Archive for the ‘English’ Category

typewriter_jpg-288x300Atlanticisms are American and British dialect words that are understood on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • ad
  • add up
  • air matress
  • attic
  • autumn
  • ballpoint pen
  • Band-Aid
  • bar – not pub
  • bell-boy
  • big spender – not high roller
  • bill – not check (restaurant)
  • billboard – not hoarding
  • bird-watcher – not birder
  • blackboard
  • blackjack – not pontoon (card game)
  • bleach – not Clorox
  • blue-collar
  • boarder – not lodger
  • bring up – not raise (a child)
  • broke – out of money
  • broken – not busted
  • bulrush – not cattail
  • cafeteria
  • call – not ring up (telephone)
  • can opener
  • capital letters – not block letters
  • chickpea – not garbanzo bean
  • chief of police – not sheriff
  • cigarette butt
  • cinema
  • coffin – not casket
  • cop
  • cottom swab – not Q-Tip
  • crayfish
  • crematorium
  • cupboard
  • cupcake
  • curse – not cuss
  • curt – not snippy
  • curtains
  • dad
  • deadlock – not stand-off
  • dessert
  • dishcloth
  • drainpipe
  • drinking fountain
  • dress – not frock
  • dressing-table – not vanity
  • dump – not landfill
  • evening shift – not swing shift
  • extra-large – not outsize
  • fabulous – not royal
  • failed – not bombed
  • field – not pitch (sporting term)
  • fill out – not fill in a form
  • fire engine
  • firefly – not lightning bug
  • fire station
  • foot-and-mouth disease
  • funny-bone
  • glasses – not spectacles or eyeglasses
  • green thumb
  • grill
  • gnat – not midge
  • goose bumps
  • gutters
  • guy – male only
  • hamburger
  • handbag
  • heap – old car
  • hideaway
  • high-rise (building)
  • hike – not ramble
  • house painter
  • icing
  • idiot
  • imagine – not guess (as in “I guess so”)
  • immediately – not straight away
  • jam – not jelly
  • jerk
  • label – not tag
  • lavatory – not bathroom or rest room
  • lawyer – not attorney, solicitor or barrister
  • life jacket
  • lollipop
  • lonely – not lonesome
  • lout – not oik
  • magician
  • mail
  • measuring cup
  • minister – not vicar
  • mongrel – not mutt
  • nail polish
  • napkin – not serviette
  • newspaper clipping
  • newsstand – not news agent
  • nuts – not crackers
  • nutty
  • pack of cards – not deck of cards
  • pantry
  • parka – not anorak
  • paper-wasp – not yellow jacket
  • patch together – not cobble together
  • pawn – not hock
  • pedestrian crossing – not crosswalk or zebra crossing
  • pharmacist
  • pharmacy – not chemist or drugstore
  • physiotherapist
  • plasterboard – not Sheetrock
  • play hookey
  • plum pudding
  • police line up
  • porch – not stoop
  • prison – not penitentiary
  • public swimming pool
  • pushups
  • quarter – not fourth
  • quotation marks
  • racecourse
  • rattle on
  • reform school
  • relic – not holdover
  • rubber boots
  • rummage sale
  • rumpus – not ruckus
  • running shoes – not sneakers, trainers or tennis shoes
  • Santa Claus
  • scuzzy
  • seesaw
  • senior citizen – not pensioner
  • shopping bag
  • shopping cart – not trolley or buggy
  • shopping centre – not mall or shopping plaza
  • shoulder – not verge (of a road)
  • slash – not oblique or stroke (the “/” symbol)
  • slice of bacon – not rasher
  • somewhere – not someplace
  • smitten – not besotted
  • sofa
  • soft drink
  • soil – not dirt
  • stands – at a sporting event
  • sticker – not decal
  • stockings – not hose
  • stopover – not layover
  • stove
  • stuffing – not dressing
  • sucker – not patsy
  • supermarket – not grocery store
  • sweater
  • swimsuit
  • tarpaulin – not tarp
  • tasteless – not tacky
  • theatre programme – not Playbill
  • thermos
  • timetable – not schedule (for buses and trains)
  • toll-road – not turnpike
  • tone-deaf – not have a tin ear
  • tramp – not hobo or bum
  • travelling salesman
  • trunk – not steamer trunk
  • TV
  • usual – not regular
  • vacuum cleaner – not Hoover
  • vending machine – not slot machine
  • waiter – not server (restaurant)
  • walking-stick – not cane
  • wary – not leery
  • wedding ring
  • wharf – not quay
  • while – not whilst
  • wrench – not spanner
  • yell – not holler
  • zero – not nil

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21 Accents

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eminem-picture-2One commenter said this:

No matter how wrong you are YOU must be right. No English teacher in 2009 would allow you to write in a paper “black” with a small “b” no even in the deep south where Blacks are still made to feel like smal “b”. But must be right, right? Why?  White is right, isn’t it? You should just start from this day to pus the shift key when writing the word Black to denote a people. I will not hurt you and it will make Black folk who read what you write feel better about you, me included. Yes how you make other feel should be important to you.

