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Posts Tagged ‘English’

I had a fascinating conversation with friends yesterday about money. I’m about to do an appeal for a charity I’m involved in, and I was asking their advice about the best way to go about this. Do I gently ask everyone on my email list if they’d like to help out with this worthy cause, and let them get back to me if they would? Do I just send them a link to the ‘donate’ website and hope for the best? Do I ask them, American-style, if they would like to pledge a certain amount – even before they have reached for their cheque-book – in the hope of encouraging them to make a commitment, and to solidify that commitment by telling me?

Lots of cultural and psychological issues come up here, and many of them touch on the strange nature of being English. Our awkwardness in talking about money – we hate to reveal our bank balance, our salary, our debts, our charitable giving – even to close and trusted friends. It’s just something you don’t do.

I was saying how much I admire the American instinct to praise, publicly, those who give generously to good causes. Yes, there are risks: it can encourage pride, jealously, etc. But why is it that we would happily praise those who give their time in volunteering, or their wisdom in teaching, or their patience in suffering, or their good example in leading – but we feel there is something rather grubby about putting the spotlight on someone’s generosity in giving some of their hard-earned cash, even if it is making a huge difference to the lives of others? My friends didn’t agree – they thought if you are going to give in this way you should do it humbly and quietly, without drawing attention to yourself, and without others giving you special attention. Of course I can see the truth in that, I just think there is something we are missing here.

These are just some of the questions that came up over coffee yesterday morning! Now I must work out what to do myself, and write the email appeal.

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Following on from my post about the difference between the English and the French, a friend sent me this image about how the rest of the world understands our strange British phrases:

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My last post was about people doing what they are not meant to do: defying the social conventions that almost define them, the unwritten rules of behaviour that we take for granted without ever reflecting on. The best thing I’ve read about this is undoubtedly Kate Fox’s Watching the English.

It’s hysterical, and full of profound insights into the strange reality of being English, or British (she can’t quite decide). If you can’t afford psychoanalysis, read this book, and it will bring to light all sorts of habits and behaviours in your own life that you’ve never really thought about. I kept thinking, ‘How does this woman know me so well?’ If you have any drop of Englishness in you at all, you will learn things about yourself that you never knew before.

Why do we English people talk about the weather so much? Why do we say sorry (and actually feel sorry) when we have no reason to be sorry? Why do we queue so often? Why do we get so angry when other people jump our queue? Why are we so unable to express our anger? Why are we afraid of complaining about bad service? Why are we so awkward in social situations? Why do we consistently fumble for the right word or the appropriate gesture when we meet someone, or leave someone, or thank someone, or correct someone, or offer them our sympathy in the face of difficulty, disease or death? Why is this social ‘dis-ease’ almost a part of our genetic make-up?

Fox is one of these social anthropologists who takes part in her own experiments. So she set about systematically upsetting the social cart and seeing how people reacted. A whole morning aggressively bumping into people to see if they did indeed say sorry for her own rudeness. An afternoon pushing into carefully formed queues to see how many people would dare to challenge her, and how they would deal with this unwelcome need to enter into confrontation (loud coughs, long stares, the odd ‘Excuse me?!’).

Here is the Blackwell’s blurb:

In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. Her minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight, queue – and moan about it all – exposes the hidden rules that we all unconsciously obey. The rules of weather-speak. The Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo. Humour rules. Pub etiquette. Table manners. The rules of bogside reading. The dangers of excessive moderation. The eccentric-sheep rule. The English ‘social dis-ease’. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.
It’s a very funny and very revealing book.

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I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.

Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?  

Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.

The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:

It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.

And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.

The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:

I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.

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