Friday February 1, 2013
We are English (UK), please
By WONG SAI WAN
Languages and dialects are living things that evolve over time, which sometimes even confuse native speakers.
Many people do not appreciate that language evolves with time and linguists can tell which era a book is written based on phrases, spelling and words used.
A language or dialect that does not evolve is one that is destined for the history books and like many other living things, the spoken word must be used by many people in many different ways.
This brings me to my pet peeve of the week – the English Language.
We in Malaysia are an ex-British colony and many of us pride ourselves for being able to speak the language as well as those in Britain. Many of us consider ourselves native speakers as we do not speak any of the other two or three languages that we know as well as we do English.
Some of us even mistakenly think we speak it better than the British, especially if they come across some London Cockney English or the drawl of a Scottish bloke from Falkirk.
That is not my issue. Mine is the invasion of the American English into our usage here in Malaysia.
I have been taught since I was young that in Malaysia we follow the language spoken and written in Britain, yet American or US English has become the lingua franca among those under 30.
I blame this on the power of the Internet and Microsoft. English is the language of cyberspace and the US English is the brand of the language spoken and written there.
Microsoft, an American company, puts US English on default in its operating system. Most people are too lazy to change the default to another form of English. In Microsoft they have 13 types of English languages setting, including one from Malaysia, but as for me, I am a traditionalist, and therefore the default setting is English (UK).
Americans spell English words differently from the rest of the world. They absolutely abhor the letter “u”. It is missing in words like honour and colour. Everything that to the Queen’s English is “–ise” but to the Americans it is always the “ize”. English words like specialise is spelt specialize. To the rest of the English world, Z is pronounced Zed but the Americans pronounce it as Zee.
There is nothing wrong with the way the Americans speak, especially if one listens to the thick country brogue accent from the hills of Wales.
There is a saying in Britain that the difference between their country and the United States of America is that “they are one nation separated by a common language”.
Why then the difference?
I once heard this explanation while listening to BBC Radio 4 more than 30 years ago. The linguist (whose name escapes me now) said American English was actually the older one than that spoken in England today.
He explained that American English, in the older states, was spoken in Britain in the 1600s and when the colonies broke away from the motherland, they no longer shared a physical and linguistic bond with the old country.
This means that for the next 300 years, the common English language grew separately in the two countries. The United States with the immigrant influence from other European countries, while in Britain, the language developed on a different path. New words that crept into the British English did not reach the shores of the United States or, if they did, were not adopted for use.
This can even happen today. Take the word “Gay” – in today’s modern English it means a homosexual but in old English it means “Happy”. So, an old gentleman somewhere in rural Britain could still be using the word “gay” to mean “happy” if he is cut off from the rest of the world.
What really irks me is the official position in Malaysia. Schools are allowing students to use both English languages even though the syllabus states that they should teach British English.
What I am seeing is not only American English in their schoolwork but a mixture of both. I have seen sentences where honour is spelt “correctly” but “color” is spelt without the “u”. Teachers just let it go saying that the English is correct as it was understood – it is Communication English that we teach in school these days, right?
Thinking that it was just the lousy standards in our school system, I have been told that the same problem exists even at the private or international schools.
However, after years of processing speeches of leaders, I find that even their English speeches and written remarks contain a mixture of American and British English exactly as it is in school.
Even the signboards that we put up in public places in English are a case of mixed languages – a real Malaysian rojak.
I wonder if in a spelling test, can they fail a child if he or she spells it the non-British way?
I recently helped a friend buy some books for her MBA course. The title of the book is Behavior in Organizations (without the “u” and a “z” instead of an “s”). Looking at the contents, everything was in American English. If that’s the position at the tertiary level, then what is the position of our Queen’s English?
I urge the teaching and language authorities to make a stand and stick to our British roots.
> Executive editor Wong Sai Wan (firstname.lastname@example.org) suspects the English (Malaysia) in Microsoft Word is one that accepts both American and British spelling and usage.