Monday, March 1, 2010

American and English


Recently I visited London to attend a wedding. The bride had graduated from
Oxford, and among the invitees were some of her fellow graduates and a
professor. During the long ceremony, we intermittently chatted about London
weather, Gordon Brown, Queen Lizzie, and language.

Among other things, we talked about the differences between British and
American English. I recalled reading about the inroads American English
is making even in the UK, so I decided to carry out an experiment to find
to what extent American English had "corrupted" English English.
I told them that sometimes the British write certain numerals (e.g. 1 and 7)
differently from how they're written in the US, and asked them to write a
short sentence so I could see if there were other differences in the script.

I quickly thought of a sentence for them to write:

"Her favorite flavors were in the gray catalog, she realized."

I said it aloud and the five Oxonians and the Oxford don kindly wrote it down
on their napkins (serviettes). I collected the napkins and then told them about
the experiment ‑‑ it had nothing to do with handwriting. In reality, that
sentence had five words that could be written with American or British
spellings (favorite/favourite, flavor/flavour, gray/grey, catalog/catalogue

Of the six people who participated in the experiment, three spelled (spelt)
everything the British way. The other three had one or more words spelled in
American English.
What does this experiment prove? Not much, according to my 12‑year‑old
daughter, "Your sample size is too small."

Language, by its very definition, is a vehicle of exchange. A language means
nothing in a vacuum. When two people share, they give and take, though the
movement is not always equal in both directions. The US export of movies,
television, music, books, technology, etc. includes something that travels
under the radar: Language.

Will American English take over the other Englishes? Probably not. Will the
English language diverge into distinct languages just as Latin turned into
French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages? Hope not.

But who knows? Only time can tell, but in the meantime, let's celebrate the
diversity of languages by learning words English has borrowed from some of
the less‑known languages: Hungarian, Hebrew, Nootka, Afrikaans, and Persian.
Even though they're not as well‑known to most of us, they are still spoken
by thousands or millions of people.

goulash (GOO‑lahsh, ‑lash) noun

1. A mixture of disparate elements; hodgepodge.

2. A stew of meat and vegetables, seasoned with paprika.

3. In the game of bridge, a round played with hands produced
by a rearrangement of previously dealt cards.

[From Hungarian gulyás, short for gulyáshús (herdsman's meat),
from gulya (herdsman) + hús (meat).]