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.

Plain English, Plain Language – plain and simple

Double doublespeakIt all started with George Orwell when he wrote his essay “Politics and the English Language“ in 1946. Orwell was among the first in recent times to recognize that English was failing as a useful tool for communicating clearly and concisely. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four he coined the terms doublethink and newspeak and from there it’s but a short step to doublespeak.

Doublespeak is defined by Oxford Dictionaries online as deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language. (That’s a good description of many documents produced in government departments, legal offices, and even many private organizations.) Doublespeak has erroneously been credited to Orwell, but he is probably still responsible for the term. If only by analogy with doublethink and newspeak. In fact, linguists would call doublespeak a portmanteau, which is just a fancy term (French, of course) for a blend, borrowing the double from the first and the speak from the second. In keeping with Plain English, let’s call it by its more familiar name, a blend.  There we have it, a good example of Plain English working.

At one time or another we all cave in to the temptation of wanting to “dazzle and confound”, impress our colleagues and elevate our standing through the power of the pen, or now the pad, as in keypad or iPad. But there are many times that we should reconsider and choose the alternative: to write so anyone can understand us.

Now that is not to say that we should dumb down the English language. Not at all. There are just times when a simpler, straightforward word or term is the better choice. And that means we all have to write with the ultimate goal in mind – to give our readers information that can be read easily. One time. Reading a sentence twice is one time too many in today’s world of high-speed everything.

Historically the Plain English movement, in many forms, has been active in Great Britain and the U.S. since the 1970s. The Plain English Campaign in the UK states they are opposed to gobbledygook, jargon and legalese. Don’t forget the ubiquitous bureaucratese. And that can be extended to any terms that obscure meaning, or just simply complicate the message unnecessarily. As every writer knows, sometimes we have to kill our darlings. Ubiquitous is one of mine so let’s rewrite that as “…bureaucratese, which is found everywhere.” But don’t kill all your darlings. Just save these gems for your novel, blog or letters to your grandmother.

But back to history, in the U.S. in 1978 then-president Jimmy Carter issued an Executive Order with the goal of making government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them.” Other administrations followed with mandates to state and government offices, and in 2010 President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 followed by a new Executive Order in January 2011. The document states “[…our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” If you visit the official government site here, smack in the middle of the homepage is the heading Plain Language – It’s the Law.

But history, law and bureaucracy aside, don’t we all just simply want to get our message across to readers in the best way possible?

So lawyers and bureaucrats everywhere, beware! If we all write so everyone can understand us, we might not need to pay others to interpret our own language for us.

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.

Hello English speakers worldwide!

English Green

One world, one English, please! The need to communicate concisely and clearly in these times of instant everything has never been greater. English has become the common ground and an excellent tool to help people from all points on the compass understand one another.

Native or second language, we all need help to convey our messages effectively and efficiently. This blog will discuss the issues involved in communicating in the multilingual, multicultural world of the 21st century.

Happy communicating!

Freedom House World Map, see