Posted tagged ‘English’

Linguistic pedantry

July 17, 2018

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?


Linguistic crepusculum?

January 9, 2013

If you are an English speaker, then you have available to you a usable vocabulary that is significantly larger than that of other languages. It is estimated that English has maybe 1 million words, which could be nearly five times that of French. Furthermore, it is thought that a new word is added every two hours or so. But how many of all these do we use?

Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In one piece of field work that was presented to me about eight years ago, it was estimated that many people’s average active vocabulary – the number of words he or she would use on a regular basis – may be as low as 1,500.

There is also some evidence that the English language’s capacity for the active use of synonyms, whereby a variety of words is regularly used with the same or a similar meaning, is being eroded. A distinguished person is probably now rarely described as eximious, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is probably not often called hamose, nor would be be described as an hallion. But that means we are depriving the language, and ourselves, of some wonderful opportunities. An illustration of this was provided by the American linguist Richard Lederer in his introduction to the Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate:

‘One of the happiest features of possessing a capacious vocabulary is the opportunity to insult your enemies with impunity.  While the maddening crowd gets mad with exhausted epithets such as ‘You rotten pig’ and ‘You dirty  bum,’ you can acerbate, deprecate, derogate, and excoriate your nemesis with a battalion of laser-precise pejoratives.  You can brand him or her a grandiloquent popinjay, venal pettifogger, nefarious miscreant, flagitious recidivist, sententious blatherskite, mawkish ditherer, arrant peculator, irascible misanthrope, hubristic narcissist, feckless sycophant, vituperative virago, vapid yahoo, eructative panjandrum, saturnine misanthrope, antediluvian troglodyte, maudlin poetaster, splenetic termagant, pernicious quidnunc, rancorous anchorite, perfidious mountebank, or irascible curmudgeon.’

So are we now reduced to a small selection of often four-letter dressed expletives? And is everything desirable just, well, ‘nice’?

If all this is so, what are the causes? What can be done to maintain English as a peculiarly rich language with a subtle and varied vocabulary? In particular, how can we harness the many opportunities now afforded by information technology to ensure that it is a platform for verbal sophistication? This is a cause worth fighting for.

The Bard as burden?

August 28, 2011

I recently took part in a conversation that I found extraordinarily troubling. Those taking part were two schoolteachers, one university lecturer and two businesspeople. The topic of conversation was secondary school reform. And the consensus of all those taking part, except for me, was that it was time to retire William Shakespeare from the curriculum. The arguments given in favour of this proposition included the amount of time given over to Shakespeare that could be spent on more contemporary drama; the way in which highlighting Shakespeare perpetuated an ‘English’ perspective on the world at a time when many other cultures needed more attention; the difficulty in making students understand the archaic language; the obvious problem inherent in the white maleness of Shakespeare.

So are these good points? Should we see Shakespeare as just one more dead white male taking up too much of our cultural attention?

In this anniversary year of the Authorised Version of the Bible (the ‘King James’ Bible), it may be worth recalling that this translation of scripture and the works of Shakespeare together more or less created the sound and flow of what we now know as English. Shakespeare was not just another author, he was a designer of what became the world’s primary language. Nor was his work focused on England, or even on an English understanding of history, culture and politics.

I am strongly in favour of encouraging today’s students to engage with modern literature, in English and other languages. But to imagine that this requires us to abandon Shakespeare seems, to me at least, to be absurd.

Crossing the language barriers

May 25, 2011

So let’s say you’re from Indonesia and you’d like to study management through the medium of English. Where do you go? Britain? The United States? Maybe not. In fact, it’s not at all unlikely that you’ll choose to go to Germany, and that you’ll enjoy all the amenities of Kaffee und Kuchen without ever having to say the words. Germany is open for higher education business, in English. Or rather, in what they call ‘international English’, which apparently is English without a trace of a Yorkshire accent; or even an American one.

