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Englishes – An Open Discussion!

11 March 2011

I am always eager to have a discussion on the topics about which I write, but I would very much appreciate opinions on this topic, as it pertains to a larger project I am working on concerning language, culture and identity (the notion that our language is an indicator of who we are. For example, speaking Ghetto slang — called “ebonics” by some — says something about who you are, about what culture you identify yourself with. Similarly, as mentioned in this blog before, my inability to speak proper Norwegian identifies me as an outsider, a signal that I really belong to another culture.)

We would agree, I think, that English has become a world language. It is the language of international business, the language of academia, the language in which most pop music is sung, even when recorded by foreign artists. But the English spoken worldwide is not the standard American, British, Canadian or Australian English (and even those four have their variations when it comes to standards!)

In Singapore the word “lah” is frequently added to the end of English sentences: “Eat it, lah!” (which means something like: “Just eat it!”). In Salman Rushdie’s novels many characters demonstrate a particular brand of Indian English, uttering  such odd insults as “Donkey from somewhere!” And my own son commonly says “screw on the lights” in English (taken from the Norwegian “skru på”) to mean “turn on the lights.” Do these examples reflect a particular culture, or are they simply wrong in English?

As far back as 1983, Larry Smith pronounced: “English belongs to the world and every nation which uses it, even if it does so with a different tone, colour and quality” (Readings in English as an International Language, 1).

But this is, in fact, not the case in academia which requires adherence to a very specific way of communication in English and employs a system of gatekeepers (a.k.a editorial boards, peer-reviewers, style guides) to ensure that it is kept this way. I assume this is also the case when teaching ESL. We would tell our students not say: “She called him for stupid,” because in English we say, “She called him stupid.”

Just two weeks ago I received an email from the listserve at the journal of Transnational Literature in which Dr Iman Laversuch writes:

I am an US American sociolinguist in the English Department at the University of Cologne in Germany.  … I served as the guest editor for a special issue [of a journal] on Naming and War. To make sure that this issue included the perspectives and interests of our international audience, I took great pains to invite authors from around the world to submit papers. In the end, however, I found that it was exceedingly difficult to find authors outside of the English-speaking world who had sufficient skills in academic English to produce texts satisfactory for publication. As a direct result of this experience, I became extremely interested to know what the experience and opinions of other professional editors have been.

I responded to her that although I teach part-time at the University of Bergen my other job is “språkvask” – a Norwegian word that translates literally as “language wash.” Basically I am contracted to standardize the English of articles and books prior to publication for academics writing in English as a second language. My job involves correcting language errors, but also altering the English to sound more academic (less colloquial). I also refine the style.

This was of interest to Dr. Laversuch, who then sent me more questions about how I edit. One in particular caught my attention, as I sensed it is of key importance in connection with theories of global englishes: “Where and how do you draw the line between adhering to the norms of Anglo-American academia and preserving the personal and/or national style differences?”

The easy answer, although not the one that I am comfortable with, is that I take great pains to ensure that the style conforms to the standards of either British or American English, which means erasing all evidence of the author’s foreign national identity. Although the individual authors have not asked me to do this, I know from experience that this is what is expected from journals in the U.S. and U.K.

Should we embrace the world’s various englishes in all of their cultural manifestations? Ideas cannot be communicated if the English is too confusing. Furthermore, just as the spoken language says something about identity, the language used in a published work can be thought to reflect the intelligence and qualifications of the author. Too many simple sentences in a row (subject – verb – object sentences), for example, might suggest that the writer has only an elementary grasp of the language and is perhaps not someone with much authority.

