Is there such a thing as an American language? The differences between the English language as spoken in Great Britain and the variety spoken in the United States is a subject much discussed by laymen and linguists alike. Some laymen, both American and English, have been known to claim that American English is now a different language, but the reasons they wish to stress the differences usually have more to do with national pride than linguistics. In Britain, the 'two language' theory is generally espoused by anti-American purists who want to distance themselves from the 'vulgar' New World corruption of their language, as though it were 'the true church', and in the United States, talk of an American language usually comes from boastful nationalists who pretend that what is spoken there is a home-grown product and not a 'foreign' import.
The truth is that there is less difference between what is spoken in Boston, Massachusetts and Boston, England than there is between the American spoken in New York and Oklahoma, or the English spoken in East London and West Devonshire. The difference between a standard British English and a standard American English can probably be equated with the difference between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that spoken in, say, Argentina, or the German spoken in the Federal Republic as opposed to Austria.
It is a matter of some vocabulary differences (though usually not very important words) and expressions, some minor spelling changes, a few differences in prepositions, and of course a matter of accent which affects the pronunciation, but then these variations, and more, can be heard travelling (US traveling) from one area to another within the same country. Certainly the differences are not extensive enough to block normal comprehension, and a very English film where all the characters speak pure British English, such as Chariots of Fire, can be perfectly understood and be as popular in America as the All-American movies, such as Indiana Jones, are in Britain. Neither the accents of the actors, nor the colloquial expressions in the dialogue, nor the local references or national subject matter come between the audience and the entertainment.
Nonetheless, variations do exist and are endlessly fascinating to academics in both nations.
The distinguished American professor of linguistics, Alien Walker Read, aged 82, has spent the last 50 years of his life researching and compiling a dictionary of 'Briticisms' to explain to Americans how their version of English differs from that spoken on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Professor Read, who is professor emeritus of English at Columbia University in New York City, first became fascinated by the idea of a British dictionary for Americans when he was at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, and was involved in working on a dictionary of Americanisms.
It was George Bernard Shaw who first made the observation that America and Britain were 'two nations separated by the same language', but Professor Read acknowledges that this is less true today than in Shaw's time. With the speed the media transmit language, in books, films and television, the differences are fast eroding, and if British youths are picking up the latest American slang from Hollywood films or television soap operas, trendy Americans nowadays pepper their conversation with classic Briticisms like posh and bloody. Professor Read hopes to have his dictionary ready for publication in about three years' time, but the rate things are changing, it's possible that by then the book will be out-dated or old hat.
I. Answer the following questions:
Why do some laymen in the USA and Great Britain wish to stress the difference between the two varieties of the English language spoken in their countries?
What can the differences between standard British English and standard American English be equated with?
In what language aspects can one see differences?
Do these differences block normal comprehension of the other variety of the language?
What did the distinguished American professor of linguistics devote 50 years of his life to?
Who is the author of the aphorism used as the title of the text? What do you know about him?
II. Explain the following words and phrases or give synonyms:
Boastful, a home-grown product, be equated with, minor spelling changes, local references, professor emeritus, to pick up the latest American slang, soap operas, trendy Americans, pepper the conversation with some words, to be out-dated.
III. Talking points:
What variety of the English language would you speak in different situations? Characterize the two varieties.
Do you agree with anti-American purists saying the English language is corrupted in the New World? Can you prove your point of view?
The Long Road of the American Indians
Native Americans’ struggle against an invading society began five hundred years ago. The stories of two American peoples, the Sioux and the Navaho, show how it continues to this day.
North American history from a native American Indian point of view makes sad and terrifying reading. From the beginning of European colonization in the seventeenth century, the native peoples were pushed out of their homelands. They tried to live with the settlers in peace, but the agreements that were made were always broken. The whites hardly seemed to see them as human beings. The Indians only fought as a last resort, but even if they won a few battles, they could not possibly win the war.
By the 1890s all the tribes had been pushed into reservations, while the European settlers had the freedom of the huge continent that had once been the Indians'. Even the land that was left to them was usually poor, because the good land was given to white farmers.
But the Indians' first wars with European society were only the beginning of a long fight for their whole culture and identity. The Sioux were once the masters of the vast plains between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Their way of life was what we always imagine when we think of the traditional Indian ways, hunting the buffalo over huge areas. Their buffalo-hide tents, or tepees, were designed to be put up or taken down quickly, so that the tribe could move after the herds. They were great warriors and even chased the whites out of part of their land for a while. But even they were defeated in the end.