This is what we learn from a report by the BBC’s education correspondent, Sean Coughlan. Not only are German universities now offering English language programmes, they are even providing them to international students without charging them any tuition fees. How this model is financially viable could be a matter of discussion, but in the meantime it has moved Germany into top position in a league table, compiled by the British Council, of countries most friendly to overseas students – well ahead of the United Kingdom and the United States. For now the number of student places available under this model is still limited, but if this kind of provision is expanded it could have major implications.

German universities are still not in the top league of research institutions, and they will still find it difficult to match the attractions of the Ivy League and Oxbridge. But they may nevertheless develop a growing number of international students and graduates who will become ambassadors for them in their home countries. Just as English becomes more and more the dominant language globally of both trade and scholarship, its country (or countries) of origin may lose ground. The globalisation of higher education may yet involve many unexpected elements.

Research globalisation and language matters

May 6, 2011

A few months ago, while waiting for a reception to begin, I was chatting to a young man who was registered as a PhD student in one of our universities and who was telling me with great energy and enthusiasm about his research topic. Or at least I think that is what he was doing, because to be honest, his English was not really fluent. He was enormously likeable, and in fact I am sure that his academic and intellectual credentials were impeccable, but his English was not.

Does this matter? Well, there is no doubt that we need to encourage the mobility of researchers, including those doing PhDs. We need to ensure that people have the opportunity to benefit from the exchange of information and ideas, and that they learn to work in international, multicultural teams. But what if there is no real common language? Should that be a barrier? Or perhaps we might also ask that if there is to be a shared language, can we always insist (or even expect) that it is English?

This question is likely to receive further attention as a result of the admission by the University of Derby that 60 per cent of its doctoral students fail to complete their their research and do not proceed to the degree. One of the reasons identified by the university for this state of affairs is that too many of their students do not have sufficient English language proficiency to complete the work.

In fact this has the potential to be a rather complex and sensitive topic, because wrapped up in the language issue there could be subtle points of a racist nature – which is what I am always tempted to expect when the Daily Telegraph climbs on to the bandwagon. But equally we have to take seriously the potential problems caused by an inability to communicate in the language of the research institution.

One unusual take on this issue that I came across recently was the suggestion by an Asian professor that English should be the accepted lingua franca of all global research, and that researchers simply needed to accept that they have to learn English. Is that fair, I asked. Research is a form of language anyway, he replied, and there is no point disseminating it in a form that cannot be read and therefore used and developed by the international community of scholars.

It’s an approach that makes me uneasy. But it may well win out. And maybe it should, I suppose. Perhaps.

The language frontier

September 5, 2010

In the 1977 I remember hearing an interview on RTE (Irish radio) with Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, the former President of Ireland. He told the story of how, when on an official visit to China, he had indicated to his Chinese hosts that, on the occasion of a planned dinner in his honour in Beijing, he wished to speak in Irish. He offered to provide an English translation in advance, but was told politely by the Chinese that this would not be necessary, as they would have their own Irish language experts present at the event. Ó Dálaigh mused that if it had been the other way round, and a Chinese dignitary coming to Ireland had decided to speak in Chinese, there would have been no one in Ireland to provide a translation.

Of course that is different now, to the extent that we certainly have some people here who can speak, and translate from, Mandarin Chinese. However, I suspect that most of them would be Chinese by birth. I recently heard an English TV journalist ask a 12 year old boy somewhere in provincial China whether he had read any English books. Yes, the boy responded modestly, all of the novels of Charles Dickens, in English. I very much doubt that there are many 12 year olds in Ireland or England who could make the same claim, and certainly none who will have read any serious amount of literature in Chinese.