Following are some examples of what I would call “national style” that I have molded into an English style in my “language wash” job:

  • In a collection of essays I copyedited for a professor at UiB the first sentence of an article by a German contributor was 12 lines long and the second was 8 lines, both containing a multitude of colons and semi-colons. While the German language allows for long, complicated sentences, this was a mouthful and a headache in English. I split the two sentences up into four. My German author was exceedingly angry with me – and that is not an overstatement. His response was that he speaks and writes fluently in English: who was I to correct him?
  • In another paper I recently edited the author began what came to be a tiresome amount of sentences with “but.” I substituted “however” or “nevertheless,” and combined overly short sentences with semi-colons. The response I received from the author was: “Don’t spend time on changing sentences that start with ‘But…’. I am aware of the rule that this should be avoided in written English but there are native English speakers who are outstanding writers who don’t avoid such sentences (like Jared Diamond). I strive to write as to-the-point as possible and then such sentences is a help rather than a problem. Also, a high frequency of short sentences is part of my personal style in Norwegian as well, so don’t spend time on changing such sentences.”

I do not yet know the journal’s response to his submission, but, the opposite view on style was shown by an author with whom I have worked for several years. I was unable to copyedit her most recent book and so she found someone else.

  • She writes: “We have just received a devastating review from Brill on our upcoming volume on miscellanies. It was copyedited by an American but a British reader was shocked and disgusted about the language. So, I am really very, very grateful for your help – I see again and again that the way you manage this is rare, and I am very happy you agree to help us.”

I am not reprinting her comment here to be boastful but to show that the immense amount of editing I do to make a text sound as though it was written by a native speaker is required by some publishers. Articles that do not meet the national standards of English academia in the U.S. and U.K. are often either rejected outright, or the publisher or journal requires the author to find a native speaker to edit the paper before resubmitting.

It is debatable whether these practices represent examples of cultural imperialism (when one nation imposes its culture and values onto another, presumably ‘weaker’ nation). One could argue that English publications do exist outside of the U.S. and U.K. that are more accepting of variances in style and language, yet by and large these publications are ranked lower, have less prestige. This means that it is easier for an academic to succeed if he or she adheres to the English standards set by the level 2 and 3 British and American journals and publishing houses. (In Europe academics are given research points based on the prestige of the publisher / journal that publishes the article. A level 2 journal gives the academic 2 points and a higher number of points yearly will lead to more research money and a more impressive reputation.)

Should the world of publishing, and in particular the world of scholarly publishing, also reflect current realities in world englishes? Should we be open to variances when teaching English as a second language? By maintaining an American or British standard of English — a single, correct English — are we guilty of perpetuating cultural imperialism, or simply preserving a particular culture?

A final thought from the recently published short story collection, Pulse (2011), by Julian Barnes in which an Englishman begins to date a German woman:

He got her to say, ‘I don’t think so’ instead of ‘I do not think’; but he actually preferred the way she talked. He always understood her, and those phrases which weren’t quite right seemed part of her. Maybe he didn’t want her talking like an Englishwoman in case she started behaving like an Englishwoman. (9)

A final thought, but not a final answer!

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 March 2011 16:27

    Great post, Jena. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that English has become the international lingua franca; there are so many more straightforward languages out there. But it is what it is (there I go starting a sentence with ‘but’!) In spite of its hybridity and archaic spelling, English is, on the other hand, highly flexible, since we don’t have an Academie enforcing the rules, and several Englishes are permitted to exist at one time. Formal English is one of these Englishes, and as such must be used by those who wish to enter the community that uses it as its means of communication. Certainly, there is an underlying imperialism at work, for how else would English have obtained this status? The language will continue to change, and may even be displaced. Perhaps we will see blogs on the poorly transcribed Chinese characters of North American academics before too long…
    If you’re going to continue to look into the subject beyond the academic, I have a friend who is an award-winning author of ESL books. He recently shut down his blog http://sixthings.net/ (it’s still up, but he’s no longer posting), but if you like, send me a message and I’ll put you in touch.

    • jenaconti permalink
      15 March 2011 14:05

      Hi Barnaby – a little late in responding, but thanks for this. It is helpful to think of academic English that represents one particular culture (as it is not spoken by everyone in the US or UK either). I’d love to discuss with your friend – and thanks for the link to his blog.

