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"What do we want? English! When do we want it? Now!"
April 21, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

"Yes, we want" -- Who owns global English? Post on The Web of Language by Dennis Barron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Barron writes about the linguistic control of English playing out on the global stage. Included among the topics is the perception of "error" and Engrish. (Previously)
posted by la_scribbler (86 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bollocks.
posted by i_cola at 2:40 PM on April 21, 2010


Bean overthinking on a global scale.
posted by davejay at 2:42 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is "Yes, we want" really wrong? There's a subject and a verb, just no direct object. Sure, it sounds strange, but how else could you phrase that while keeping the slogan succinct and quickly readable?
posted by reductiondesign at 2:43 PM on April 21, 2010


Warning: Comic Sans
posted by longsleeves at 2:47 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


I worry less about how the English language will get treated in various opther nations than I do about how it is abused here. We outsource everything, so why not our language? Note: English just happens to be the language here that most of us speak. But it is nowhere in written law our national language.
posted by Postroad at 2:49 PM on April 21, 2010


DO NOT WANT
posted by adipocere at 2:50 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why is "Yes We Can" a great slogan, but "Yes, we want" terrible?
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:51 PM on April 21, 2010


"Can I Haz" still ok for cats?
posted by Smedleyman at 2:55 PM on April 21, 2010 [8 favorites]


"Yes, we want" is not something an educated native English speaker would normally say. The want is missing its wanted object and therefore the sentence is so ambiguous it does not say anything. It is not grammatically incorrect.

"Yes, we can" is similarly awkward. It is a conversation snip.

Little Jessamyn: Mommy can I have a cookie?

Mommy: May I have a cookie? Use proper grammar!

Little Jessamyn: May I have a cookie?

Mommy: No you cannot!

Little Jessamyn: Yes I can!

In the dialogue there is no ambiguity, but if you snip it out it loses its meaning.

As to the more general subject matter of the guy's blog, if the Queen's English can survive what the United States of America has done to it the last 234+ years, it seems indestructible.
posted by bukvich at 2:56 PM on April 21, 2010


Why do cans of Japanese soda have their names written in English? Or in Roman characters at any rate, as "CALPIS" and "POCARI SWEAT" are arguably not actually English.

The issue of idiomatic use of English by non-English speakers sounding awkward to native English speakers seem, overall, like a pretty small issue that's probably not worth worrying about. This is up there with Franco-Ontarians calling the newspaper "le papier."
posted by GuyZero at 3:00 PM on April 21, 2010


Why is "Yes We Can" a great slogan, but "Yes, we want" terrible?

The former is a sentence, the latter is a sentence fragment. The verb "want" takes an object in this context, unless you are saying "Yes, we are impoverished".
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:09 PM on April 21, 2010 [9 favorites]


I ... hurt.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:12 PM on April 21, 2010


"Can I Haz" still ok for cats?

It's OK (we're talking about cats, after all), but I think the preferred idiom is "I can haz", as in "I can haz cheezburger?" (misspelling optional).
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:12 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


bukvich: "The want is missing its wanted object and therefore the sentence is so ambiguous it does not say anything. It is not grammatically incorrect. "Yes, we can" is similarly awkward. It is a conversation snip."

The point of "yes we can" is that the object is unimportant. For all things that can be done, we are proclaiming that we can do them. This meaning is completely clear in the speech which the slogan references, but is inferable from the slogan.It is poetic usage, but it does communicate.

By extension, I read the slogan "Yes, we want" as a reference to the economic incentive to learn English - the fact that many learn the language to be able to acquire things in an economic market. If you want, you need money in order to have, and English will help you get money.
posted by idiopath at 3:18 PM on April 21, 2010


English is a very difficult language to write correctly. Look at almost any posting on the web (by supposed English speakers) to find how few can write correct formal English.

However, the reason that English is taking over the world is that corruptions of the language are still understandable. Jumble the order of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, leave out articles, and even misspell (or mispronounce) a word and most people can still figure out what is trying to be said. Anyone who comes to the U.S. can learn enough English to become a taxi driver in a few weeks.

English's flexibility is a strength as a language, allowing communication despite flaws in the execution of the written or spoken message.
posted by Xoc at 3:19 PM on April 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


All your english are belong to us.
posted by yeloson at 3:20 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, our society is lacking. Yes, we want.
posted by rokusan at 3:21 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Isn't it really more because of the meanings of the word want, rather that a question of grammar?