That kind of got to me. And it got me curious: what do black blogs in my corner of the blogosphere use, “black” or “Black”? Here is what I found (these appear in at least four blog rolls with me):

  • black (16): The field negro, Aunt Jemima’s Revenge, Afrobella, Raw Dawg Buffalo, The Black Snob, Beauty in Baltimore, Siditty, Black Women Blow The Trumpet!, What Would Thembi Do?, What Tami Said, New Black Woman, Make Fetch Happen, Jack & Jill Politics, The Root, The Cocoa Lounge, Acting White.
  • Black (3): What About Our Daughters, Mirror on America, Invisible Woman.
  • Both black and Black (3): The Angry Black Woman, Hello Negro, AverageBro.com.
  • Unknown (1): Gorgeous Black Women.

So out of 23 blogs only 3, about one in eight, use “Black” all the time as the adjective for black people. Most use “black” regularly,  like I do.

So while “Black” might be more politically correct, “black” cannot cause that much offence – though I could be wrong.

But as interesting as that is, it is not how I settle matters like this. Instead what I do is look it up in my dictionary: the Eleventh Edition of the “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006). It uses “black” as its main word for black people, not “Black”, much less “African American”, “Negro” or “coloured”. So that is what I use.

The Oxford dictionary was written mainly by white people. So far as I know there is no dictionary of Black American English. And even if there was, I would use it but not to settle matters like these. My aim in using English is to be understood all over the world, not just in one part of one country (Black America).

I do use “Black” on occasion, but only where I talk about blacks as an ethnicity or a culture. In that sense Eminem might arguably be called “Black” but Lenny Kravitz not, even though Kravitz is “black” and Eminem is “white” – by race.

To me what makes you black is not taking part in a particular culture or being shaped by it, like being French. It is not about music or language or anything like that. To me what makes you black is race, the experience of looking black in a white racist country and everything that follows from that.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Grey English

greyThe Lord’s Prayer in an extreme form of Grey English (extreme to make a point):

It is desired that the patriarchal figure of the triune Christian deity, who is believed to be located in the afterlife plane of existence, have his name honoured by the worshipping community, which anticipates the future eschatological phase when his name will be universally respected. It is requested that the present plane of existence be under direct and manifest divine command and, at this time, to provide for the current material needs of his believers on an ongoing, daily basis. One should cease from resentment, indignation and anger at perceived offences in order for the Christian deity to engage in reciprocation and overlook one’s own personal offences. It is further desired that said deity not position his communicants in any possible tests of character but to liberate them from morally compromising forces and situations.

Grey English (c. 1946 – ) is the name I give to the sort of English that professors, generals and businessmen write in. So do many who have a university education. The Wikipedia is written mostly in Grey English (where I got some of the Lord’s Prayer from).

Both George Orwell and June Jordan wrote against it, but never gave it a name – it was just the sad state of English in their day because people at the top lie so much.

They gave rules for avoiding it in their own writing. By turning these rules the other way round we can find out how to write in Grey English:

  • Write in the third-person passive. Avoid the word “I”.
  • Avoid the present tense.
  • Write to people in general, not to the reader.
  • Do not write about who did what. Keep it more general than that.
  • Do not write the way people talk.
  • Do not state things too plainly.
  • The more words the better. Add words, do not cut them!
  • Long words are better than short words.
  • Abstract words are better than concrete words.
  • Jargon, scientific words and foreign words are better than plain words.
  • Only use words, spellings and figures of speech that everyone else uses. Never invent any new ones!

To these I add:

  • Prefer jargon, buzzwords and catchphrases – they make you sound like you know what you are talking about.
  • Use measurements, numbers and dates – it is important to know these things!
  • Build your writing on placeholder words: person, process, nature, character, purpose, problem, solution, matter, result, perception, resources, relation, connection, condition, level, etc. This will make it easier to:
  • Write using abstract nouns and weak verbs.
  • Avoid using the same word twice – it sounds bad.
  • Never say anything straight out – guard what you say with doubts and conditions.
  • Language is not a clear glass window on the truth, but a way to get people to think certain things.

Like Orwell and Jordan, I see Grey English as bad writing that covers bad thinking and even some outright lies. I do not trust it.

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shakespeareHere is the Lord’s Prayer in Early Modern English (from the Geneva Bible of 1587):

Our father which art in heauen,
halowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdome come.
Thy will be done
euen in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our dayly bread.
And forgiue vs our dettes,
as we also forgiue our detters.
And leade vs not into tentation,
but deliuer vs from euill:

Early Modern English (1474-1660) is English from about the time of Caxton in the late 1400s, when he printed the first book in English, to Milton in the middle 1600s. It is the English of Shakespeare and the Authorized King James Bible, of Hobbes, Bunyan,  Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and Donne. It was considerably different from the English of Chaucer in the late 1300s, yet it was easily understood up until the late 1800s.