  2. 11 March 2011 22:24

    This subject has been a recurring concern for several colleagues who are not native speakers, want to publish for an international audience, but run extra costs for having native readers read their work and after all that frequently find that Anglophone publishers aren’t interested in the work because it deals primarily with non-English speaking regions. End result, Northern European academics using English so that their Eastern European colleagues can read the material (and vice-versa).

    And the subject seems to arise more and more frequently in prefaces to publications. I recall a preface for a book edited by a Netherlander who wrote about the process of getting this international group to submit essays in English, some of the advantages of having a lingua franca and some of the tyranny and/or injustices it imposed as well. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the book so for now that tidbit is next to useless, but I’ll try to dig it up.

    • jenaconti permalink
      15 March 2011 14:08

      find that book! I want to use it for Helsinki.

    • Anne permalink
      15 March 2011 17:42

      Just out of personal interest: Is one actually allowed to say ‘Netherlander’ in stead of ‘Dutch person’ and would anyone understand it? Anyway, the authors name is probably something like Jansen, de Vries or van Dijk, if that is any help.

      • jenaconti permalink
        15 March 2011 18:29

        Netherlander always makes me think of Neanderthal … so maybe not the best word?

      • jenaconti permalink
        15 March 2011 18:32

        The official response from Wikipedia: “In English the country is called ‘the Netherlands’ (or frequently – but inaccurately – ‘Holland’), while the people and the language are called ‘Dutch’. ”

        Why is Holland inaccurate? I thought that was perfectly acceptable! Who’s writing this crap?

      • Anne permalink
        16 March 2011 12:23

        Well my dear, that is because Holland refers to two provinces within the country, Southern Holland and Northern Holland. Historically these were the provinces where the government resided, where most of the trade took place, where the nobility lived, e.g. where it all happened. Both Holland and Nederland refer to ‘low land’. Nowadays we also call that Holland area ‘Randstad’, something like ‘border city’, because all major dutch cities are bordering a ‘green heart’ in the middle. When I studied in Maastricht though, in the most southern province in the country, everyone from ‘the north’ (e.g. from outside that province) was referred to as ‘Hollander’. Which for someone like me who is not from ‘Holland’, but rather from the countryside in the north, is a bit of a mini-insult. Ach well, the smaller the country, the more complexes, it seemed, we got a bit of a Napoleon thing going on I’m sure.

  3. 12 March 2011 20:57

    Interesting perspectives, Jena. I remember once my sister remarked that when travelling in Europe she found that other Europeans who weren’t native English speakers understood her a lot more easily when she spoke English with a fake Norwegian accent than when she spoke English with her usual mothertongue Australian accent. I wonder whether a Finn similarly understands Spanish-style written English better than American English?

    • jenaconti permalink
      15 March 2011 14:07

      And how can Norwegians study in Newcastle and understand the Geordie dialect when they can’t understand ME? But that is another topic altogether … 🙂 I like that the internet is levelling out all of these englishes (to some extent anyway). Or adding to them at the very least.

  4. Anne permalink
    15 March 2011 17:55

    Oh, it is so hard to write ‘proper’ academic English, or even non-academic English, that flows and sounds like a coherent story. In English one absolutely has the advantage of being able to say things more concise than in for example Netherlandish. In the latter language I feel it is more common to describe in a few words what can be described in one word in English. See, just these sentences are probably examples of that. As a fairly okay writer in the glorious Netherlandish language, it is rather frustrating to produce work that – to an English audience – probably sounds like barely high school English.

    Ah, but at least now I know why my articles get rejected: I am not academically incompetent, I am a victim of language racism! 🙂

  5. Bethany permalink
    16 March 2011 04:17

    Jena, I’m so enjoying your blog and hearing your voice in your writing.

    It is fascinating to see your perspective on this topic. I have experienced this issue most memorably in teaching even though most of my students are native English speakers writing in English (which is still incredibly difficult for them, sadly). In one of my first courses, I had a student upset about getting graded down for writing in what she labeled as “African American vernacular”, which was accepted at her HBCU in undergrad. I asked around with my colleagues and academic dean about whether I was supposed to allow students to write in what I (likely offensively) labeled non-standard English and if so, who could help me know the grammar rules of this dialect so that I could grade appropriately. Not surprisingly, my colleagues were reluctant to address this issue or make a clear ruling.