"Yes, We can!" sounds fine because the only meaning of can is 'posses the ability'. To discribe someone with abilities we don't say, "She's a can, girl." (As close as we get is 'can-do')

But want means a lot more. A toddler says "I want", while looking at the cookie jar, and the context makes it fine. An adult speaker who says, "I want," with no object is either mentally suspect, or is speaking of some great ennui. Plus, when we describe some one as wanting, or in want, these mean two very different things, not that they are desirous of a specific object or goal.

It's more the semiotics than the grammar, yes?

Could someone who did better in High School Spanish than I, tell me if this would be said in idiomatic Spanish?
posted by Some1 at 3:26 PM on April 21, 2010


Some1, we are humans. We eat, we sleep, we cry, we ache, we yearn, we want.

It can be intransitive, it's just that it's usually not used that way.
posted by rokusan at 3:40 PM on April 21, 2010


We eat, we sleep, we cry, we ache, we yearn, we want.

Yes, we do.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:45 PM on April 21, 2010


I think the preferred idiom is "I can haz", as in "I can haz cheezburger?" (misspelling optional).
I see. So they too have infiltrated within our linguistic control and are idiosyncratically utilizing our English conjugations and syntax.

And yet, I might laugh and question the authors premise that this a deficiency (were this face to face with Dennis Baron, I might require some sort of casual greeting first).
"Loss of control" seems more a feature than a bug that lends itself to creative expression.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:54 PM on April 21, 2010


Jumble the order of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, leave out articles, and even misspell (or mispronounce) a word and most people can still figure out what is trying to be said.

That may be the case occasionally, but I think that most of the time it's just not true at all.

Here's an example:
I was waiting for a yellow cab while standing outside the White House.

If we jumble that up, it can take on an entirely different meaning:
I was standing outside a yellow house while waiting for a white cab.
or
The white, standing cab was waiting outside for a while; I house.
or
Waiting white outside house for while cab I a yellow standing the was.

English is very dependent on the order of words.
posted by MsVader at 4:00 PM on April 21, 2010


In Spanish, it would be "Si, queremos", which sounds fine.
The point is not how this would sound a native speaker. It's not aimed at native speakers. It's supposed to be internally translated by the reader.
posted by signal at 4:00 PM on April 21, 2010


Shijie and zhenli (I assume) are not good examples of the Chinese government's misguidedness, since they are actually neologisms (maybe calques, I forget) created by Chinese translators specifically to avoid the use of loanwords for new and foreign concepts... which is, I believe, exactly what the Chinese government is trying to encourage again today. D'oh!
posted by No-sword at 4:02 PM on April 21, 2010


Oops. Forgot to put "yellow" into that second sentence. You get the point...
posted by MsVader at 4:02 PM on April 21, 2010


However, the reason that English is taking over the world is that corruptions of the language are still understandable.

Whereas the fact that it's the language spoken in the world's richest country is irrelevant, right?
posted by signal at 4:02 PM on April 21, 2010 [7 favorites]


Metafilter: supposed to be internally translated by the reader.
posted by chavenet at 4:04 PM on April 21, 2010


The European Commission have just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU, rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty's government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five year phase in plan that would be known as "EuroEnglish".

In the first year, "s" will replace the soft "c". Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump for joy. The hard "c" will be dropped in favour of the "k". This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have 1 less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome "ph" will be replaced with the "f". This will make words like "fotograf" 20 per cent shorter.

In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent "e"s in the language is disgraseful, and they should go away.

By the 4th year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing "th" with "z" and "w" with "v". During ze fifz year, ze unesesary "o" kan be dropd from vords kontaining "ou" and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.

After zis fifz year, ve vil hav a realy sensibl riten styl. zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand each ozer.

ZE DREAM VIL FINALI KUM TRU!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:12 PM on April 21, 2010 [17 favorites]


This is literally the worst argument ever on the internet. Literally. It has been weighed and found wanting. Yes, you want.
posted by Mister_A at 4:12 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


, to plagiarise an ancient email forward
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:12 PM on April 21, 2010


Maybe the state of English throughout the world is such that it doesn't really make sense to talk about correct English usage any more? It seems like it would be more useful to talk about a set of conventions that you should follow, not because they are somehow intrinsically right, but because by doing so, your audience will understand you better and take you more seriously.