It was when English had become a respectable language, like French. It was taking in huge numbers of Latin words. Shakespeare showed its beauty and power. Even so, it was not the giant world language it is now – only about 5 million people in a corner of Europe spoke it. English was just beginning to spread its wings.

It was the English that was brought to America. The American use of –ize instead of -ise and mad in the sense of angry, for example, go back to this time.

It was during this period that English spelling became more or less fixed. This started with Caxton in the late 1400s, who pretty much wrote words the way they sounded. Most of what makes English hard to spell comes from the Great Vowel Shift that came soon after in the 1500s: that was when the silent e became silent, as did the k in knife, the w in wrong, the t in listen, the l in half and so on. It is when words like food and good or sweat and meat stopped rhyming in spite of how they were spelled.

The most noticeable difference between our English and theirs are all those thous and -eths. But even in the early 1600s they were already falling out of use. They are more common, for instance, in the King James Bible, which preserves an older English from the middle 1500s, than they are in Shakespeare. By the 1600s -eth was probably said as -es regardless of how it was spelled.

Some notes:

  • My became mine before a vowel: “mine apple”.
  • Is could still sometimes take the place of has in the perfect tense: “He is come”.
  • Its was just coming into use in the 1600s: before then his and whereof were used instead: “the weight whereof was an 130 shekels.”
  • Ye was used instead you when it was the subject of a sentence: “But be ye doers of the word.”
  • Thou was the familiar form of “ye”, but it was falling out of use.
  • Instead of using do to make a question you could just put the main verb first: “Have ye three apples?”

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typewriter_jpg-288x300A Black Americanism is a word or phrase that comes from black American English. It is a kind of Americanism. Some are found mainly just in Black English, some have crossed over into Standard English. Some you might think are Standard English but if you look them up in a dictionary, they are not there!

I divide Black Americanisms into three kinds according to their relationship to Standard English: the obvious, the subtle and the naturalized (the words in red are those that I have probably used on this blog):

1. The obvious: those that are so clearly black that most blacks readily drop them from their speech or writing when the circumstance demands Standard English, like at work or school. Many of these are seen as slang or improper English by both blacks and whites.


you is, she pretty, phat, hate on, done gone, I seen, she do, saditty, colorstruck, player (ladies’ man), to front (pretend), play someone, nigga, good hair, check one’s self, bougie, y’all, get busy, ho, conversate, might could.

2. The subtle: those that might seem to be Standard English but in fact are not. I thought all of these were Standard English till I looked them up:


wigger, anyways, inside of, all them, most everyone, dig (= understand), be into, whip out, lighten up, hooked on, go off on, get with it, get real, get it together, get one’s drift, get a clue, go broke, knock yourself out, to sweat someone, take the cake.

3. The naturalized: those that have crossed over into some level of Standard English. Most crossed over into white American slang, especially by way of jazz and hip hop, then into more formal levels of American English. From there some spread overseas.

“Informal” means it is all right for spoken English and for some kinds of writing, like for magazines, blogs and newspapers, but not, say, for government reports. “Vulgar” means not to be used in mixed company.


  • Americanisms:
    • Informal North American English: hooker, redneck, man (exclamation), dis, crib, Oreo (person), dude, to be strung out on something, jive, nappy, white trash, hustle (trick), knock up (get pregnant), two-bit, straight up, hood (= neighbourhood), whup.
    • Written North American English: down-home
  • No longer dialect:
    • Vulgar World English: dick, pussy.
    • Informal World English: okay, groovy, bad mouth, sweet talk, cool, be hip, vibes, yeah, not my bag, max, psych out, gig, funky, Mickey Mouse (adj), be with it, be wired, wing it, working girl, looker, get a move on, every which way, fab, come (= orgasm), put-down, goner, laid-back, quickie, sure enough, blow one’s mind, for real, bust (= burst), uppity, yo, cuss.
    • Written World English: go with (= date), jazz, banana, bogus, dead (no emotion), up on it, set-up (trick, frame), like crazy, lily-white, come down on, pimp, crying shame, crybaby, check it out, go along with, greens, two-faced, uh-uh.

I try to write in world English for this blog, so the World English ones are fine. All the rest are dialect: Americanisms, black or otherwise.

Sources: “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006), Clarence Major: “Juba to Jive” (1994).

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America in 1956 (photograph by Gordon Parks)

Coloured, written as “colored” in America, is a word that has been applied to people who are not white. It has meant different things at different times and places. It is still current in South Africa and neighbouring countries, but in Britain and America it is somewhere between dated and offensive. That is why when Lindsay Lohan lately informed us that Barack Obama will be the first coloured president of America, she put her foot in her mouth.

In the 1700s the word meant anyone who was not white. It was close to what the terms non-white and people of colour mean now, but back then it took in Italians and Jews – anyone who was noticeably darker-skinned than an Englishman.