In the era of the internet and globalisation, we now have much more direct connections with other people from other cultures all over the world. But far from prompting much greater proficiency in other languages, this global neighbourhood seems to conduct its business almost entirely in English.When I was myself in China quite recently, I was a guest at a major ceremony in a Beijing university, and sat next to a young Chinese student who had never been outside China but who spoke English totally fluently and almost without any trace of an accent. He was quite surprised when I suggested to him that Mandarin Chinese would become a very influential language internationally; maybe, he suggested, but then again, perhaps not in China. He told me that it was the view of many of his generation, or at least those of them living in Chinese cities, that English would be their main language of work and possibly even of leisure. On another recent occasion in Germany I found that the German students I was meeting were surprisingly unappreciative of my speaking in German to them – they wanted to talk to me in English. And again, I have just come across some promotional literature issued by a Dutch and a German university emphasising that all their courses were offered through English.

The spread of English probably owes much to the internet. It has created a view amongst some English speakers that learning other languages is a waste of time, and so for the past decade or so language courses in some universities have struggled to attract students. In 2010, even with the surge of additional student applications to the universities, the points required to study French at one Dublin university are considerably lower than they were ten years ago.

This trend is not good for us. It is true that English allows us to get by in business almost anywhere in the world, but without learning the languages of the countries with whom we want to develop relationships we will have an incomplete and insufficient understanding of their cultures. It is of course great that so many people come to Ireland to learn English, but we should also become much more serious about learning their languages. We are right to stress that Ireland is an English-speaking country and therefore an ideal place to conduct international business, but we should also want to be seen as a country that welcomes and understands other cultures.

We are what we speak

November 19, 2009

Today I had occasion to visit both a post office and a Garda (police) station. I should maybe add that there was no connection between these two, and that I was at liberty to enter and leave the Garda station by my own free will (in case you were worried). But they did have one thing in common: notices in the Polish language. Well, of course they also had notices in English, and some in Irish; but what struck me was that there were several in Polish.

We don’t yet know whether the influx of Polish (and other central and Eastern European) nationals in the course of the current decade is a temporary demgraphic phenomenon or whether these immigrants will stay for the long term; and if they do, we cannot yet tell how integrated they will become, and therefore to what extent their language needs will be reflected in public notices. But for now there are Polish newspapers, Polish masses in some catholic churches, and Polish notices in my local post office and Garda station.

In fact, how far do we expect languages to go beyond being a tool of communication, to become a cultural anchor for their speakers? In fact, which is more important, communication or culture? And where language is a tool of cultural identity, what does it tell us? My own first language was German, and indeed it was the only language I spoke until I was 7 years old and my family moved to Ireland. I then had to learn English fast, and indeed I became quite fluent in it after about six months. And since then I have, more or less at least, been fully bilingual, though I am more comfortable in English. But those people who have known me for a while and who understand both languages sometimes tell me that I am ‘different’ depending on which language I am speaking; they say I am more precise and less humorous in German. I don’t actually believe this, and I tend to think that people absorb the national stereotypes and simply expect to hear them in the language; but the stereotype may not be objectively true of any particular speaker.

But my point is this: to what extent do we need to identify with a language as a personal point of reference, an indicator of who we are and what we stand for? In my own case, the language I speak most fluently is definitely English, but does it define me? And if it doesn’t, does this open up a gap in my life? In Ireland of course this topic raises the question of whether the decline of Irish as a commonly spoken language has created cultural problems, or whether the localised version of English is able to provide the anchor needed.

Over a year ago I wrote a post for this blog about the spread of English as the global lingua franca.  It seems to me to be clear that whatever may be the shifts in geopolitical power over the coming century, linguistically English will sweep all before it – it is already making inroads even in China. So do we still need to learn anything else? The answer is yes, because we need to understand the culture and personality of those nations with whom we are in contact, even where we can adequately communicate with them in English. And as a country, we need to have the capacity for that understanding beyond the three or four most widely spoken languages in the world. That is why I am alarmed when I hear occasionally that we cannot afford to have university departments in Ireland that specialise in certain minority languages. That is a dangerous approach – the linguistic arrogance in the world of English speakers can be a source of tension and conflict. While we should certainly present ourselves as an English-speaking country (because of the advantages this brings in global trade), we should also make every effort to have centres of excellence, particularly in our universities, that provide us with some knowledge of other cultures and traditions.