The particular set of conventions to follow then depend on your audience. This blurs the line between strictly technical correctness and writing style, but that's the whole point. I've occasionally had people ask me if something they've written is the right way to say that in English, and answered with something like: "Well, it's not wrong exactly, but you wouldn't really say it that way."

I think maybe next time I get a question like that, I'll just throw out the whole idea of right and wrong, and get straight to the point about how English is commonly used and best understood.

(Not that I am any sort of expert in English or writing, I just work in a department where I'm one of the few people who learned English as a first language.)
posted by FishBike at 4:13 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


By "you," I mean the collective "youse."
posted by Mister_A at 4:13 PM on April 21, 2010


Waiting white outside house for while cab I a yellow standing the was.

As one caveman said to the other, "language this working thing well is, now us invent let grammar!"

(meanwhile in the distance colourless green ideas slept furiously)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:16 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is actually something I've been thinking about today; I am reviewing a scientific paper for an academic journal and it's clear that the authors are not native English speakers. At some point, the lack of grammar or even awkwardness does reflect on the journal. Here is an example of something that doesn't seem quite right (with identifying details redacted):

One such example that has gained much attention is the study of XXXXX to identify the local dynamic modes and their changes on a molecular level as X protein, which is known to be responsible for many of fatal xxxxx xxxxx diseases, is induced to perform the xxxxx from a normal xxxxx form to an xxxxx form.

posted by 445supermag at 4:16 PM on April 21, 2010


As others, notably EMRJKC, have pointed out, for the vast majority dialects of native post-critical period speakers of ISO 639-3, "to want" in the sense of "to desire" subselects for a mandatory object. The lexical entry corresponding to "to want" without any such subselection has an entirely different semantic payload: one of lack rather than of desire. Compare "We want for nothing" with "We want nothing."
posted by thesmophoron at 4:17 PM on April 21, 2010


There's a certain irony in Americans complaining about misuse of English.

If anyone has got a case, it's the folks that live about here.

(Not that I hold to that view, just sayin')
posted by wilful at 4:19 PM on April 21, 2010


It doesn't really make sense to talk about correct English usage any more? It seems like it would be more useful to talk about a set of conventions that you should follow, not because they are somehow intrinsically right, but because by doing so, your audience will understand you better and take you more seriously.

That has been the case for roughly 1500 years.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:21 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


English is a very difficult language to write correctly.

Compared to... Finnish? Chinese? As a linguistics degree-holder, I don't find your post to make much sense. I think if you had extensive language training you'd stop searching for reasons inherent to English that make it somehow well-suited to being a global lingua franca and, perhaps, start wondering if its prominence has more to do with centuries of successive superpowers being anglophone. There was a time when the sun did not set on the British Empire, and now the United States is the only superpower left, and will remain so at least through the first half of this century.
posted by thesmophoron at 4:29 PM on April 21, 2010 [8 favorites]


There's a certain irony in Americans complaining about misuse of English.

The US has something like 215 million native English speakers; the UK, 60 million.
posted by reductiondesign at 4:31 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


445supermag, it's all the fault of the 'as'. Change that to 'when' and it makes it much clearer (to me at least.) Also induced is a horrible word, perhaps it is an important term of art (term of tech?), but I think forced or made to would be a better (though less jargon-ish) choice.


Yes, I'm a sucker for derails, but I had to work out that sentence.
posted by Some1 at 4:37 PM on April 21, 2010


You're not really getting my point, are you, reductiondesign?
posted by wilful at 4:40 PM on April 21, 2010


> "There's a certain irony in Americans complaining about misuse of English."

I'm still attempting to come up with something witty to throw back at the certain type of American that likes to scream SPEAK ENGLISH!!! at new immigrants or the slightly-more-indigenous-than-white-people Spanish speakers in SoCal. It's so fucking irritating when you actually come from England and have to adapt to their bastardisations, including changing accent because no one can understand a basic word like "water" with the t pronounced blah blah disgruntled expat blah!

I'm only half serious really. If any language should be left to evolve and grow over the years, it's English. It's a real mongrel of communication - we've been taking words from other languages and changing vowel use for centuries. I don't see any reason for that to change. "Yes, we want" might not be formally correct, but you understand the intention. And for something as informal as English can be, that's all that's really needed IMO. God help any of the complainers if they ever venture into places like Newcastle or South Bristol, because that's certainly not the Queen's English being spoken there. But it's England, and it's English.
posted by saturnine at 4:42 PM on April 21, 2010


wilful, just pointing out that it's an invalid argument at best. Should Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders not have a say about their native tongue? That's sort of like saying that only people from Rome can talk about our alphabet.
posted by reductiondesign at 4:47 PM on April 21, 2010


> "The US has something like 215 million native English speakers; the UK, 60 million."