In Britain that is the meaning it had until the 1950s, though at some point Italians and Jews crossed over to white (when and how?) and the word came to mean anyone darker than a European. This is how Winston Churchill used the word when he said too many coloured people were coming to Britain. like from the Caribbean and South Asia. After the 1960s the word began to seem dated and fell out of respectable use.

In America before 1830 “coloured” was mainly applied to mixed-race Africans, people who were part black and part white. They were sometimes called “brown”. By the 1830s, “coloured” took the place of “African” as the main word most black people used when talking about themselves. “African” fell from grace in the early 1800s because whites were talking about sending Africans back to Africa! “Coloured” was the main word David Walker used in the 1820s, Frederick Douglass in the 1840s, and Solomon Northup in the 1850s. It is the C in NAACP. 

Under Jim Crow (1877-1967), its use spread to “Colored Only” signs and working-class whites.

By the early 1900s, among both blacks and whites,”coloured” was the main working-class word for black people. “Negro”, meanwhile, was the main middle-class word, the kind you would see in the newspaper, a book or a government report.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the word “black” swept away both “Negro” and “coloured”. By the late 1980s, “African American” became the new middle-class word.

In 2008, you can still hear the word “coloured” in old Hollywood films and from very old people – much older than Miss Lohan.

In South Africa the word is still current but came to mean something else: those who were neither white nor black but mixed. There is no One Drop Rule in South Africa. Under apartheid there were four races: White, Black, Coloured and Indian, all with capital letters. Coloureds were above Blacks but below Whites. Most are part black and part white, but many are mixed with other things too, like Javanese. In fact, they are the most racially mixed people in the world. Some want to replace it with the word “brown”.

Major revision in 2015.

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Attic Greek idiom

Attic Greek idiom means the natural way of expressing yourself in the Greek of ancient Athens in Attica. It was not just the words and grammar that made Greek different from English, it was also how you expressed your thoughts.

Beyond the words and grammar of a language there is idiom: the common or natural way of saying things in a language. After all, you can follow the rules of grammar perfectly and use words with all their right meanings and still sound like you are from Mars. That is why people learning English sound so strange, like Borat.

Comparing Attic Greek idiom to English tells us as much about English as it does about Greek.

Attic Greek idiom was plain, simple, direct and clear where English has a bad habit of dressing things up in abstractions and metaphors, like bad Shakespeare. English is round-about, like a liar. Greek is sharp, like a knife. Greek prefers verbs and actors, English prefers nouns and states of being.

Attic Greek did have metaphors and abstract words, but nothing like what English has. This makes Greek seem shockingly plain to those who speak English. Translators have to fight the urge to dress up the Greek, a fight they do not always win. Even the same Greek word will be translated in different ways – not because it has a different meanings, but because it sounds bad in English to keep using the same word.

Some examples:

Notice how the Greek prefers people and verbs while English goes out of its way to use nouns:

English: After their departure
Greek: When they left

English: The combat began
Greek: They began to fight

English: The system of ancient warfare
Greek: How the ancients fought wars

English: Attempt his rescue
Greek: Try to save

English: Died on the field of battle
Greek: Fighting, he died

English: Suffer ill-treatment
Greek: Suffer terribly

English: No one can tell the number
Greek: No one knows how much

English likes to dress up simple facts in dead metaphors:

English: He came off the victor
Greek: He won

English: He was made a laughingstock
Greek: He became ridiculous

English: Matters were now ripe
Greek: Everything was ready

Where English likes to use abstract qualities – justice, beauty, utility – Greek likes to use “the” with the right adjective: the just, the beautiful, the useful. “The great and good” is a Greek turn of phrase. And so:

English: A lover of beauty
Greek: Loving the beautiful

From all this you should be able to tell that the phrase “the powers that be” is Greek. And so it is: it comes to English from Greek by way of Tyndale’s translation of Romans 13:1 in the New Testament, a translation that the King James Bible kept – but which most Bibles of the past 50 years do not. Instead they say “authorities that exist”. That is still partly Greek: the pure English idiom would be “existing authorities”.

– Abagond, 2008, 2017.

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Could Shakespeare read our English – once he got used to the spelling, that is?

When you read something, you can make sense of it if you know at least nine out of ten words. In most cases either the tenth word will not matter much or you will be able to guess at its meaning from the other nine. I know this from reading Portuguese.

If you go by that, then Shakespeare could read most of what was written before 1850, but not much of what has been written since 1950.

You get the same answer when you think about the King James Bible: it  is 97% Shakespearean in its words, but no one felt the need to update it till about 1870.

