English, Englishes – which one to use for writing?

Sometimes, the answer to the question in the post’s title is easy, if you’re writing in English: do whatever the style guide says. Don’t argue with the journal editor or typesetter about that sort of trivia (unless they’re very wrong). If it states American English spelling, do so; if British English, go for that. If you can’t distinguish your color from colour, modeling from modelling, and a faucet from a tap, use a spellchecker with one of the Englishes on offer—even OpenOffice Writer shows red wavy lines under ‘color’, ‘modeling’, and ‘faucet’ when it’s set to my default “English (South Africa)”. There are very many other places where you can write in English as much as you like or have time for, however, and then the blog post’s question becomes more relevant. How many Englishes or somehow accepted recognised variants of English exist, and where does it make a difference in writing such that you’ll have to, or are supposed to, choose?

It begs the question of how many variants of English count as one of the Englishes, which is tricky to answer, because it depends on what counts. Does a dialect count? Does it count when it’s sanctioned by a country when it has an official language status and a language body? Does it count when there are enough users? Or when there’s enough text to detect the substantive differences? What are the minimum number or type of differences, if any, and from which standard, before one may start to talk of different Englishes and a new spin-off X-English? People have been deliberating about such matters and trying to document differences and even have come up with classification schemes. Englishes around the world, to be more precise, refer to localised or indigenised versions of English that are either those people’s first or institutionalised language, not just any variant or dialect. There’s an International Association for World Englishes (IAWE) and there are handbooks, textbooks, and scientific journals about it, and the 25th conference of the IAWE will take place next year.

In recent years there have been suggestions that English could break up into mutually unintelligible languages, much as Latin once did. Could such a break-up occur, or are we in need of a new appreciation of the nature of World English?

Tom McArtrur, 1987, writing from “the mother country”, but not “the centre of gravity”, of English (pdf).

My expertise doesn’t go that far – I’m operating from the consumer-side of these matters, standards-following, and trying to not make too many mistakes. It took me a while to figure out there was British English (BE) and American English (AE) and then it was a matter of looking up rules on spelling differences, like -ise vs. -ize and single vs. double l (e.g., traveling vs. travelling), checking comparative word lists, and other varied differences, like whether it’s ‘towards’ or ‘toward’ or 15:30, 15.30, 3.30pm or 3:30pm (or one of my colleagues p’s, like a 3.30p). Not to mention a plethora of online writing guides and the comprehensive sense of style book by Steven Pinker. Let’s explore the Englishes and Global English a little.

McArthur’s Englishes (source)

South African English (SAE) exists as one of the recognised Englishes, all the way into internationally reputable dictionaries. It is a bit of a mix of BE and AE, with some spices sprinkled into it. It tries to follow BE but there are AE influences due to the media and, perhaps, anti-colonial sentiment. It’s soccer, not football, for instance, and the 3.30pm variant rather than a 24h clock. Well, I’m not sure it is officially, but practically it is so. It also has ‘weird’ words that everyone is convinced is native English of the BE variety, but isn’t, like timeously rather than timeous or timely – the most I could find was a Wiktionary entry on it claiming it to be Scottish and SAE, but not even the Dictionary of SAE (DSAE) has an entry for it. I’ve seen it so often in work emails over the years that I caved in and use it as well. There are at least a handful of SAE words that people in South Africa think is BE but isn’t, as any SA expat will be able to recall when they get quizzical looks overseas. Then there are hundreds of words that people know is SAE at least unofficially, which are mainly the loan words and adopted words from the 10 other languages spoken in SA – regional overlap causes mutual language influences in all directions. Bakkie, indaba, veld, lekker, dagga, and many more – I’ve blogged about that before. My OpenOffice SAE spellchecker doesn’t flag any of these words as typos.

Arguably, also grammatical differences for SAE exist. In practice they sure do, but I’m not aware of anything officially endorsed. There is no ‘benevolent language dictator’ with card-carrying members of the lexicography and grammar police to endorse or reprimand. Indeed there is the Pan-South African Language Board (PANSALB), but its teeth and thunder don’t come close to the likes of the Académie Française or Real Academia Española. Regarding grammar, that previous post already mentioned the case of the preposition at the end of a sentence when it’s a separable part of the verb in Afrikaans, Dutch, and German (e.g., meenemen or mitnehmen ‘take with’). A concoction that still makes me wince each time I hear or read it, is the ‘can be able to’. It’s either can + verb what you can, or copula + able to + verb what you can do. It is, e.g., ‘I can carry out the experiment’ or ‘I’m able to carry out the experiment’, but not ‘I can be able to carry out the experiment’. I suspect it carries over from a verb form in Niger-Congo B languages since I’ve heard it used also by at least Tanzanians, Kenyans, and Malawians, and meanwhile I’ve occasionally seen it also in texts written by English South African students.

If the notion of “Englishes” feels uncomfortable, then what about Global/World/International English? Is there one? For many a paper I review double-blind, i.e., where the author names and affiliations are hidden, I can’t tell unless the English is really bad. I’ve read enough to be able to spot Spanglish or Chinglish, but mostly I can’t tell, in that there’s a sort of bland scientific English – be it a pidgin English, or maybe multiple authors cancel out ways of making mistakes, or no-one really bothers tear the vocabulary apart into their boxes because it’s secondary to the scientific content being communicated. No doubt that investigative deliberations are ongoing about that too; if there aren’t, they ought to.

Another scenario for ‘global English’, concerns how to write a newsletter to a global audience. For instance, if you were to visit a website with an intended audience in the USA, then it should tolerable to read “this fall”, even though elsewhere it’s either autumn, spring, a rainy or a dry season. If it’s an article by the UN, say, then one may expect a different wording that is either not US-centric or, if the season matters, to qualify it like in a “Covid-19 cases are expected to rise during fall and winter in North America”. With the former wording, you can’t please everyone, due to different calendars with different month names and year ends and different seasons. The question also came up recently for a Wikimedia blog post that I was involved sideways in a draft version, on Abstract Wikipedia progress for its natural language generation component. My tendency was toward(s) a Global English, whereas one of my collaborators’ stance was that they assumed a rule that it should be the English of wherever the organisation’s headquarters is located. These choices were also confusing when I was writing the first draft of my memoir: it was published by a South African publisher, hence, SAE style guidelines, but the book is also distributed – and read! – internationally.

Without clear rules, there will always be people who complain about your English, be it either that you’re wrong or just not in the inner circle for sensing ‘the feeling of the language that only a native speaker can have’, that supposedly inherently unattainable fingerspitzengefühl for it. No clear rules isn’t good for developing spelling and grammar checkers either. In that regard, and that one only, perhaps I just might prefer a benevolent dictator. I don’t even care which of the Englishes (except for not the stupid stuff like spelling ‘light’ as ‘lite’, ffs). I also fancy the idea of banding together with other ‘nonfirst-language’ speakers of English to start devising and dictating rules, since the English speakers can’t seem to sort out their own language – at least not enough like the grammatically richer languages – and we’re in the overwhelming majority in numbers (about 1:3 apparently). One can dream.

As to the question in the title of the blog post: what I’ve written so far is not a clear answer for all cases, indeed, in particular when there is no editorial house style dictating it, but this lifting of the veil hopefully has made clear that attempting to answer the question means opening up that can of worms further. You could create your own style guide for your not-editor-policed writings. The more I read about it, though, the more complicated things turn out to be, so you’re warned in case you’d like to delve into this topic. Meanwhile, I’ll keep winging it on my blog with some version of a ‘global English’ and inadvertent typos and grammar missteps…


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