Inspired by David Crystal Lecture 2018 — American English: How have we gotten here? Organised by CIOL and presented by Susie Dent

This image bears only symbolic reference to the lecture. This is my personal allegory of the event. Due to the copyright issues no photography was allowed. The source of the image is public domain.

David Crystal is my personal hero and my library is full of his books. That is why when CIOL launched a series of David Crystal Lectures my delight was complete.  The speaker of the most recent lecture of the 27 October 2018 was Susie Dent who quite successfully used her expertise to target our pre-conditioned attitude to American English.

From her I learnt that the origin of many so-called Americanisms can be traced back to the Middle English while their British counterparts are a result of French influence or even come from basic typos introduced by foreign  typesetters.

The lecture has evoked many questions and I spent a couple of weeks pondering over the ideas on the Internet, in the dictionaries and literary books.

I came across the name of an American lexicographer and language reformer from the XIX century — Noah Webster. In 1828 he published his dictionary which contained seventy thousand words (many of those had never been published before) and introduced the American English spelling.  He wanted to standardize the American language as he believed English spelling rules to be unnecessarily complex.

Webster is a significant figure and is often referred to as a “Father of American Scholarship and Education”. It took him more than twenty years to compile the first edition of his dictionary and in order to evaluate the etymology of the words he learnt twenty-six languages, including Old English, Latin and Hebrew. As part of his research he spent a year in Paris and at the University of Cambridge.

A century prior to that in Britain another scholar attempted to carry out a similar task. Samuel Johnson spent eight years working on the Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. His target was to create a definitive version of the English language. His book contained forty thousand entries and according to British Library represents “one of the most famous dictionaries in history”.

Neither of the scholars succeeded in creating a “standard” variety of English as it is impossible to pin down a language to one particular form set in a particular moment of time. Samuel Johnson admitted that “the only language that does not change is the dead one” (quoted from the lecture by Susie Dent).

Historically English has been evolving and spreading over the continents changing its shape and colour (color).  Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago as well as huge number of other countries have been enriching English with new words and meanings.

The European Union has 24 official languages but only 3 working languages of which English is one. Many documents, speeches and debates are produced in English by non-native speakers who undoubtedly create their own versions of English.

Yet modern students of English as a foreign language is presented with a homogeneous “standard English” to learn. That means that they are likely to absorb a mixture of words and structures from anything that is written in English that would go through their hands.

Susie Dent affirmed that “Future of English is in the hands of foreign speakers” — I wonder if with the help of the Internet, accessible travel and cultural interaction we are going to arrive at the point where English language will incorporate all its forms and dialects into one to become a vast and overwhelming organism where there is space for everyone.

Could we argue that by becoming so inclusive the English language will open the door to understanding multiple cultures, thus forming a bridge between peoples and nations?

Perhaps, but even then the world will still require professional translators.

Liudmila Tomanek
@Russian Translation World Ltd

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