Here is how something from the New Yorker magazine would seem to Shakespeare (I replaced all the words not found in Shakespeare with “BLAH-BLAH”):

Passion of the Christ, The

Mel Gibson’s bloody re-creation of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus is one of the cruellest BLAH-BLAHS in the history of the BLAH-BLAH. Gibson and the BLAH-BLAH Benedict Fitzgerald selected and BLAH-BLAH incidents from the four Gospels and collated them into a single, BLAH-BLAH violent BLAH-BLAH in which the incomparable glories of Jesus’ BLAH-BLAH – the BLAH-BLAH, the BLAH-BLAH, the heart-stopping eloquence – are all but BLAH-BLAH by the spectacle of his physical destruction. The BLAH-BLAH and flaying, often in slow-motion, go on forever, and Gibson displays a curious BLAH-BLAH BLAH-BLAH with the details of BLAH-BLAH – huge nails being hammered into hands and feet, with James Caviezel’s Jesus howling at each blow. Here and there, the BLAH-BLAH has a kind of grim power, and Caleb Deschanel’s even grey BLAH-BLAH at the BLAH-BLAH is BLAH-BLAH, but this is a BLAH-BLAH, BLAH-BLAH, and ignorant show. The BLAH-BLAHS have also changed in small ways a number of things from the Gospels and BLAH-BLAH what BLAH-BLAHS know of ancient Judea, all with the BLAH-BLAH of making the Jewish leaders more, and the Roman leaders less, BLAH-BLAH for the death of Jesus. It’s a deeply angry BLAH-BLAH, and one wonders how believers can react to it with anything but guilt, fear, or loathing.

– David Denby

That, by the way, is how it will seem thousands of years from now too: English, as we know it, will be gone by then – either dead or changed into something else – but there will still be scholars who will know the English of Shakespeare, just as there are those who know the Greek of Homer.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, by way of comparison, has only one word Shakespeare might not have known: final (it was an English word by the 1300s, but he never used it).

Shakespeare would be able to read:

He would have trouble reading:

– Abagond, 2008, 2015.

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Ebonics (by 1692), or Black American English, started in the 1600s. The first recorded instance of it is in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 when Tituba says:

“He tell me he God.”

Many think of Black English as an imperfect copy of White English. Even some scholars argue that. But that overlooks two facts:

  1. Black English has features that are seen in no form of White English, but which you do see in Caribbean and African forms of English. You just saw an example of that: the lack of “is” in “He tell me he God”.
  2. Blacks learn English mainly from blacks, not from whites. This became even more true after the slaves were freed, but somewhat less true with the rise of public education and television.

If you came from Africa to America as a slave, no white person took you aside to teach you English. You picked it up mainly from other slaves: in the slave forts of Africa, in the Caribbean, where many slaves were taken first, and in the fields of America. Blacks did not mix with whites enough to copy their English mainly from them.

The first form of English that was used between blacks and whites was a makeshift form of English called pidgin English. It used mostly English words but set to more of an African grammar. It was a simple language, one you would use to give orders or to buy and sell, but not one you could use all the time.

But for those born over the seas from Africa it was pretty much the only language they knew. They made it into a full language called Creole English, an English you could use all the time, that could express any thought. This is called creolization. You can still hear Creole English on the street in the West Indies.

Black American English started out that way and you can see signs of that, especially in its use of verbs. But, unlike the West Indies, most people in America are white, and so over time Black English has become less like Creole English and more like Standard English.

The English of both blacks and whites in America has been getting closer to Standard English over time, the kind of English you see in books or hear on CNN. That has come about mainly through the spread of public education. It started sooner with whites.

While Black English does preserve words from Africa (like okay, jazz and banana) and even some of the grammar, it also preserves some of how most white people used to talk (like the use of “ain’t”, dropped g’s in -ing and double negatives). But for the most part it has been shaped by creolization.

Not all scholars agree with that. Africanists say it has been shaped more by African languages, while Anglicists, like John McWhorter, say it has been shaped more by the sorts of British English you heard in the American South 300 years ago.

– Abagond, 2008.

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The Received Pronunciation (1830s- ), or RP, was the accent or way of saying words of the top people in Britain for most of the 1800s and 1900s. It is what Americans mean when they say someone has a “British accent” and what people in Britain mean when they say someone has a “posh” accent or “no accent”. It is an accent that is readily understood everywhere in the English-speaking world.

Those who use RP, among others:

  • Actors: Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, David Niven, John Cleese, Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard), etc,
  • The BBC from the 1920s to the 1970s,
  • Top schools and universities, like Oxford and Cambridge,
  • Tory MPs.

Patrick Stewart’s accent is not native but part of his theatre training.

About 2 million people in Britain speak RP. For them it is the natural way of speaking. For many who learned English as a foreign language it is the right way to say words, the way you see in British dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary.

RP was the voice of power and authority in the 1930s, but by the 1990s it had become the voice of the stuck-up.

Tony Blair, for example, still spoke RP in the 1980s but by the 1990s he was speaking in Estuary English, an everyman’s London English which is halfway between RP and working-class Cockney.