The UK is not the same as England. That's just the first flaw in this comment.
posted by saturnine at 4:48 PM on April 21, 2010


The UK is not the same as England. That's just the first flaw in this comment.

This is true, but that fact doesn't change my argument.
posted by reductiondesign at 4:52 PM on April 21, 2010


I'm with saturnine. The Scots, for instance, do not speak English.
posted by Mister_A at 4:53 PM on April 21, 2010


The Scots, for instance, do not only speak English.
posted by reductiondesign at 4:57 PM on April 21, 2010


No, the Scots do not speak English at all.
posted by Mister_A at 5:07 PM on April 21, 2010


No, the Scots do not speak English at all.
Bampot.
posted by GeckoDundee at 5:17 PM on April 21, 2010


Should Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders not have a say about their native tongue?

Well if you want my views, the answer is no. The point I was (clearly overly) subtly trying to make is that it's not YOUR native tongue. It's no ones, and if people from around the world want to take it away and make it their own, then there is nothing wrong with that. There is no gatekeeper, there never will be, there never has been. If there was in some theoretical world a gatekeeper, then the people of England (which you need to work out is not the UK, not Great Britain, not even Britain) would for reasons of history have primacy.

If you want to talk about US english, then maybe you have a point. In your own country.

If you want to talk about Australian english, then definitely you have a point (in my country) - but that's because I rail futilely against cultural imperialism and the loss of unique identifiers to the Australian identity. Though she'll be right in the end, mate.
posted by wilful at 5:24 PM on April 21, 2010


"R is always pronounced in English."

That was said a long time ago. English changes, always has, always will. I don't think that American English (or USian English) should be the standard just because it has a larger population. If we go by number of English speakers, India wins, though it has only a small who use English in the home. More importantly, American can't be standard because it varies so much. Why it veriest almost as much in pronunciation as British English does within a smaller area.

As for the English claiming they have primacy because it's named for them and they got there first, will it is named for their section of Britain, but they hardly got there first. The 'standard' US pronunciations are much closer to the way the language was spoken 200 or 400 years ago than the "received English pronunciation' of BBC news readers. I've seen this blamed on the large number of immigrants and new speakers actually, or I guess more precisely the conservatism of English as a Second Language teachers.

But for whatever reason it's is a true to the same degree as the degree to which it doesn't matter. English has grown and changed since it was called English, and long before. I can't read Chaucer but with a translation on the facing page. I can read Shakespeare because I've practiced. (If you want his sonnets to rhyme btw, find an old timer from the Virginia Piedmont to read them to you.) I like what we have. We aren't as fluid at neologism as the Germans, or so it seems at times, but we do it well, and I like that. We can stand up the the influence of a few billion more people giving us ideas too.

BTW, non-rhotic Brits, the quote at the top is from Samuel Johnson, it's on the face plate to the letter R in his Dictionary. I really don't mind when you drop R's though, just when you insist that not dropping them is wrong.
posted by Some1 at 5:25 PM on April 21, 2010


After zis fifz year, ve vil hav a realy sensibl riten styl. zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand each ozer.

ZE DREAM VIL FINALI KUM TRU!


I remember a version of this joke that ended with "and in the sixth year, everyone will be speaking German, as was originally intended," written in German.
posted by Bobicus at 5:40 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Compared to... Finnish? Chinese?

Compared to writing English incorrectly. I have written five published books, and I am still embarrassed by the number of grammatical mistakes I make. I'm supposed to know what I am doing. Try writing just one page of English text, give it to an editor, and I'll bet she will find something to complain about.

Yes there are things that will make the meaning not understandable...the adjective has to match with the noun, but instead of saying

"I was waiting for a yellow cab while standing outside the White House."

I could say

"Me by wite Howse, were wating fer cab witch be yelow."

As mangled as that is, it is still capable of being parsed. That is the quality of a typical IM posting and communication still manages to occur.

I'm not a linguist, so tell me which other languages are capable of having their written grammar and spelling rules broken as much as English and not have a substantial change in the meaning. Let's limit it to languages spoken by 10 million people or more to remove pathological cases.
posted by Xoc at 6:14 PM on April 21, 2010


I'm a little surprised that no one finds any irony in complaining that, via English and for better or worse, the world now has something approaching a global language, the benefits of which far outweigh any quibbles about the confusing, conflicting and fleeting standards of usage.
posted by digitalprimate at 6:17 PM on April 21, 2010


Don't forget that one of the Four Freedoms is Freedom From Want.