    However, I now have a statement on my syllabi that is very specific and narrow in describing the requirements of standard English in written expression. I did it because I saw no other way to navigate debates about the acceptability of regional language variants and just wanted to simplify grading and expectations. But there is undoubtedly a cost on a cultural level to this conformity/ “language racism.”

    Thanks for beginning this conversation…

    • jenaconti permalink
      16 March 2011 10:09

      This is really interesting, Bethany. Would you be willing to share the statement on your syllabus? I’m giving a paper on called “Translating English into English” in August in Helsinki and want ideas / examples, not of what I will label “language racism,” but of what I think are real life debates, questions and attempts at solutions. I do very much agree with Barnaby (first commenter here) that there is an academic community that has its on language. We acknowledge such a thing as “Business English” (courses are taught in Norway on it). Yet at the same time, when we make standards in academia they seem to belong to an elite, and at times, outdated way of speaking. I think one issue in academia is that we judge the intelligence of the argument by the quality of the speaker’s communication skills. I tell my students that they can write “He ain’t gotta be” but they won’t get much respect for it. If they want their ideas to be respected and taken seriously, they need to write in formal, standard English (which I know is saying: if you want me to respect you, then do it my way).

      This brings up the question of register – we do insist on the division between formal and informal speech. But is this necessary? And who does it serve? (is power involved in this?)

      I wonder if journals should also come up with a statement that lays out their expectations for language?

      And like you, I wonder about the costs on the cultural level – the continual sidelining of other ways of speaking, which relegates them to sub-culture status.

      Thanks for sharing your personal experiences!

    • Dianna Potter permalink
      23 May 2011 19:21

      I’m jumping into this conversation months after the fact, but my background is in linguistics and TESOL/ESL/EFL and so I felt compelled to comment…

      Bethany, AAVE (African American Vernacular English, also called simply African American English or Ebonics) has been studied in detail by linguists at this point and there are plenty of people who speak this as a native language/dialect. I’m totally fascinated by your student who was permitted to use it in academic writing at the university level – it’s often encouraged for early education teachers to be sensitive to non-standard dialect usage by their students (particularly in early reading and writing instruction) and I’ve even heard of incorporating non-standard dialect use into the classroom as late as high school, but academic writing in a university is a different story!

      Jena, you may already be aware of this, but the theme of the international TESOL conference this year was international Englishes. I wasn’t present but many of my colleagues were and the convention website has a lot of interesting information to check out: http://www.tesol.org/s_tesol/convention2011/

      The issue of academic English and register is an interesting one to me. I think one of the stronger arguments that can be made for some of the more stylistic changes you’ve made in your own work is that the language shouldn’t distract from the message, and so the more the writing conforms to conventional norms, the less chance there is for distraction. Of course, everything is relative, and the response to the writing style will always vary based on audience… complex problems have complex solutions, I’m afraid.

      • jenaconti permalink
        24 May 2011 11:11

        Hi Dianna – Thanks so much for your comments here. I mean for this to be an on-going discussion and am happy to learn about the theme of the recent TESOL conference. I completely agree with you that it comes down to distracting from the message – and yet at the same time I wonder: how long before things written in “other” Englishes are no longer a distraction? Which is to say, should we be more accepting of differences like AAVE so that they are no longer “other” (in which case English is no longer a language of “either/or” but “both/and”). I don’t know about this and can argue several sides. I still don’t have a clear direction for my upcoming paper on the subject (to be given in August). Maybe because it is precisely the debate that interests me – so thanks again for the link to the conference.

        I had a quick look at your amazing “Paper Tiger” website and was immediately taken in by your designs and photos, so thank you for stopping by this blog and leading me to yours!

  6. 17 March 2011 12:46

    Hi Jenna

    Great topic here, and I know I’ve answered you about changing times in English as a foreign language materials in other communication.

