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Choosing an English - the Debate Rages on

In Britain during World War II, there was a popular saying that the trouble with Yanks (Americans) was 'They were overpaid, oversexed and over here'. In response, Americans would counter that the British were underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower (the American military commander). Looking at these two countries, it would seem that from earliest times, there have been differences of one kind or another (and an occasional war) that have set the US and the UK apart. Yet, like most difference, they seem to have grown out of problems of communication and understanding. The same holds true concerning the debate over which English to learn. Stated in more direct terms, 'Which is the pre-dominant English in the world today?' If this question can be answered, then the choice would appear to be simple. Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer to this question . . . nor should there be. At its heart and soul, there are no great differences between the American variety of English and that of the British. The reason for this is that both languages share common roots; and it is these 'roots' that are being taught in our schools. Admittedly, there are differences - differences in vocabulary, grammar and expression - yet these differences are not so great or pervasive that one variety of English takes precedence over the other. In fact, most teachers (like your average Briton or American) would be hard-pressed to elucidate on these differences. Similarly, where differences are said to exist may simply have resulted from a misinterpretation of the facts. Did you know, for instance, that the American variety of English spoken today was actually the common household variety of English spoken in most places in the world, including Britain, in the 17th century? Essentially, that means Shakespeare spoke using the American variety. Of course, at that time, there was no American variety; there was only the British variety of English. If this is true, then it was British English (and not American English as is often assumed) that changed resulting in the linguistic changes noted above. If the American variety of English (i.e. the former British variety of English) has done anything to the language, then it is to have added hundreds of thousands of words and expressions to a language already containing millions. Interestingly, such simple words as the greeting 'Hello' is an American invention (developed along with the invention of the telephone). Of course, today, what can be more 'British' than 'Hello' when viewed side-by-side with the familiar American 'Hi'. Considering this, perhaps the argument is not which variety is predominant in the world today; perhaps the argument is much less academic. Quite possibly, the debate is simply one of 'cultural identity' and how this translates into 'cultural expression'. Though the American variety of English is phonologically more conservative than the British variety, Americans, in their everyday dealings with people, are not as conservative. Perhaps it is this, more than anything which separates the two languages. Americans are an informal people and therefore rely on informal expression to convey their 'friendliness'. The British, more reserved (but actually just as friendly), rely on more formal expression to convey their politeness and to avoid being seen as overly 'forward' which American English has been accused of resulting in. Regardless of the truths behind these statements, one thing is certain, British English today has been elevated to a rank akin to being God-like (or more appropriately stated) Queen-like. What person can resist the allure of the British Accent? In its received pronunciation form (also called the Queen's English, BBC English and Oxford English), it can be a humbling experience, even for Americans. And so the real argument, when all is said and done, is not which English is predominant (and I would say the Americans have added more to its modern development than the British) but rather which accent is prized most highly (and here, I would have to go with the British). Like English itself, where the language student comes from is less important than where she or he is going. The choice is theirs. Fortunately for us all, this is a race with no winners . . . or losers.

By Rob Jensky,
Director of Language Link School

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