We're doing it for les enfants, I mean, los muchachos, er, die kinder. . . but mostly for non-rhotic Brits.
posted by rdone at 6:21 PM on April 21, 2010


Don't native speakers speak a language qualitatively differently from all but the most advanced learners of a given language? I mean this as a real question, by the way, not as the beginning of an argument. If so, it would make sense to me to differentiate the grammar (and spectrums of grammar) used by native speakers versus non-native ones, and consider one more "correct" than the other. Just like I think that things like "My car needs fixed" need to be thought of as perfectly valid constructions in particular regions, but are far more dialectical than the "My car needs to be fixed." No native speaker, I hope, would argue the latter is wrong, but many would argue the former sounds totally off. I get wanting to avoid assigning value judgements to that, but there is also a distinction to be made.
posted by Schismatic at 6:44 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


By "you," I mean the collective "youse."

This is the classic argument for y'all.
posted by rokusan at 7:04 PM on April 21, 2010


Why do cans of Japanese soda have their names written in English? Or in Roman characters at any rate, as "CALPIS" and "POCARI SWEAT" are arguably not actually English.

Just the other day I was driving down the street when my Langston valve in the calpis wore out. It was covered in pocari sweat. I don't know how it got like that. My mechanic didn't seem to understand what I was saying. It's a mystery.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:09 PM on April 21, 2010


"o tell me which other languages are capable of having their written grammar and spelling rules broken as much as English and not have a substantial change in the meaning"

Claims of English exceptionalism would be cute if they weren't so common.
posted by signal at 7:32 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why is "Yes We Can" a great slogan, but "Yes, we want" terrible?

Modal verbs.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:57 PM on April 21, 2010


Can I have a cookie? Yes, you can.
Do you want a cookie? Yes, I do.
posted by dmo at 8:16 PM on April 21, 2010


This is the classic argument for y'all.
I think youse mean "all y'all".
posted by GeckoDundee at 8:16 PM on April 21, 2010


Pocari Sweat and Calpis aren't English. They're romaji, which is the Japanese alphabet for foreign loan words and mashups of other words. I usually tell my students here that if they see 'English' on TV, it's most likely wrong. (See the current add for Calpis: Karada ni pisu, Calpis, or, peace for your body, Calpis)

And yeah, I say wrong. My job is to teach English, which to me means American English (since, after all, that's what the job ad asked for). I understand and accept the valid concept of American English and British English (and British English's related, but divergent offshoots of Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian English, as well as South African English, though the accent can be trickier for non-South Africans), but sorry, I don't buy 'Japanese English' anymore than I buy 'global English.'

As Fishbike says, the goal is to communicate. If you want to learn a foreign language, your goal should be to reach a level where you can communicate with the language's speakers. That usually entails using the grammar and vocabulary as they are used by native speakers.

Having, for the first time, to work with the Japanese BoE textbooks this year has been an eye-opening nightmare. The native speakers who assisted in the creation of the text are clearly more of the 'open' English, where there is no one correct way. My goal, as it has always been, is to teach the forms of English that are most widely accepted, or at least most rarely considered wrong, Mr., rather than Mr for example, or using conjunctions after a comma, rather than at the beginning of a sentence. People have argued 'that's how it's written in the newspaper!' My response is that newspaper English is different, and usually written towards the lowest common denominator (one sentence does NOT equal one paragraph, in my opinion).

The reason I do this (and I'm sure people will violently diasgree with how I teach) is that, by and large, English speakers are assholes. I've been to a good number of countries where foreigners aren't really expected to speak the local language, and people there are pleasantly surprised when they can. In pretty much every English speaking culture, there's an undercurrent of 'Why can't these foreigners speak English?' It's as if not speaking English is seen as a mental defect. (I swear to god, on holiday in Phuket, I heard a British dad complain about the Thai people not speaking English, and have heard similar comments in Japan.) No, not every English speaker is a dick, but enough are that it can be a traumatizing experience for a non-native speaker. My goal is to equip my students so that, someday, when they encounter an asshole, they can say what they need to say, and get away from that person with the least amount of stress, and hopefully return to a more friendly, welcoming English environment as quickly as possible.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:26 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Xoc writes: "I'm not a linguist, so tell me which other languages are capable of having their written grammar and spelling rules broken as much as English and not have a substantial change in the meaning. Let's limit it to languages spoken by 10 million people or more to remove pathological cases."

Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Lao, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Hungarian.

Off the top of my head. Get bent.

There's nothing exceptional about English when it comes to flexibility in terms of grammar and usage. Although I would grant that it's very good at absorbing neologisms and borrowed-words, making it better than some candidates for a "global" language.

But really, read some history books. The reason non-English speakers want to learn English (or more generally, want their children to learn it) has everything to do with history, economics, and most importantly technological and scientific developments over the past 50 years. (Which go hand in hand with history and economics.) It has nothing to do with English being exceptional in any way (other than exceptionally illogical at times).
posted by bardic at 9:05 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Singlish.
posted by bardic at 9:06 PM on April 21, 2010


I'm enjoying the meta-irony of people pointing out the irony of (descendants of) colonists complaining about the degradation of the language of the country that flung them like feces to all corners of the globe. You know, because English is for the English, and you colonists can't just take their language without asking.
posted by scope the lobe at 10:28 PM on April 21, 2010


I'm enjoying the meta meta irony of being completely misunderstood.
posted by wilful at 11:43 PM on April 21, 2010


I think the internationalization of English will start to address this curiosity that we have in English, where the present tense is used to indicate something that happens continuously (ie in the past, right now, and will happen also in the future)

present tense: "I walk to school [every day]",

and the gerund for something that is happening in the present

gerund: "I am walking to school [right now]".

In every other language I know of, the present tense is used to signify, of all things, what is happening right now in the present. It sounds like broken English, but when foreigners say "I talk on the phone", or "I drive to the store", or "I go to meet a friend right now" it actually makes sense to use the present tense, since those actions are happening presently.

As a native speaker living in a non-English country, I find myself more and more using the present tense where I would normally use the gerund. "I'm going to go get something to eat" has become "I go to get something to eat", or "We're meeting in the park" becomes "We meet in the park."
posted by molecicco at 1:41 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


The 'standard' US pronunciations are much closer to the way the language was spoken 200 or 400 years ago than the "received English pronunciation' of BBC news readers. I've seen this blamed on the large number of immigrants and new speakers actually, or I guess more precisely the conservatism of English as a Second Language teachers.

I thought it was because when people left England to go to the Americas they left a small country where everyone is close together and you could pootle around and mingle with many different accents despite your shit pre-ipod travel technology to go to a bastarding huge continent where it took three years to hike down the shop for some milk and spread out across it wherever they found conveniently empty tilled land, so they only mingled with people who already spoke like they did and thus preserved their accents. Been a long time since the linguistics degree, though, and my memory sucks.

To my mind, English -- like all languages -- has one goal: can you be understood? If you can, hurrah! If you can't, then maybe you should edge a little closer to one of the established dialects, not because they're objectively correct but just to make yourself understood. Griping over "yes, we want!" is ridiculous considering the other changes English goes through as you follow it around the globe and cross time.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:56 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


To further Bardic's point, or maybe to sharpen it a bit, it's hunger. People want a good life, and in some places, largely tourist areas, English ability can help provide that. People learn English for money. In, say, Bali, you've got tourism, local service industry, and agriculture and...? Where's the money? In tourism of course, predominantly tourist dollars from Australia. A person in Bali who can speak English has a fuckton more job prospects than someone who can't. To a large extent, it's the same in Thailand. Hell, now that Japanese people are visiting Bali again, most of the shop clerks in Ubud spoke at least simple Japanese.

Anecdata, a friend I knew in China was fluent in French and English. He quit a job because he was only making 10 times the average salary of residents in that city, and quickly found a job paying 20 times the average salary.

And, to anyone who actually wants to teach, I'd say that Japan will only frustrate you. Having English ability here, for the most part, is pretty useless. If you're a salaryman, and you're fluent, it just means you're the one they shove in front to talk to the foreigner(My wife, who really isn't a big fan of English, is the one shoved in front of foreign customers simply because she's married to a foreigner). You don't get a bonus, for the most part, and it's really not stressed. Maybe, someday, this will change, but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, everyone is forced to "learn" English from JH to HS, and maybe some in university, but very few people ever explain why this it's useful to the students, so by and large, they reject that. Compared with students I taught in China, it's the rare student in Japan who is interested in English, while in China, it was seen as a means to an end.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:58 AM on April 22, 2010


Interesting - as a non-native speaker I always considered "Yes, we can!" as a sort of response to an unasked question; something taken out of a speech, maybe:
"There are those who say that we can never this election, that we are doomed to failure. To them we say 'Yes! We! Can!'!"

