Thursday, June 30, 2011

Which English to you speak?

Geography affects language, no doubt about it.  Israeli is a small country, barely six hours drive from top to bottom.  Modern Hebrew, but not ancient Hebrew which was diffused throughout Europe and Asia, has one actual form no matter where you physically are located.  In other words, residents of Eilat and Kiriat Shmone, the southern and northern tips of Israel, understand each other without any difficulty.  By contrast, Arabic, formally spoken over thousands of kilometers, has become so localized that Egyptians don’t understand Moroccans.   There may be one literary, written Arabic, but countless spoken Arabic languages.

Likewise, English is spoken as a native tongue throughout the world in North America, the U.K, Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, and Kenya, to name just a few.  These places are geographically, ethnically, and sociologically far apart.  It is no surprise that a localized form of English has appeared in each country.  In fact, the main surprise is how homogenous English has remained.  Once you get used to the local accent (the Scottish one can be a bit difficult to pick up in the beginning, I admit), slang, and spelling variations (so practical that American drive thru), we all really speak the same language.  The list of spelling differences is so small relative to overall English vocabulary as to make it irrelevant in terms of comprehension.  On the surface, it looks that English is English is English, to paraphrase that trite phrase.

However, the main users of English are not actually native speakers, but people who speak English as a second or even third language.  Going to an international conference makes you realize how diversified the English language has become.   The program states that the main presentations are in English, but that seems an illusion.  The words may be in English, but the sentence structure, creative use of certain terms, and intonation seem to create a country-specific language well beyond any Yankee-Brit quibbling. These speakers of English language as a second language have created a type of creole, a mix of English vocabulary and local structure/grammar.  The African slaves to the United States and Caribbean Islands did the same hundreds of years ago.  The process is natural and unavoidable.  One could argue that the English language itself is a creole of Anglo Saxon and French.  After more than twenty three years in Israel, my English has been affected by Hebrew expressions and forms, an experience common to any immigrant in any country.

If variety is the spice of life, then English is jubilee (an English word with a Hebrew root).  To use a modern phrase, it began as a localization (or localization in the U.K) and has never stopped.  It maintains this strong central “English” core allowing universal understanding, but allows speakers to add their personal touch.   Viva la difference!

I welcome any comments and remarks.

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