RP was never the accent of the masses. That was kind of the idea. But for most of the 1900s it was how the top people in all parts of the country spoke. It was how you learned to speak if you went to the top schools and universities, like Eton, Oxford and Cambridge. Eton was said to have the purest RP accent.

RP only tells people that you have a very good education, but not where you are from. You cannot even say an RP speaker is from Britain since most are from overseas.

There was no RP in the 1700s. We know that from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. There was not even a single accent among the rich and powerful back then. That arose in the 1800s with the rise of English public schools (meaning the private schools of the rich).

Lord Reith based BBC English on RP. He saw it as the right way of speaking and wanted the BBC to set an example. It was also the accent that everyone, rich or poor, north or south, native or foreign, understood. That was true before the BBC, but the BBC made it even more true.

You can still hear RP on the BBC, especially on the news, but it started to move away from it in the 1970s.

RP has changed over time. We know that from hearing the old news broadcasts of the BBC. You can also hear it in Angelina Jolie’s character in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004), who speaks in an RP from the 1930s. So RP is not some timeless accent. It changes like everything else.

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thecolorpurpleEbonics (1600s- ) or Black English is what the Wikipedia calls African American Vernacular English (AAVE), meaning the street English of blacks in America. Since the 1940s much of American slang has come from Black English, some of it becoming part of Standard English, like put down, corny and cool.

Ebonics is different than Standard English. Standard English is the English you learn at school, the kind you find in books. It is universal: it is the same the world over – in America, Britain, Nigeria, Jamaica, India, even China. That is what is so great about it.

But Standard English is not “natural”. It started in the 1400s in the government offices in London. It has spread by education and books, especially the King James Bible. It was heavily affected by Latin. It did not become a common way of speaking among white Americans till the 1800s. With the rise of public education they were taught that it was good English, that anything else was bad.

It was good only in the sense that it was universal, but otherwise it was no better than any other English in terms of grammar, beauty or its power to express thought and feeling.

Black English, certainly, is just as powerful and often far more beautiful. But you cannot use it everywhere because not everyone understands it and many, both black and white, will think you lack education or even intelligence.

Black English is not an unlettered form of White English. It is not that simple.

When blacks were brought to America from Africa as slaves they spoke to their masters and each other in a very simple form of English called pidgin English. Many slaves spoke pidgin Wolof too. Wolof was the language of an old empire in Africa. It died out in America in the 1700s, but some of its words have lived on, like banana, honky, guy, bug out, hip (cool), dig (understand) and maybe even wow.

Slaves born in America knew only pidgin English. They made it into a full language known as Creole English. Unlike a pidgin, it has the full power of ordinary English.

Creole English used English words, mostly, but put them in a different and simpler order. It had  more tenses too. It was very much like the Jamaican patois you hear on the streets of Kingston and in some reggae songs.

Creole English became what we know as Black English. Over time it has become more and more like Standard English, something that is still going on.

Nearly all black Americans over a certain age know and understand both Black English and Standard English. Some will use only one or the other, but most will change between them depending on circumstances, something called code switching.

Ebonics made the news in 1997 when Oakland, California wanted to use it to help black schoolchildren learn Standard English. The idea was killed.

– Abagond, 2008.

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English alphabet

7342aThe English alphabet (600s- ) is the set of letters used to write English. It comes from the Roman alphabet.

It has 26 letters:


Those are called upper-case letters. In addition there is a lower-case letter for each of these:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Upper-case letters are sometimes called capital letters because they most often appear at the head of words, sentences and pages. “Capital” comes from caput, the Latin word for head.

The lower-case letters started out as a different way to write upper-case letters. They were invented in the 300s to save paper and make it easier to tell letters apart. They are also easier to write: most can be written without taking your pen off the paper. They were more suited to parchment, a new sort of paper that was smoother than the older papyrus.

In the 600s, the English, like so many others, were taught to write by Christian missionaries. Since the missionaries wrote in Latin, they taught the English to write their language in Latin letters.

It was a bad fit: there were only 23 Latin letters in those days and yet there are over 40 English sounds! For most of its history, English was not regarded as a “real” language like Latin was. Few questioned the use of Latin letters to write English.

About 20 new letters were needed, but only a few new letters were added. There used to be the letter Ȝ for gh and the letters Þ and Ð for th. They disappeared after the Norman French took over England in 1066 and wrote English in the French fashion. Later J, V and W were added. J and V were added for Latin and came into English afterwards.

The result was the disaster that is English spelling:

  1. English sometimes uses the same letter for different sounds. For example, the a in fat and in father are two different sounds. The s in snake, pleasure, and rose represent three different sounds!
  2. English sometimes uses two letters put together to represent one sound. For example, the ch in cheese, the sh in shoe or the th in father (which is different than the th in thin!)
  3. In English some letters are silent and yet affect the sound of other letters. For example, the e in fate, which has no sound in itself but makes the a sound different than it does in fat.

