Marry merry Mary!

Marry2The title above is perhaps an unlikely but perfectly logical and complete sentence, albeit a string of homophones – that is, words where the phones (a linguistic term for sounds) are pronounced the same but spelled differently. In fact, the word phone is a homograph. That is, words spelled alike but with different meanings; phone can mean either a telephone or a sound. Homophones and homographs like these clearly illustrate the complexity of spelling and meaning in English. And these are the tip of, you know, an underwater mountain of ice. To the delight of comedians, English has thousands.

Movements such as the Simplified Spelling Society have proposed that words be spelled as pronounced. So we could choose any of the three words and rewrite the sentence as “Marry marry Marry!” or “Merry merry Merry!” or “Mary mary Mary!” There are obvious limitations to such a solution. The alternative would be a generic phonetic spelling such as “Meri meri Meri!” Again, hurdles to overcome. In truth, Oxford shows slight variations in the first vowel sound, but in the general “broadcast” American English pronunciation, all three are pronounced the same. So whose pronunciation should we use?

The etymology, origins, of the words are different of course, see Oxford Dictionaries online.

marry: Middle English: from Old French marier, from Latin maritare, from maritus, literally ‘married’, (as a noun) ‘husband’.

merry: Old English myrige ‘pleasing, delightful’, of Germanic origin; related to mirth.

And Mary as a name  –  the traditional spelling – has many variations as well, including Merry.

By reducing English spelling to reflect pronunciation could potentially mean the loss of rich historical and cultural information as well as the problems of which standard of pronunciation to use. So we are back to the beginning.

Is the pope Catholic (or catholic)?

Church window 2Undoubtedly both. Definitely Catholic and most probably catholic.

But that is a discussion for theologians and philosophers and not to be addressed here. However, the question is posed to illustrate a linguistic point. Depending on style and interpretation, capitalization in English does matter. In short, the sentence is used to illustrate what a difference a “cap” can make (with apologies for the pun.)

Oxford Dictionaries online offers the following definitions:

Catholic (adjective) Of the Roman Catholic faith. Of or including all Christians. Relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church; (noun) A member of the Roman Catholic Church.

catholic (adjective) Including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.

There are differences in style, of course, depending on which dictionary or stylebook you use as your preferred reference book; both or neither vary in casing. But most reference books differentiate between the use of the adjective (or noun) related to the Roman Catholic faith and the general meaning of all-embracing or universal, usually by capitalizing the first meaning.

If these were the only pairs in our language, English would be simpler. But there are many. In fact, while on the subject of themes papal, “see” also the entry on the see, as in the Holy See, which is most often capitalized.

See (noun) The place in which a cathedral church stands, identified as the seat of authority of a bishop or archbishop.

And then there is also “sea”, a homophone, and a topic for another time.

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.

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.