    Your comment about academia and language reminds me of a great book by Robin Lakoff called Talking Power. Here’s a taste:

    Academese, like any linguistic form exists to fulfill the needs of its speakers, who have a peculiar job: while overtly maintaining a post of egalitarianism and collaborativeness, their intro-institutional relations are really based on hierarchy and adversariality. Trying to maintain those several kinds of relations, overt and covert, drives academics to the turgidities of academese.

    She also points out how the use of jargon changes over the course of an academic career. One starts off using little (because you don’t know it), then more and more as one progresses. After one reaches a certain stage (post-graduate, perhaps professor, or tenure) the use of jargon drops significantly. There is less to prove, as one has already been accepted into that discourse community so one can dispense with it more.

    Anyway, this stuff isn’t without its controversy of course. Her book is out of print I think, but you may still find a copy like I did on Amazon.

  7. 24 May 2011 12:58

    English, in whatever form, dialect or lingusitic nuance it arrives in is a massively dynamic language.
    Whilst it may not appear to the casual observer to have the passion of the Latin languages, the emotion of French or can be viewed as stiff, inflexible and cold by many who ‘visit’ it, it is indeed a wonderful and amazingly felxible tool of communication.
    Whilst the English empire has wthout doubt had a huge influence on English becoming a global language, many other factors exist that I find fascinating and extremely interesting.
    English is a scientific language, it is very specific with word meanings and where they are appropriate, Yet the first rule of English taught to us in my University lectures was that for every rule in English, there is an exception.
    It is a language that can freely move with the times, adopt new words, create new terms of reference and incorporate slang, compressions and new meanings for old words as easily as falling off the proverbial log.
    I have found that for many to whom English is a second language, they impose on it many of the same ‘rules’ and restrictions that may apply to their native tongue.
    Yet at the same time, in English, we write a certain way, it is not always how we might say it verbally, or we often choose different words, forms or emphasis to convey context, importance and to avoid miscommunication.
    As a native English speaker, with a degree in the language, I have to admit that I love it. It is the efficient, shiny, brilliantly engineered tool in my toolbox.
    Sure it isn’t the coolest to look at, doesn’t make the sexy sounds or invoke feelings of endearment as some of the other tools available, but it works, everytime, doing exactly what is required of it and all the other tools are compatible with it in one way or another.
    I think this is part of my problem with Norwegian as I am waiting for the great language war of Norway to end, for a winner to be declared and allow me to focus on one language, one dialect, one pronunciation. I find Norwegian to be an ‘experience based’ language, with certain sounds just escaping my vocal range making for easy misunderstandings. But since I live here, I will keep trying.

    • jenaconti permalink
      30 May 2011 22:42

      Lots of interesting stuff to think about and comment on here. Thanks! This thing about English moving freely with the times I can certainly agree with — unlike German which has laws attached to what can and cannot be used. And I think there is something like this in Icelandic as well. But English from the beginning has been a mixed bag of a language. So I’m for continuing that tradition!

    • justine permalink
      31 August 2011 14:57

      I get what you mean about long translated-German sentences. Worse still when you have to wait til the end of them to get to a verb (no offence intended). I found a sentence in a book by a very respected German theorist that actually didn’t have a verb at all, so I guess it wasn’t one actually, but the form was in place (started with a capital, finished with a fullstop!). The Eng trans of Bourdieu’s Distinction also really suffers, but ppl say the criticisms of the work’s style in translation are invalid in the Fr original, which just goes to show how stylistic features permeate every aspect of what we’re reading, and importanly the readers’ perceptions of the author.
      I love the different Norwgeian dialects. I just think its such a beautiful thing that you can know where somebody is from, geographically-speaking, just by the words they use, and maybe the name they have. (Not that I’m particularly skilled at it, mind you!) Paradoxical then that English spelling reflects etymology while we are so ruthless about spelling mistakes and less than high literacy, while Norwegian makes imported loan words look Norwegian but is flexible to a degree about spelling, because of the idea that it should reflect pronounciation or something, and something about eequality b… can’t see my typing have disappeared behind login screen! 🙂

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