But it gets worse: English is written the way it was pronounced by government workers in London in the early 1400s! They created a Standard English that was later shaped and sealed by the printing press in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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fourth century English

For the next 12 months I am going to write in fourth century English.

English did not exist back then, just the ancient German that it would grow out of some day. But we can make a sort of fourth century English by seeing what English words are used to translate Augustine. It turns out that the most frequently used English words match up more or less with the Latin words that he used himself.

What I did: I took the English words most frequently used in translating Augustine. In addition I took any word of Basic English that is found in Augustine’s “Confessions” or “City of God” or in the Vulgate as translated into English in Douai and Rheims 400 years ago.

Nine in ten of these words are also found in Shakespeare. This is a bit of good news: whatever I do, I want nine in ten of my words to be from Shakespeare.

In the end I have an English that is as close to the Latin of the fourth century in terms of knowledge and ideas as I can hope to get. Short of writing in Latin itself, that is. In addition, I will have an English that should be rather easy to translate into Latin.

So that is what I will write in. I can use other words, but only for a tenth of my words at most.

-‘s -d -ed -er -es -est -eth -ful -ing -less -ly -ment -ness -r
-s -ship -st -ward -wise

co- im- in- re- un-

a abandon abide ability able abode about above abroad absent absolute absurd abundance abundant abyss accept accomplish accord account accuse acknowledge across act action acute add addition admire admit adultery advantage adversary aerial affair affect affection affirm afraid after again against age agree aid air alike alive all allow almighty almost alms alone along already also altar although altogether always amid among amount amuse ancient and angel anger angry animal another answer ant any apart apostle apparent appear appearance apple apply appoint approval arch argue arise arithmetic ark arm army arose art as ascribe ashamed aside ask assert assign associate assume assure at attack attain attempt attention attraction attribute aught author authority avoid awake aware away

baby back bad bag balance ball band banish bank baptism bar barren base basin basket bath battle be bear beast beauty because become bed bee beef beer before beget begin behaviour behold belief believe bell belong beloved below beneath benefit bent beseech besides bestow between betwixt beyond bind bird birth bishop bit bite bitter black blade blame bless blind blood blow blue board boat body boil bond bondage bone book born borne both bottle box boy brain brake branch brass bread break breath brick brief bright bring brother brown brush bucket build burden burn burst bury busy but butter by

cake calamity call can canonical capable capacity captive captivity care carnal carriage carry cart case cast cause cease celebrate celestial certain chain chalk chance change chapter character charge charity chaste chastity cheap check cheese chest chief child chin choice choose chorus church circle citizen city civil clean cleanse clear cleave close cloth clothe cloud club coal coat cold collar college colony colour comb come comfort command commend commit common community company compare comparison compassion compel complete compose comprehend conceive conception concern conclude concord condemn condition conduct confess confession confusion connect connection conquer conscience conscious consecrate consent consequence consequent consider consideration consist consult consume contact contain contemplation contend content continue contrary control convert cook copper copy cord corporeal corrupt corruptible corruption counsel count countenance country course covenant cover cow create creation creator creature credible credit crime cross crow cruel crush cry cup cure curiosity current curtain custom cut cycle

damage dance danger dare dark daughter day dead dear death debt deceit deceive decision declare dedicate deed deep defence defend definition deformity degree deity delicate delight deliver
deliverance deluge demand demon deny depart dependent depraved deprive depth derive descend descendant deserve design desire despise destined destroy destruction detail develop devil die difference different difficult difficulty dignity diligent direction dirty disaster discern disciple discourse discover discovery discuss discussion disease disgust disobedience displease dispose dispute distance distinct distinction distinguish distribution divers diverse diversity divide divine divinity division do doctrine dog dominion door doubt down draw dread dress drink drive drop dry due duration during dust duty dwell

each ear early earth east easy eat edge education effect egg either elder element else embassy eminent emotion empire empty end endure enemy engine enjoy enlighten enough enter entire entrance envy epistle equal error escape especial establish estate esteem eternal eternity even event ever every evident evil exalt example excellent except exception exchange exercise exhibit exist expectation experience expert explain expose express expression extend extent eye

fable fabulous face fact fail fair faith fall false familiar family famous fancy far farm fashion fast fat fate father fault favour fear feather feeble feed feel feet felicity fellow female fertile few fiction field fight figure fill final find fine finger finish finite fire firmament fish fit fix flag flame flat flee flesh flight flood floor flower fly fold follow folly food foolish foot for forbid force fore foreign forget forgive form forsake forth fortitude fortune foul found foundation fountain fowl frame free freedom frequent friend from front fruit fulfil full future

gain game garden gather general generation genius geometry get ghost gift girl give glass glorious glory go goat god goddess gold good gospel govern grace grain grand grant grass grateful great green grey grief grieve grievous ground grow growth guide guilt guilty

hair hammer hand hang happen happy harbour hard harm harmony hate hatred have he head heal health healthy hear heart heat heaven heavy hell help hence here heretic hide high history hold hole hollow holy home honour hook hope horn horrible horse hostile house how human humble humility humour hunger hurt husband

