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British-isms: Reflections on language

| Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“Alright, boys. Let’s ‘ave 15 press-ups ‘fore you put on your shin pads for the football match. It’s cuppers’ week. Don’t step your boots onto the pitch quite yet. Cheers.”

These were the words, more or less, of the captain of my Oriel College “football” (read: soccer) team. Now, although I was familiar with what some of those words meant (“15,” “step,” “you”) and could deduce the meanings of others (“football match” = soccer game, “shin pads” = shin guards?), the whole verbal expression congealed into a mismatched blob of sounds in my head. Mind you, the football captain has a strong British accent, the origin of which I can’t quite place. Is it Essex? Manchester? Not sure.

This brief exchange revealed to me in unclear terms that there exists a language barrier, however minimal, between British English and American English. I am of the opinion that this barrier is a rather good thing.

Sure, I might need a dictionary to decode the meanings of the words “hob” (stovetop) or “skon” (scone). And, sure, the British use certain commonplace American words for more risqué referents. (“Pants” refers not to what you wear on your legs but rather to what you wear beneath your outer garments). Yet, we can capture the nuance and subtlety of life through words that are just slightly different and some that are in a world all their own.

The American author Bill Bryson, who once lived in Britain, has compiled a host of British-isms in the glossary of his travelogue of the British Isles, “Notes from a Small Island.” Can one really capture the joyful connotations and aural flair of the word “jam roly-poly” in the simple American-ism “dessert pastry”? And how can the euphemism “bathroom” compete with the brevity and aptness of the British-ism “loo”? More words means more angles on life, more ways of putting things together, more relating sounds to objects and objects to other objects. Collisions of cultural vocabulary, while confusing, can result in more clever modes of thought.

Take, for example, the novelist Joseph Conrad, fluent in at least three languages and having gained exposure to many more in his life’s travels. Of Conrad it has been said, “He wrote in English, thought in French and dreamt in Polish.” Conrad’s comprehension of multiple languages gives his writing a linguistic nimbleness, an ability to express ideas through sound patterns and grammar that mono-lingual writers might not consider. Compared to English, Conrad saw a robust structure in French: “English is so plastic — if you haven’t got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France.”

Perhaps, then, differing vocabularies as well as variant languages do not only sound different, but can actually express ideas that other languages simply cannot — that is, with greater elegance or precision. Perhaps we need multiple languages to refer to the phenomena of the world in all of its complexity.

According to “Nationalencyklopedin,” a collection of census results from across the globe, half of the world’s population speaks 13 of humanity’s most popular languages — Mandarin, Spanish, English and Hindi among them. Of the English portion, only about one-sixth is familiar with British-isms. But, far more astonishingly, there are a total of 6,909 living languages, 473 of which will soon be extinct. Some studies report that only 10 percent of all languages will be extant by 2050, with the pressures of globalization forcing native speakers of certain languages to “convert” to English, Spanish or other common languages.

But what is it that we lose when Arawum or Bagupi or any other of Papua New Guinea’s 850 native languages plunge off the cliff into linguistic oblivion? Are we really any worse off? It’s not as though these tribes have massive libraries of literature that will become unreadable. And yet for these tribespeople, certainly a part of their identity would be lost. And for the world at a large, a particular manner of seeing things, linking sounds to phenomena, a network of connections, is engulfed by 13 or so languages within whose confines our thoughts and worldviews are bound.

But what’s the big deal? Can’t I say anything in English that I could say in any other language, albeit with less grace? Aren’t the sounds we use to link ideas essentially arbitrary? Maybe. But the arbitrariness of language varies. Pictographic languages, such as certain elements of Chinese, contain symbols that actually resemble their referents, and onomatopoeia seeks to replicate auditory phenomena through its pronunciation. Bam! Language. In degrees of arbitrariness not all languages are equal.

Language also has import in limiting what we can say. When I was in Bonn, Germany, this summer, I came upon an anti-war rally in which I heard the orator say (in German) that there is a tribe in the Amazon that has no word for “to pay,” as they have no notion of currency. He hoped for a world in which there would be no word for “war,” because there would be no notion of war at all.

As the German-speaking philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his monumental ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” And, as he concluded, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent.”

In the name of language diversity, I prefer the original German, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”

Charlie Ducey is a junior studying the languages of Saul Kripke (English) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (German). For the next academic year, he is residing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Oxford, U.K. He welcomes your words. He can be contacted at [email protected]

About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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