Archive for the ‘englishes’ Category

Transatlantic accent

cary-grant-philly_lThe Transatlantic accent, also called a Mid-Atlantic accent,  is a way of speaking English that is halfway between American and British. It makes you sound like you have a good education but no one can tell quite where you are from. You hear it in old Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s. It is the accent of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, William F Buckley and (at least in some films) God.

There is no town in the world where people grow up speaking English that way. Instead you get the accent in one of three ways:

  1. Learn the accent on purpose (actors used to do that).
  2. Grow up or live on both sides of the Atlantic (but that can lead to even stranger accents, like those of Loyd Grossman and Madonna).
  3. Pick it up at a top boarding school in America before the 1960s.

The accent comes from American boarding schools in New England where students were taught to speak English in more of an RP or high-class British way.

In the 1930s and 1940s it was seen as a good accent to use in film and theatre since it sounded universal and not from any particular part of the world. That makes it a good accent for God and creatures from outer space. You do not hear it much any more because people have grown used to the general American accent, thanks in part to Humphrey Bogart and the extremely Middle American John Wayne.

Transatlantic English goes something like this:

  1. Start with a mainstream American accent.
  2. Drop your r’s at the end of words, like in “fear” and “winner”.
  3. Say all your t’s as t’s not d’s (like in “water” and “butter”).
  4. Use RP (British) vowels. So “dance” becomes “dahns”.

If you start from a British accent the rules are different. It is an Americanized RP accent.

It is a very particular accent. There is even a book, now out of print, called “Teach Yourself Transatlantic: Theatre Speech for Actors” (1986) by Robert L. Hobbs.

It is a hard accent to do – people will laugh at you  if you do not get it right. So it takes plenty of practice. But for the British it is an easier accent to master than a general American one.

It is a good accent for those foreign to English, strangely enough: since no one grows up speaking it, you will not sound to anyone like you have a foreign accent! Some learn it to go into business overseas.

Examples of the accent (or something close to it): Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, William F Buckley (in his own way), Peter Jennings, Vincent Price, Anthony Hopkins, Darth Vader, Princess Leia (when speaking formally), Niles and Frasier on “Frasier”, the millionaire and his wife on “Gilligan’s Island”, Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”, the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”, Mr Burns and Sideshow Bob on “The Simpsons”, Paige Sinclair (“Bojack Horseman”), Effie Trinket in “The Hunger Games” (pictured above), the Evil Queen in “Snow White”, Gayne Whitman, Alexander Scourby in the old National Geographic television specials, and most British actors who try to sound American (but not, of course, Idris Elba or Hugh Laurie of “House”).

– Abagond, 2009, 2021.

Update (2021): In 1953 Alexander Scourby read the entire King James Bible for the blind in a Transatlantic accent – and it is on YouTube! Just search on YouTube for “Alexander Scourby” and the book of the Bible you want to hear and you will see it (as of 2021).

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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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Standard English

Standard English (1450- ), also known as proper English or good English, is the English you learn at school and see in books, the kind you hear on the evening news, like on CNN or the BBC. It is the kind you see in The New York Times and The Economist.

Few people speak it natively, so it is probably not what you speak at home or with your friends. If you ever had the experience at school of something “sounding right” but being told it was bad English, then Standard English is not your native language. Even in England only one person in six speaks it natively.

Each country has a slightly different form of Standard English. But the differences are so slight that most people cannot tell which country a given piece of writing came from.

Once you learn the Standard English of your own country, it is easy to understand that of any other country. For example, most Americans in Jamaica cannot understand the English they hear in the streets, but they have no trouble understanding the evening news there.

There are dozens of kinds of English. Standard English is just one of them. It is not better than any other form of English except for two things:

  1. It is understood all over the world wherever English is spoken.
  2. It will not make you sound like you lack education or intelligence, which almost any other form of English will when used in the wrong circles.

Standard English started in the middle 1400s in London. That was when:

  • The government made all its clerks write in the same kind of English no matter what part of England they came from.
  • Caxton began to print books in English.

Caxton wanted to sell as many books as possible, so he used the English of the well-to-do of London. It was the same sort of English the government was using. Standard English was born.

Here is Caxton as an old man in London in 1490:

And certainly our language now used varies far from that which was used and spoken when I was born.

All I changed was the spelling, nothing else. It still makes sense 500 years later. So, as much as English had changed since the 1420s when Caxton was a boy, Standard English has changed little in the hundreds of years since then.

The main changes since the 1400s:

  • The word “its” was added in the early 1600s, taking the place of all those whereofs.
  • The loss of “thou“, “didst” and so on.
  • The spelling became fixed in the middle 1600s.
  • A huge number of Latin and Greek words were added in the late 1600s and again in the late 1900s.
  • The grammar was partly modelled on Latin in the 1700s.

Standard English spread through the middle-class in the 1700s and then, with the rise of public education in the 1800s, to society as a whole.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Special English

Special English (1959- ) is a simple form of English that the Voice of America (VOA) uses in its radio broadcasts to reach the 700 million who have studied English as a foreign language. Most of them cannot understand the BBC or CNN.