For my own part, I think I am going to learn Polish, which is in any case the language of my ancestors.

Speaking in tongues

August 31, 2008

I am writing this blog in my second language – at least chronologically, in that I was born in Germany and had no occasion to speak English until my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. By the time I was 13 I was able to speak, after a fashion, four languages, if you count Latin (which I would).

Learning English was of course a great career move. English had been the international language of politics and business (though not necessarily of diplomacy) for some time. In fact, by the time I was at university those studying with me often rather looked down on those studying languages, as they rather thought that this was a waste of time.

For a short while, there was some speculation that Spanish might displace English as the key international language, based on the influence of people of Latin American origin in the United States. It never happened – many speak Spanish in the US and elsewhere, but it has not taken over from English as the dominant language. 

And now, in the face of growing Chinese influence globally, some have wondered whether Mandarin Chinese may become the new language to know. Maybe, but I know some Chinese people don’t think so. I was recently advised by a Chinese academic that English was also becoming more and more prominent in China, and would soon be the main business language there.

One of the reasons, perhaps, why English has remained so dominant is because of the internet. The origins of the internet are complex, but its initial growth and development was in the United States and in English, and so even when it spread elsewhere it tended to be in English – even in countries where English is hardly spoken at all websites have generally published web pages in English to give access to international readers. English is not just the lingua franca of the internet, it is the dominant medium. There have been suggestions that this trend should be resisted, and that bodies such as the European Union, or maybe some Asians countries, should drive through the development of other linguistic options and ensure that there is at least a more varied diet. Experience tells us that such moves will certainly fail – English, after all, is now the dominant language of the institutions of the EU, having long since displaced French.

And so the perception that you can ‘get by’ in English almost everywhere has seriously affected people’s willingness to study other languages, as universities have found out over recent years.

But how damaging is this? I for one believe that English is indeed likely to spread further as the lingua franca of business, politics and tourism, and there is not much that anybody can do about that. I would not be surprised therefor if demand for university language courses will be affected by that. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to know more about countries we visit and do business with, and this includes insights into culture. This can be supplied by language schools in our universities.

I do not believe that the case for learning languages is a weak one. We should go with the flow of English as the international language, but we should also remind ourselves that successful international relations, at whatever level, require some visible element of mutual respect. Let us hope that there will always be enough people who will want to know more about other cultures, to the benefit of Ireland’s international relations.

Spelling – should we care?

August 8, 2008

Every so often the question is asked – as it was in the Guardian newspaper this week – whether university teachers should worry about their students’ spelling when marking exams and assignments. This is part of the more general debate which occasionally emerges about the rules of orthography in English. Put succinctly, the question is this: are spelling rules for English so bizarre that we should just abandon them, either allowing a free-for-all or introducing a structured reform of spelling?

The problem with English is the sheer complexity of standard spelling, and its often irrational nature. The spelling of any individual word can be governed by any number of things: its linguistic root, its sound, an historical association, and so forth. But these criteria are not applied consistently to different words, and this produces a bewildering array of spellings for similar sounding words, together with an array of rules that nobody can explain any more. This is sometimes illustrated with words that rhyme but whose spelling is radically different: ‘though’ and ‘go’, ‘their’ and ‘hair’, ‘weir’ and ‘fear’, ‘night’ and ‘quite’. And what is the ‘k’ doing in ‘knife’, or the ‘l’ in ‘palm’?

The argument therefore sometimes goes that English spelling needs major reform, simplifying the complex rules and making spelling much more intuitive in line with phonetic principles. American spelling, it could be argued, has made a start (turning ‘plough’ into ‘plow’, for example), albeit a very modest one. Other languages have done this, and continue to do it. Both French and German spelling has been reformed from time to time.

However, this is not as easy as it might appear to be. These days, nobody knows who ‘owns’ English. It is hardly the property of England alone, and even if it were, who in England is in charge of this? And if someone turned up claiming to have jurisdiction, who would pay any attention in the dozens of countries where English has some official status, and the many others where it is widely spoken?

