic or follow Oxford Dictionaries’ spelling preferences.

But this situation appears to be changing with the increase in exposure to all regional varieties of English. And the common ground of course is the Internet, or if you prefer, the internet. Now we all have access to any corner of the world from our own living rooms, kitchens or local cafés.

During the last three decades I have lived in five countries and taught English to many non-native speakers, as well as native English speakers in the US at the university level. Foreign students of English are often exposed to a variety of “Englishes”, and often they don’t even realize there are variations of English. Add in their exposure to English worldwide on the Internet – the good, the bad and the truly ugly – and the result is a true hodgepodge of linguistic chaos. Pure anarchy.

Everyone is able to communicate in English, with some mishaps from time to time. So is there really a problem? For simply communicating, probably very little. For writing well and writing professionally. A lot. A heck of a lot. To use the colloquial, a helluva lot. (Yes, it is in Webster’s New World, 4th and 5th editions.)

Our common ground then is an English that can serve us as a useful tool to communicate both informally as well as an advanced tool for writing, be it for your own blog or to submit to The New York Times or the Financial Times.

Fortunately we are entering a time when there are more and more programs and tools to aid us in our writing endeavors (or endeavours). Under Links above, this blog will list some of the most useful sites and programs currently available.

One word, one spelling?

Spelling rulesThe question of spelling reform is an important one. Should there be one form – that is, one spelling, one grammar, one common meaning — of English words and terms? There are currently two to six or even more ways to spell certain words.

For example, the spellings organization and organisation are different depending on the region of the world. In the US and Canada, organization is preferred; in the UK and Australia, organisation is preferred. Exception: in the UK, Oxford Dictionary and British academics prefer organization (and I bet you knew that an exception was coming). So there can even be two spellings of a word within one country.

Then there are multiple syllables that can vary within a single word like: sulfurization, sulphurisation, sulphurization. Next add a prefix, with or without a hyphen: desulfurization, de-sulfurization, desulphurisation, de-sulphurisation, desulphurization and de-sulphurization. And the list goes on, in fact there are tens of thousands of these two types of spelling variations in English.

Does it matter which form we use? In all cases we understand the word. But in writing well the credibility of the author is questioned. Does this person think clearly and consistently? If their spelling lacks consistency, is their thinking just as inconsistent and unclear?

Consistency, clarity. Let’s leave no doubt and use one spelling, at least in the same document.

NOTE: By the way, and just for fun, see what a differences punctuation makes. Spelling rules: ~ Spelling rules. ~ Spelling rules! With a colon it is a noun phrase where you can expect a list to follow; second, a complete sentence, where spelling is the noun/subject and rules is the verb, “to dominate or govern”; third, spelling is the noun/subject and rules is an informal verb meaning “is the best”. So what’s the message here.

English is not just for the “English”

Talking headsWebsites, text messages, blogs, emails, chat programs, Skype … English dominates communication globally. But the majority of those who use English are non-native speakers. There are approximately 500 million native speakers of English compared to 1.5 billion non-native speakers.

Then there are the native speakers of English who are further divided into various camps. In fact, Amercian-English speakers outnumber the English (that is, British) speakers by at least 5 to 1. Add in the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and the many other countries where English is an official or second language and the picture of a single English language is rather murky.

All in all, the face of English is far from unified. Spell-check programs offer up to 18 varieties of English. Websites often distinguish between British and American English. Some even offer World or International English as an option.

We English speakers, especially the natives, are fiercely loyal to our own particular form, which is understandable since language is a strong component of identity.

The varieties of English serve to strengthen our individual identities and, for the most part, rarely cause a lack of communication. In fact, for international purposes a Common English is evolving that has acquired many names including International English, World English, Global English and even Wenglish and Globish.

It seems natural that a common, international variety will develop from the existing native forms. As in many cases, this can result in a situation called diglossia. Oxford defines diglossia as “A situation in which two languages (or two varieties of the same language) are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers. The term is usually applied to languages with distinct ‘high’ and ‘low’ (colloquial) varieties, such as Arabic.” (See Oxford Dictionaries here)

Do we need a unified form of English? If so, who would decide, where would it be used and which variety should be adopted? This blog will explore these questions and discuss the possibilities from the perspective of those who use English daily.