The "Yes, we want!" would then appear to be some parallel construction, along the lines of "Some say knowing only one language is good enough, that nobody wants to learn English anyway. I ask you, do you or don't you want to study English?". In both cases the object is omitted, and while it may be easier to argue for the correctness of the "can" case both appear valid statements taken out of easily reconstructible context.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:06 AM on April 22, 2010


English is over, the world is going to speak globish.
posted by SageLeVoid at 3:12 AM on April 22, 2010


Why is "Yes We Can" a great slogan, but "Yes, we want" terrible?

Great because its essential meaninglessness gets lost in a whelter of cheap emotion. Can what? Vote democratic? Elect an African American? Stick it to the Man? Put a chicken in every pot? Answer- whatever you like. We're politicians, we peddle dreams.

Terrible for all the reasons above mentioned.

I'm enjoying the meta-irony of people pointing out the irony of (descendants of) colonists complaining about the degradation of the language of the country that flung them like feces to all corners of the globe. You know, because English is for the English, and you colonists can't just take their language without asking.

Not me, buddy. My people left England of their own volition. And you can drop that potty talk right now or we can take this outside.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:44 AM on April 22, 2010


sorry, "welter"
posted by IndigoJones at 6:45 AM on April 22, 2010


No, the Scots do not speak English at all.
Bampot.


Is that what Pootie Tang was speaking?
posted by anniecat at 6:55 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


My tiny GRAR with computers and software, being by nature US-centric (yay Silicon Valley etc.), is choosing between English and English (UK). I don't mind that US English is the default setting. I wouldn't even mind a halfway house of English (US) and English (UK). But this tiny neanderthal nationalist inside me rears his head whenever the choice is English and English (UK).

GRAR

posted by djgh at 8:52 AM on April 22, 2010


There's a certain irony in Americans complaining about misuse of English.

The US has something like 215 million native English speakers; the UK, 60 million.


Further complicating things, according to the British applied linguist David Graddol, the "native" speakers "lost their majority in the 1970s." Conservative projections for year 2050 give the distribution of the speakers as follows:

English as sole or first language: 433 million
English as additional/second language: 462 million

(from Suresh Canagarajah, "THE PLACE OF WORLD ENGLISHES"): "At its most shocking, this gives the audacity for multilingual speakers of English to challenge the traditional language norms and standards of the "native speaker" communities. My fellow villagers in Sri Lanka would say," Who the hell is worrying about the rules-schools of Queen's English, man?" After all, multilingual speakers have a much larger speech community with which to use their varieties. Their reference point is not British or American communities any more. They know that there are millions of people around the world who use varieties like their own and are open to negotiating differences with sensitivity and skill. Therefore, they are now using their own varieties with greater confidence."
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 9:03 AM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]




If you want to learn a foreign language, your goal should be to reach a level where you can communicate with the language's speakers. That usually entails using the grammar and vocabulary as they are used by native speakers.

But what if non-native speakers outnumber native speakers? Then wouldn't it be more savvy to adopt a target audience beyond the asshole tourist American?

And yeah, I say wrong. My job is to teach English, which to me means American English (since, after all, that's what the job ad asked for). I understand and accept the valid concept of American English and British English (and British English's related, but divergent offshoots of Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian English, as well as South African English, though the accent can be trickier for non-South Africans), but sorry, I don't buy 'Japanese English' anymore than I buy 'global English.

What's your stance on Nigerian English? I'm just curious where and why you draw the line between valid and invalid versions of English.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 9:19 AM on April 22, 2010


> Maybe the state of English throughout the world is such that it doesn't really make sense to talk about correct English usage any more? It seems like it would be more useful to talk about a set of conventions that you should follow, not because they are somehow intrinsically right, but because by doing so, your audience will understand you better and take you more seriously.

Give that FishBike five silver dollars! An excellent response to a good article, which I'm glad to see linked.

> sorry, I don't buy 'Japanese English' anymore than I buy 'global English.'

Nobody cares, but feel free to fulminate and, if you choose, write outraged letters to The Times.
posted by languagehat at 9:56 AM on April 22, 2010


I see. So they too have infiltrated within our linguistic control and are idiosyncratically utilizing our English conjugations and syntax.