But beyond that, until someone can be found to effect a reform of orthography in an effective manner, should we attach any significance to bad spelling in documents or, in the education system, in exams or assignments? The basic argument in favour of not caring is that misspelt words don’t matter if the meaning is clear. But the counter-argument is that sloppy spelling suggests sloppy thinking to many readers and undermines the persuasiveness of the document. 

Then it may of course be that the suggestion that spelling doesn’t matter is a comfort to the many people who are no longer secure in their own spelling ability. Maybe this whole debate is pointless – maybe the complexity of English has already overwhelmed its speakers. Or maybe the time has come to give proper attention to the rules of spelling and grammar, both in order to apply them and, where appropriate and possible, to reform them.

Languages – deconstructing the Tower of Babel?

July 22, 2008

As you might have suspected from my name, I am not Irish by birth. In fact, I was born in Germany. I lived there for the first seven years of my life, until we moved to Ireland. When we arrived here I spoke no English at all, but with the help of my father (who had been learning the language, with mixed results) I acquired what I thought was a perfectly idiomatic phrase, ‘I can’t English’. Only six months or so later, I ‘could English’, and from about a year later English became (and has remained) my primary language. But I still speak German reasonably fluently, and can get by in French. But because of the odd sequence of languages that accompanied my childhood, I learnt most of them in a very grammatical way, so that I speak with greater precision (or pedantry, depending on your outlook) than most would. To my regret today, I was never really given the opportunity to learn Irish as a child, but I am intending to fill that gap shortly.

A year or two ago, while on a visit to China, it occurred to me that the time was right to consider learning Mandarin Chinese. All our hosts in Beijing were able to speak to us in English, in some cases with extraordinary ease and elegance of expression. On our side, absolutely nobody had a single word of Chinese (except the one member of my team who actually came from China). It seemed to me to be both ineffective and somehow discourteous that we would expect them to speak English, while we made no effort at all to acquire Chinese.

But this is part of a wider problem. Those of us who speak English have got used to expecting everyone else all over the world to do likewise. We no longer even think about it. And sometimes it seems as if they don’t think about it, either. The great cultural expansion of English continues, threatening all other languages in its wake.

A decade or two ago it was suggested that English might actually be eclipsed by Spanish, courtesy of the growth of Latin America and the migration of Spanish-speaking people into the US. That is all forgotten now. Perhaps one of the major causes of this about-turn was the growth of the internet, with the total hegemony of English there.

But if English does become the world’s lingua franca, what will that mean? Will it be possible to maintain the distinctive cultures of nations and regions, or will everything become standardised along with the language? Well, for a start I doubt that distinctive cultural characteristics will go, regardless of the linguistic issue. After all, Ireland – even with the dominance of English here – has retained and further developed a culture which, in many important respects, is quite different from that of other English-speaking countries, and even our English is full of expressions, words and colloquialisms that separate us from others, including the bigger island across the water. But also, I cannot see other countries just letting their languages go.

Instead, what seems to me to be obvious is that we should pay more (rather than less) attention to the capacity of different languages to give expression to national attributes and aspirations. Even if, say, every German were to be fluent in English by 2020, I still believe that their language of personal and domestic expression will be German. And therefore, to connect fully with someone from Germany will require an understanding of and familiarity with their language. A person wanting to be successful in trading with Germany will need to speak some German, both in order to communicate better and in order to understand the local business culture.

Most universities have found it much harder to attract language students in recent years. But it is still true that languages provide us with important tools of international communication and business. We need to persuade more of our young people that studying languages (and the cultures of the countries from which they come) is a very smart career move. A world that has become smaller and more immediately accessible to everyone is not about to become uniform. As a trading nation, we need to take very seriously the need to speak to the world, not just in one language, but in its many languages.

In many ways, the growth of English across the world is a benefit. But it is not the answer to all questions of communication.