Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 31 July 2012

For Native English Writers Wherever They May Be

Globalisation is not necessarily a good thing. 
Everyone is starting to sound the same, and write the same, and we are beginning to lose our regional differences, our characters, our individuality, sometimes, even our souls.
I wouldn’t mind so much, but this generally means that we are all starting to sound, to my ear, rather like Americans.
Everyone uses ‘seemingly’ these days. I don’t; it’s an ugly word, and, besides, ‘apparently’ is not only more satisfying to say, but, to me, at least, it’s also more meaningful. I do not understand the use of ‘likely’ as a substitute for ‘probably’ either, not the way the Americans use it. “Likely, Johnny will do his usual poor job,” simply isn’t good British English. Substitute ‘probably’, or, if you must use ‘likely’, at least formulate a better sentence. “It’s likely that Johnny will do his usual poor job,” is infinitely preferable to and substantially more English than the American alternative.
When I was a child, I was acutely aware when I was reading something by a writer who was writing in American English, just as I was aware of American accents in film and television. My own children do not make these distinctions. 
You might wonder why I am concerned about these sorts of details, especially when I am such a stickler for things that the purists might consider more important, like writers recognising when a single agreement is required rather than a plural, or the difference between the present and past participles (I could, and probably will, write an entire snark on the confusion caused by ‘sat’ and ‘sitting’, and ‘stood’ and ‘standing’ in particular). You might wonder why I hanker after distinct regional voices when people still don’t know that ‘different’ is always followed by ‘from’, or that ‘try’ must never be followed by ‘and’.
I do it because I have a great many concerns and they all exercise my mind. I want specificity when it comes to writing, and accuracy. I want writers to be good technicians. I want grammar to be beautiful, and I want writers to care about it, but those things are generally more-or-less invisible to the reader.
I do it because cultural differences should not only be visible to the reader, but they should also be celebrated. Americans ought to read British English and instantly recognise it as different from their own language and from the language of other native English writers from other English speaking countries. From Canada to Australia, and from South Africa to the Bahamas, writers in English have a vast range of cultural experiences and a breadth and depth of language to plunder in order to tell their stories. I wish they’d take full advantage of that, but I fear that mass communication, laziness and the pervasive homogeneity of a modern culture typified by Subway sandwiches, Coca Cola, Transformers Dark of the Moon and Call of Duty could put an end to all that.


  1. A friend of mine had to prepare a book for American publishers, and there was hardly a paragraph or line of dialogue that didn't need changing, because to the American editor actual English sounded old fashioned. They do seem to be distinct varieties of 'English'. I wonder if I would be happy to change?

  2. One of the first things I learnt when living in Canada is how different the speech patterns are, and how the same word has a completely different meaning. Many people confuse Canadians with Americans, and I am regularly asked why I left New Zealand, even though I've never been in the southern hemisphere. To be honest with you I found more variations in language when I lived at opposite ends of the M62, and I am used to people being confused by my language, slang or sentence structure.

    Yes our dialects should be celebrated, but I now live in a country where one third of the population speak a first language other than English. If I want to be able to communicate clearly and reach the widest audiencce possible, I have to modify my words to the version of English everyone is most familiar with - usually American whether I like that or not. I suppose the question is more about what you are trying to achieve with your writing; accessibility to your story, or a celebration of language? Neither is wrong, but they require different approaches.

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  4. An interesting paradox! ^_^

    I imagine every generation feels the same, as the language they hear most often becomes less and less familiar. We might lament these changes, or embrace them, but they will happen whether we like it or not. Languages have always changed and diversified. Cultural exchange leads to language change. Technology may have made such changes more acutely apparent but it's not new.

    We can be cynical about it, accuse bad advertising slogans or Hollywood, but you may as well blame your spell checker for AmericaniZation.

    It is sad that in America, as Rebecca points out, publishers seem so heavy handed in their policing of language. It deprives readers the pleasure (or frustration?) of experiencing another culture's voice.

    The paradox however is that being exposed to how English is used by other cultures and celebrating or adopting the differences, is the very reason we encounter those noticeable changes you are lamenting. For example, how do you feel about the use of up-speak? You know, where every sentence sounds like a question? In that rather annoying way? It may have been American T.V., but I noticed it shortly after Neighbours and Home and Away became popular in England. If we enjoy the way those pretty characters in exotic Australian soap operas express themselves, we probably shouldn't be surprised if we, or more probably our children, start speaking like them.

    I agree that we would miss out on a great deal if the homogenising of the way we talk and write truly occurred, just as the world seems diminished every time a language goes extinct. Language, though, will continue to change in spite of us, more so when cultures mix and share. It is happening more frequently and easily than ever too. There's no reason we shouldn't celebrate that, just as much as we enjoy those South African or Australian ways of putting things (even as we complain that "kids don't talk proper like wot I does!").

    It may be that the differences and similarities you exemplify just don't matter that much, even though they are important to record. English isn't used the same way as it was a hundred, five hundred or a thousand years ago. Some future generation might benefit from your own novels being "modernized", so that the youth of distant tomorrows might enjoy what you have written, in what to them will be old English. That very old fashioned English that people spoke before "Native" English diminished. That demise may indeed occur, due to some innovation we haven't thought of yet or because of the very cultural exchange you are calling for. And, thus we may end up lamenting the consequences of such an exchange.

    Before I shut up, I wanted to suggest that you look in to the term "Native English", in Sociolinguistics it's becoming ever more problematic. I'm sure we all know what you mean by it. It's just that it's interesting to know that there are more so called non-native users of English these days than there are native users. Indeed, it's pretty difficult to define what a native speaker of English actually is, especially now.

    The globalisation of English which we end up with might not actually be the one we expect. Which is interesting, because just as we can enjoy the way South African or Canadian English users express themselves and tell stories, we can do the same with writers from India or Singapore. Many will have grown up speaking some variation of English as a first language, though it's still different from the English used in England. And then there's the writing from "proper" non-native English speakers. I'm an English teacher and I rather enjoy some of the ways non-native speakers use English sometimes, even as they break all the grammar rules. Sometimes translated proverbs or idioms are very entertaining, while the way speakers of other languages express themselves in English can often be very poetic.

    Thanks for the thought food! ^_^


  5. feel free to snark it up :D!

    also, it's interesting that people think they know what a NZ accent sounds like despite there not being that many of us, nor much of a capitalisation on 'our' accent. maybe there's some great exported TV show I missed (don't watch it) but I thought they just had american actors play the same parts in a different show, possibly with the same name ...