This is true as far as it goes, but I think the bigger picture is that some incautious humans are deliberately proliferating weapons of mass cuteness without regard to their potential effect on the feline-human balance of power.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:49 PM on April 22, 2010


But what if non-native speakers outnumber native speakers?

We'll pick it up just fine.

I was transferring through BRU on a busy weekday morning sometime in 2000, along with hundreds of people speaking as many languages to each other. An airport employee/security guy was asking everyone as they approached the scanning station:

"Do you have a cell phone?"

And just about everyone answered, pointing to their bags:

"In de beg."

When it was my turn at the head of the line, the guy asked whether I had a cell phone, and without even thinking about it I nodded, pointed at my bag, and heard myself saying:

"In de beg."
posted by tangerine at 1:55 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


i'm being pummeled..., that was an oversite on my part, about Nigerian English. Honestly, I've worked with teachers from all of the countries I listed, and if I left any out where English is a formally recognized language, that was a mistake on my part.

And languagehat, I've got nothing but respect for you on this site. What I'm talking about is the job I'm paid to do, and how I go about doing it. As much as possible, I try to get my students to speak English as well as they can, to learn pronunciation as well as they can. The world is simply too full of jerks who found the 'lip my stocking' bit in Lost in Translation to be utterly hilarious.

Yes, there are approximately 30 million more non-native speakers than native speakers. It's not like there are 460 million non-native speakers speaking the same variety. The variations or changes that make Chinese English a separate (and according to some, a valid) form of English are completely different from Japanese English, Indonesian English, or any other 'global English.' Trying to claim the 460 million as a unified block that outnumbers native speakers is a bit off, I feel.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:36 PM on April 22, 2010


In every other language I know of, the present tense is used to signify, of all things, what is happening right now in the present.

I assume you don't know of Spanish? E.g.: "Yo camino a la escuela [todos los días]".

Again, English is perfectly nice language, but it's hardly singular.
posted by signal at 9:50 AM on April 23, 2010


I assume you don't know of Spanish? E.g.: "Yo camino a la escuela [todos los días]".

Again, English is perfectly nice language, but it's hardly singular.


Oh no, I know Spanish. My point is that whereas in English one would say "I'm going to the store" or "I'm talking on the phone" or "I'm writing a comment on Metafilter", in Spanish one would say "Me voy a la tienda" or "Hablo por telefono" or "Dejo un commentario en Metafilter". So in Spanish, you would you use the present tense to signify present. True, you can also use it for continuous. And there exists the gerund for the immediate present (although it is only really used to emphasize that something is happening right exactly at this precise moment). But I maintain that English is curious, in that using the present tense to signify the present sounds broken. "I write a comment on Metafilter" sounds broken.
posted by molecicco at 4:08 PM on April 23, 2010


I think the internationalization of English will start to address this curiosity that we have in English, where the present tense is used to indicate something that happens continuously (ie in the past, right now, and will happen also in the future) and the gerund for something that is happening in the present

That isn't what happens, and it's not a curiosity. "Present" is a tense, of which both "I go" and "I am going" are examples. "I am going [to the store]" is not an example of the gerund, which is a noun form; you'd need to say something like "My going [to the store] [bothers you]" for that. "I am going" to the store is an example of the imperfect mood of the present tense; "I go" is an example of the perfect mood. The present perfect out of context generally carries the semantic payload of doing something habitually, but not necessarily. Imagine a narration: "She goes to the sink, and sees there a message written on the mirror: humans can lick too. It's only then that she notices the dog's head in the bathtub."

English is not the only language that uses the imperfect mood to describe what one is doing. Russian is another example that comes to mind. Russian is a bit of a mirror of what we do morphologically though - in English the perfect is most like the root morpheme, but in Russian the imperfect is most like the root morpheme. Compare walk/walking/walk with идти/идти/поидти. Additionally, the "present" perfect in Russian doesn't indicate continuing action -- it actually carries a semantic payload of a future time. But the fact remains in both that the present imperfect exists distinct from the perfect and is the default indicator for describing present action.
posted by thesmophoron at 2:12 PM on April 26, 2010


Ah right, thesmophoron, thanks, I wasn't aware of the imperfect/perfect mood. And interesting that there are other languages that use deal with the present tense the same way we do. Maybe English does make sense after all.
posted by molecicco at 12:28 AM on April 27, 2010


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