I ice idea idol if ignorance ignorant ill illustrious image imitate immediate imperial important impulse impunity in include increase indeed indicate individual industry infant inferior infirmity inflict influence inhabitant iniquity injury ink innocent innumerable inquire insect instance instead institute instruct instruction instrument intellectual intelligence intelligible intend intercourse interest interpret interpretation interval into introduce invent invention involve iron island it

jewel join journey joy judge just justice justify

keep kettle key kick kill kind kindle king kingdom kiss knee knife know knowledge

labour land language large last late laugh law lay lead leaf learn leather leave left leg leisure length less lest let letter level liberty library lie life lift light like limb limit line linen lip liquid list little live lo lock long look loose lord lose loss lost lot loud love low lust luxury

mad maid maintain make male man manifest manner many map market marriage marry martyr marvel marvellous mass master match material matter may meal mean measure meat mediator medical meet member memory men mental mention mercy mere merit metal middle midst might mighty military milk mind ministry minute miracle miserable misery miss mist mix modesty moment money monstrous month moon moral more morning mortal mortality most mother motion mount mountain mouth move much multiply multitude music must mutable mystery

nail name narrative narrow nation natural nature nay near necessary necessity neck need needle neighbour neither nerve net never new next night no noble noise none nor north nose not note now number nut

o obedience obey object obscure observation observe obtain obvious occasion occur of off offence offer office often oil old omit on once only open operation opinion opportunity oppose opposite or oracle order ordinary origin original ornament other ought out oven over own

page pain paint paper paradise parallel parcel pardon parent part party pass passage passion past paste patent patience pay peace peculiar pen pencil people perceive perchance perfect perfection perform perhaps period perish permit persecution person persuade pertain perturbation philosopher philosophy physical physics picture piety pilgrimage pin pious pipe pity place plain plane plant plate play please pleasure plough poet point poison polish political pollute poor porter portion position possess possession possible post posterity pot pour poverty powder power practice practise praise pray prayer precede precept precious predict prefer prepare presence present preserve presume prevent previous price pride priest priesthood primitive prince princess principle print prison private probable proceed process proclaim produce profit progress prohibit promise pronounce proof proper property prophecy prophesy prophet prophetic proportion prose prosperity protest proud prove provide providence prudent psalm public pull punish pure purify purity purpose push put

quality queen question quick quiet quite quote

race rain raise range rank rate rather rational reach read ready real reality reason recall receipt receive reckon recognise record red refer reference refuse regard regeneration region regret regular reign reject rejoice relate relation religion religious remain remember remembrance remove render renew reply report repose represent representative republic request require resist respect responsible rest restore restrain result resurrection retain return reveal reward rhythm rich right righteous ring rise rite river road rod roll roof room root rough round royal rub ruin rule run

sacrament sacred sacrifice sacrilegious sad safe safety sail saint sake salt salvation same sand satisfy save saviour saw say scale scarce scenic school science scripture sea search seat second secret secretary sect secure seduce see seed seek seem select selection self senate send sensation sense sensible sentence separate separation series serious servant serve service set settle several severe sex shade shadow shake shall shame sharp she shed sheep shine ship shock shoe short should show shrink shut sick side sight sign signify silence silent silk silver similar simple sin since sing single sir sister size skill skin skirt sky slave slay sleep slip slow small smell smile smoke smooth snake snow so social society soft solid some son song soon sorrow sort soul sound south space spade spare speak special speech spend spirit spiritual sponge sport spring square stage stamp stand star start state station steel step stick stiff still stomach stone stop store story straight strange street strength stretch strife strike strong structure style subdue subject substance succeed succession such sudden suffer suffice sufficient suggestion suicide suitable summer sun superior support suppose supreme sure surprise sweet swim sword system

table tail take talk tall taste tax teach tear tell temple temporal temptation term terrestrial test testament testify testimony than thank that the theatre theatrical then thence theology theory there they thick thin thing think thirst this thither thorough thou though thought thread threat throat throne through throw thumb thunder thus till time tin tire title to toe together told tomorrow tongue too tooth top torment touch town trade train transgression translate transport treat tree tribe trinity trouble true trust truth try turn twin twist

under understand unite unity universal universe unless until unto up upon usage use utter

vain value vanity variety various vast verse very vessel vice vicious victory view violence violent virgin virtue visible vision voice

wait walk wall want war warm wash waste watch water wave wax way we weak wealth weather week weep weight well west wet what wheel when whence where whether which while whilst whip whistle white whither who whole wholesome why wicked wide wife wild will win wind window wine wing winter wisdom wise wish wit with woman womb wonder wont wood wool word work world worm worship worthy would wound wrath wretch write wrong wrought

ye yea yellow yes yesterday yet yield yoke you young youth

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