By the 1880s, most of the once-proud Sioux were confined to reservations. Even their most sacred land, the Black Hills, was taken from them. It was realized the hills contained gold, so the government pressured them to sell them. Years later, the great holy man Black Elk spoke of the end: ‘The nation's hoop is broken and scattered’, he said. ‘There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.’
The Navaho did slightly better than the Sioux and other Indian nations. The United States began to try to round them up in the 1860s in their territories in Arizona and New Mexico. The Navaho were farmers and sheepherders. But raiding had always been a normal part of their way of life. Everyone, other tribes of Indians as well as the local Mexican herders, took livestock and had theirs taken in return. When the US army moved into the area, it promised to protect the Mexicans against the Indians.
A reservation was organized, and the Navaho were told all their males would be killed unless the people agreed to come in. There was a long war, but eventually most of the Navaho surrendered, taking part in what they still call their ‘Long Walk’. In a very bad winter they had to travel a long way to the reservation that was outside their own lands. Many died on the way, and when they got there they found that the land was too poor to be cultivated. More people died from disease and malnutrition in the crowded conditions, and many risked their lives to escape.
Eventually, the government realized it would never be able to keep the Navaho peacefully in such a place. So they were allowed to go back to their homelands that were made into a new reservation. Much of the best land was kept for white settlers. But at least they held onto large parts of their own country, and could return to their traditional way of life.
Once they had control of all the Indians, the government's policy was to 'civilize' them and bring them into line with the rest of American society. The practice of tribal culture and religion was outlawed. Children were taken away to special boarding schools, often hundreds of kilometers from home, where they were taught that their parents' culture was bad and beaten for speaking their own language As a result whole generations of Indians grew up with no confidence in their own culture, and no place in white society. The result was depression, alcoholism, self-destructive violence and suicide.
But Indians never quite gave up their struggle. Since the mid-thirties they have had the right of limited self-government, and they have tried more and more to take control of their own fate. Sometimes they have succeeded, seemingly against the odds.
The Sioux have been asking for the return of the Black Hills. In 1980, after more than fifty years of court action, it was decided that the United States had taken them illegally. The Sioux were offered $105 million in compensation, but refused to take it. They want their sacred territory back. The movement to regain the Black Hills is focusing the energies of the people, and many believe that it can rebuild the Sioux as a nation.
The Navaho have declared their reservation independent. By encouraging tourism, building an industry of native crafts and, above all, making sure they are paid for any minerals that leave their land, the Navaho are building their own economy as well as their independence and self-respect. They have taken control of their children's education to make sure they are taught all the ancient stories and traditions so that the people's identity is never forgotten.
Meanwhile there are still great problems. Young Indians are torn between their own traditions and the attractions of modern American society. While Navaho elders call them to remember the old farming ways of life, many young Navaho would rather take government handouts to spend on motorbikes, beer and electric guitars.
But the Indians' identity survives. Five hundred years ago the Europeans began to dominate and push aside their cultures. But the native Americans have lived through it all. Perhaps one day their long road down what they call their 'trail of tears' will turn upwards again.
Answer the following questions:
1. What happened to the Indians from the 1890s onwards?
2. What does the text say about the Sioux’s way of life?
3. Where do the Indians live nowadays?
4. Why are the Sioux asking for the return of the Black Hills?
5. What were the results of the government’s policy to “civilize” the Indians?
6. What have the Navaho gained in their struggle for freedom?
7. Have the Indians solved all their problems?
II. Explain the following words and phrases or give synonyms:
European colonization, settlers, to live in peace, the agreements were broken, as a last resort, vast plains, once-proud Sioux, sacred land, livestock, eventually, boarding schools, to outlaw, tribal culture and religion, court action, handouts.
III. Talking points:
Say whether you agree or disagree with the point of view expressed in the sentence, “From the landing of the first settlers, the Indians have been the victims of almost unrelieved woe”.
Why do you think nothing has helped the Indians preserve their lands? Expand upon the problem.
You happen to be talking to Mr. Welsh, an American Indian. Take this opportunity and find out from him: a) how native Americans met the first settlers who came to the New World, b) whether they were happy to settle on reservations, c) about the living standard on the reservations and the opportunities for employment, promotion, education, etc., d) about the present status of Indians and the changes that are taking place.
Strokes of Genius
"Though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius" - Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher.
The vocabulary of a language is as much a part of its native speakers' history and cultural characteristics as any artifact displayed in a national museum. Most English words show a fairly clear derivation from one of the several different language roots which together have provided us with our general vocabulary: wife from Anglo-Saxon, husband from Norse, cousin from Norman French, triumph from Latin, catastrophe from classical Greek.
