Column: Varieties of English

Published on September 16, 2008
(Links to follow)

In Sydney last week, I caught sight of an intriguing book: “Australia’s Language Potential,” by Michael Clyne. Did the author (a linguistics professor at two top Australian universities) perhaps mean the prospects of exporting his country’s blunt and bracing variety of English?

I like Australian English’s egalitarian drive to keep things familiar: Sunglasses are called “sunnies” (usefully enough), instant lottery tickets are called “scratchies” (we know where the word, if not the source of luck, comes from); anyone who spends too much time riding the waves is called a “surfie,” a sick leave is called (you guessed it) a “sickie.” And that’s only the S section in Koala Net’s ready-to-use Australian slang dictionary.

But in fact, Clyne’s book (according to its introduction, which was all I managed to read) is about almost the exact opposite: Australia’s missed opportunity to grow out of a monolingual (English-only) culture into a thriving multilingualism. “We are very fortunate that our national language and lingua franca, English, is also the most widespread international lingua franca. However, as I hope to show, we disadvantage ourselves if we believe that one language is sufficient.” And again: “This book argues that we need to develop our language potential to the fullest—so that young Australians, regardless of their background, can attain a high level of competence in at least one language in addition to English—to benefit them culturally, cognitively, in communicative competence, and in many cases in terms of understanding themselves and their families.”

I do not know whether Clyne’s thesis has received a fair hearing. I note, with some apprehension, that I found the book in a Borders branch for discounted books. (The market can be such a cynic.)

But the book’s basic appeal—do not put all the country’s eggs in one linguistic basket, to hijack a familiar phrase—rings true in the Philippines as well.

* * *

Philippine English seems to draw on two main sources. Politics has given us “fiscalizer,” “aggrupation,” even the black-humor inversion of “salvage” to mean an extrajudicial killing. And show business has given us halfway English words like “connect” (as in, “Wala kaming ‘connect,’” when the better word to use would be the noun “connection.”

But is “connection” in fact better than “connect”? My friend Jose Carillo, the author of the bestselling “English Plain and Simple,” would say no; my friend Isabel Pefianco Martin, of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines, may perhaps say yes.

* * *

The language of exaggeration. The letters I received from last week’s column on the lies of Sarah Palin and the hypocrisy of the Republican Party can be classified into three in-boxes. Congratulations went into the first, disapproval (with thought-provoking comment, including one from someone an Australian would perhaps describe as “mad as a cut snake”) went into the second; a reprimand, for essentially wasting time on other countries’ problems, went into the third.

Last week, however, I failed to raise two points, two hypocrisy tests, so to speak, that I had originally wanted to emphasize.

The Republican Party has (successfully) stained Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama with the spilled ink of celebrity, lumping him (effectively) with vapid stars like Paris Hilton simply because he can draw huge crowds. Now that Palin, the attractive governor of Alaska who is John McCain’s surprising choice of a running mate, has been proven to be a great crowd-drawer too, what happens to the viciously cynical celebrity argument?

The Republican Party has also applied its jujitsu-throw of a campaign operation to Obama’s acknowledged rhetorical gifts; he speaks so well it’s all too good to be true. But the party faithful, especially its conservative base, has embraced Palin for passing her most crucial test at the party’s political convention. And what, exactly, did she do? She gave a good speech.

It pains me to say that the party that claims to represent the values vote is, in the 2008 elections, the party that does not care for the truth. Language, too, is a character test.

* * *

This week’s cover story in Slate magazine, headlined “Lies, damned lies, and Barack Obama,” lists the number of lies the two presidential candidates have committed. In this sordid contest, McCain is a landslide winner.

* * *

Fitting copy to a publication’s house style is what copy editors do.

Much of the house style consists of specific choices, consistently chosen. The use of “US” as a substitute adjective for “American,” for example, is familiar: “US offensive,” “US elections.” The practice, as I understand it, is taken from the Associated Press rulebook, the same guide that assumes (as the Inquirer does, for convenience’s sake) that a dollar sign without a country’s modifying initial is by default American.

Sometimes, however, the editing changes can be downright head-scratching. A column I wrote about a closed-off street in the “village” where I live mutated on to become a closed-off street in a “subdivision”—a very Filipino way of saying “residential village.”

While “subdivision” is a term of art in real estate, I know very few people outside the Philippines who use it to describe the residential village they live in. Besides, “village” is really what we call our place. It’s in the name itself.

But that’s how it is, among those who accept the discipline of editing. As the Aussies would say about bad news, “That’d be right.”


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