Sunday, June 19, 2011

i don't speak english, i speak american

Here's the shell of an idea that occurred to me this week. I was having trouble communicating to a couple of British people at the Centre for Social Justice talk that I wanted the info packet they distributed to guests who had come to hear the presentation on the Slavery in the UK policy review. They had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and didn't seem to grasp even the concept of a packet of papers prepared in advance to be given to people invited to the talk. I tried explaining it to them but they kept coming back to a media packet which would actually be a press release, which, as not a member of the press, would do me no good.

I obviously didn't have the right words to express what I wanted. But the difference, I think, is that in America, after a brief dialogue, the other person would get a sense of what I wanted even if I was using the wrong words. Not here. Two people kept coming back to a media packet when I told them I wanted the paperwork they handed out to NGOs and other guests so that I could take the information back to my organization. But it just didn't click. It's like we were speaking a completely different language.

Which, after about 4 weeks in London, I'm coming to see is the truth. It's not just that Americans and Brits have different words for things. Here's a few, some of which you may be familiar with:

  • queue - get in line
  • lift - elevator 
  • fag - cigarette (pretty hilarious the first time I heard somebody say "that fag in his mouth makes him look so cool")
  • football - soccer
  • vest - tank top
  • waistcoat - vest
  • proper - typical

The verb "table" means exactly the opposite in America as it does here. At a meeting with some MPs, I was a little shocked when the assembled charitable organizations (that's what they call a non-profit) wanted to "table" all of the suggestions being made that the MPs seemed very amenable to. "Why would they want to set aside for later all the issues they are getting traction on?" And then it dawned on me that "table" in England means something akin to "lay your cards on the table;" i.e. they wanted to press those issues with the MPs.

But it's not this different vocabulary that's at the heart of what I'm talking about. It's both more subtle and larger than that. The English spoken in England isn't as dynamic as American English. English English seems to give more deference to history, tradition, and the influence of a stratified and non-permeable class structure. It feels sometimes like I've been transported to the mid twentieth century, a sort of Southern Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Edmund Burke's praise of tradition and inheritance as the structure of society also seems in some way to structure the language here.

And this lack of dynamism in the language, I think, also explains the lack of English innovation. I don't want to dive too deeply into Sausserean linguistics or Derrida here, but the fact that the network of English English doesn't seem as dextrous at inventing new words to fill gaps or needs (in expression, understanding), opening up possibility through new chains of signifiers, seems fundamentally tied to England not positioning itself as a global leader in emerging technologies such as computers, personal electronics, and such. The language is too staid, set in its ways of expressing, to give way to innovation.[1] This is more than just retaining u's and e's in words (colour, judgement).

Most people would attribute these differences to the amorphous catch-all of "culture" and cultural differences. Language is itself an aspect of culture and, I think, determines culture. Your language obviously limits, both as open circuits and closed doors, what you can say. But it also limits what you can think. Think about it. How much of your thinking is done with language and how much of it is pictures unconnected to language?[2]

The one other language that I can think of that's as dynamic as American English, probably moreso, is Japanese. Need a new word? Just smoosh two or more words together. And there's a whole category for onomatopoeia words and expressions because they are so prevalent in Japanese.[3] It's difficult to argue that Japan hasn't been one of the most innovative countries of the 20th century. And they love gadgets, especially gadgets attached to technology they already have whether or not the new gadget adds anything particularly useful. Heck, blueprints for fictional mecha are almost as detailed and complex as for an actual Merlin engine.

The takeaway (that's American, meaning "key point," not British, meaning "food to go") is that languages that are more flexible and dynamic seems more adept at making technological innovations because the openness of the language. Just as new words or expressions are readily invented to address needs and gaps, changes (technological mostly) are imagined because of possibility, the breaking away from what is to what could be, structures the language and thus the thinking of the language community.

Or so I say & think...

[1] Although English has no body like l'Académie française to officially determine what is and is not orthodox English. [2] Blah blah signifier blah blah blah signified blah blah blah referent.
[3] There's an idea that gets posed from time to time in linguistics about the number of words that Eskimos have for "snow" and how it effects the way they think about the world. The number of Japanese words for "rain" is worthy of generating the same sort of mental calisthenics.

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