Some words have simply been borrowed directly from other modern languages: kitsch from German, tycoon from Japanese, cargo from Spanish, ghettofrom Italian, bungalow from Hindi, chimpanzee from Malay, cuisine from French, alcohol from Arabic, typhoon from Chinese, sauna from Finnish, ombudsman from Swedish, tomato from Portuguese, canoe from the Caribbean Indians.
Other words, however, are truly original native creations, with no links to any other Indo-European language. Some appear suddenly and mysteriously, like pig and dog, to perplex etymologists for centuries. Others have fascinating stories behind their origins, like the words tawdry and necklace. When the English language was in its infancy, there was an Anglo-Saxon princess named Audrey who became a nun, and finally a saint - remembered not only for her piety but also for her love of expensive clothes and jewelry. By the sixteenth century, fashionable women were wearing, in her memory, decorative silk collars known as Saint Audrey's lace. Typically, this fashion of the rich was soon imitated by the poor, and street markets began selling cheap garish imitations of this ornamental neck-wear, shortening its name by syllabic merging to Tawdry lace. By the eighteenth century, Saint Audrey and her stylish collars had given the English language these two new words: tawdry, with its modern meaning of showy, gaudy, cheap; and necklace, for a string of jewels or beads worn around the neck.
Tawdry from St. Audrey is only one of many English words formed by contraction. A famous old lunatic asylum in London, St. Mary of Bethlehem, gave us the word bedlam (from Bethlehem) meaning a state of noise and confusion.
The word maudlin, describing someone who is tearfully sentimental, usually from too much drink, comes from slurring the syllables of Magdalene, the biblical lady often represented with red eyes from weeping. Similarly, the Englishman's favourite all-purpose adjective bloody also has religious rather than sanguineous associations, being a contraction of the antiquated oath 'by our Lady'. Likewise, fancy (ornate, decorated) is a reduction from fantasy; curtsy (a lady's gesture of respect) from courtesy.
Chopping off syllables from one word to create another word is an equally characteristic way of increasing the English vocabulary. The wooden fence at the bottom of the garden may not keep out the neighbour's cat, but the word fence is a cut down version of defence, just as cab (taxi) is a shortening of cabriolet, car and van are simply different syllables of caravan, and sport is only one half of disport (to amuse oneself). Mob (masses of often disorderly people), is only the first syllable of the Latin mobile vulgus (a moveable, fickle crowd), whereas bus, the now universal form of transport, is only the last syllable of the Latin omnibus, meaning 'for all'.
More recently we have taken pop (music, stars, culture) from popular, fan (a devoted admirer) from fanatic, mod cons from modern conveniences (washing machines, dishwashers, etc.), phone from telephone, admin from administration, ad (US) or advert (UK) from advertisement, info from information, rep from representative, pro from professional and many, many more.
Acronym (a word formed by using the first letter(s) of a series of words) is another favourite way of adding to the language. People may no longer realize that radar is an acronym of RAdio Detecting And Ranging, or that posh (meaning deluxe, expensive, elegant) began life on a first class return ticket from England to India, which was stamped P.O.S.H. because the smart way to travel East was Port Out, Starboard Home. (If you paid more, your cabin out to India was on the left side of the ship (port), and your cabin back home to England was on the right side (starboard) to avoid the hot sun).
The origin of the American acronym OK, or okay, is still in considerable dispute. Some Americans claim that OK first appeared on official White House documents approved by US President Andrew Jackson, who, in his alleged ignorance, thought that All Correct was spelt Oll Korrect. Professor Alien Read, the foremost authority on Americanisms, supports the theory that it came from Oll Korrect, but attributes it to Boston phonetic slang of the 1830's, rather than an illiterate president. Another widely held theory is that it came from the New Orleans docks as a result of the French-speaking Creole cotton producers saying au quai (to the quay) to the plantation workers to indicate that the bales of cotton were ready for shipment up the Mississippi. The workers, who were not French-speaking, would indicate the clearance for shipment by phonetically writing OK in chalk on the bales, assuming that this is what their French-speaking bosses had said. Wherever OK came from, it is unquestionably the most widely used acronym in history.
Today's speech abounds with modern acronyms from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome), and no doubt many more are being created at this moment.
As if it isn't enough that English already has by far the largest vocabulary of any language in the world, experts claim that six and a half new words are added to the English language every day - and that's over 2,000 strokes of genius a year. If the British and American governments could find a way of imposing a tax on new words, this could provide a solution to their balance of payment deficits.
Is it true that you should look into the history of the language and the people’s culture to understand the meaning of the words?
What way are there to coin new words? Give some examples. Can you invent new words in your own language?