It is simpler than native English in three ways:

  1. It uses only 1500 different words.
  2. Its sentences are short and simple. They are rarely more than 20 words long.
  3. It is spoken slowly enough so that each word is spoken separately (about two-thirds the speed of ordinary English).

These changes double the number of people who can understand a broadcast in English. About 1500 million people know some English, but for half of them it is a foreign language they studied in school.

Here is an example of Special English:

This year’s Nobel Prize in medicine will go to three researchers who found a way to learn about the duties of individual genes. They discovered how to inactivate, or knock out, single genes in laboratory animals. The result is known as “knockout mice.”

The VOA produces a new 30-minute show in Special English every day. You can hear it on short wave radio or the Internet. You can even download it to your iPod and listen to it on the bus!

While the VOA sees Special English as a way to reach more people, most listeners see it as a way to practise their English! This is especially true in China.

The VOA website says Special English has only 1500 words, but in practice it is more like 1700 words: their Word Book uses 1700 different root words to give the meaning of the chosen 1500. Among the 200 stepchildren are some very simple words like eye, ear and else.

On top of that the list of 1500 is not that strict: because it has history, popular and influence, for example, you are allowed to use historical, popularity and influential.

And other words tend to make their way into reports. The example I gave above uses the word gene. It is not one of the 1500 words nor does the piece go on to say what a gene is! You can use words like that so long as you make their meaning clear.

Special English is not a general purpose language. It has plenty of words you need to report the news, like campaign, crisis and climate, but it is missing some very ordinary, everyday words, like cake, courage and cup.

It keeps up with the times: every ten years words are dropped while others are added.

Special English does not come from Basic English. Although some of the same ideas went into the design of both languages, Basic English is general purpose while Special English is not.

Specialized English, on the other hand, comes straight from Special English. It is Special English with a slightly different mix of words, one more suited to spread the word of Christ. It drops words like dictator, diplomat and dissident and adds words like deserve, devote and divorce.

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Newspeak is the language found in George Orwell’s book about the future, “1984” (which he wrote in 1948). It is an English that is so limited that the only possible thoughts were those allowed by the ruling Party of IngSoc. Every year the dictionary became thinner and thought more limited as words were removed.

In 1984 most still spoke Oldspeak (English as we know it). Newspeak was seen only in the leading articles in the Times and in some of the speech of Party leaders. Newspeak would not take over completely till 2050. By then Oldspeak will have become a dead language.

Some Newspeak words (followed by their Oldspeak meanings):

  • good – good
  • goodwise – well
  • plusgood – very good
  • doubleplusgood – excellent
  • ungood – bad

An example of Newspeak:

Times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unperson rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling

Notice that the words are so limited in Newspeak that “well” and even “bad” are gone. For any idea alllowed by the Party there was only one word, such as “good”, from which other words could be formed.

This way of forming words seems ugly and unnatural in English, and Orwell knew it, but it is quite common in other languages. In fact, Orwell probably got the idea of forming words this way from Esperanto.

Orwell also knew about Basic English – an English with less than a thousand words. He wrote “1984” while working at the BBC, just when it was considering using Basic English.

In 1946, Orwell also wrote “Politics and the English Language”. In it he argued that written English was becoming so bad that it was making clear, honest thought almost impossible. To Orwell bad thinking leads to bad writing – but also bad writing leads to bad thinking. Thought and language go hand in hand.

It is just one step from this to Newspeak. Language is a medium to express thought, but it also affects thought. Therefore rulers could use language to limit the thoughts of the ruled.

Newspeak added some new words, like crimethink, duckspeak, bellyfeel and Minitrue, to help the Party faithful to have goodthinkful thoughts — or, better yet, to speak without thought (duckspeak). But for every new word, many words of Oldspeak were destroyed, words like honour, justice, liberty, science and religion.

Not only were words destroyed, but even dangerous meanings of the words that remained were destroyed.

For example, in Newspeak one could say “All mans are equal”, but “equal” only had the simple meaning of being equal in weight or size. What Jefferson meant by “equal” had been removed from the dictionary. The closest thing in Newspeak to what Jefferson meant was “crimethink”.

One could say “The Party is ungood”, but all the words and ideas needed to support such a thought were gone. So it became next to meaningless to say. For the same reason, it also became hard to think out the consequences of such a statement. Which was just the point of Newspeak.

– Abagond, 2006.

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Postmodern English

English has moved beyond Modern English into Postmodern English. The change took place about 1950. The written English that is now common would no longer be understood by Shakespeare.

To understand a piece of writing, you need to already know at least nine words out of ten. Up until about 1950, at least nine out of ten words of written English were words found in Shakespeare. That is no longer true.

The features of Postmodern English:

  1. Inclusive language: “They” is preferred to “he” when talking about a single person who could be either male or female.
  2. From prescription to description: Dictionaries, grammars and usage books no longer say what English should be but simply record it as it is. There is no right and wrong in English.
  3. A marked increase in the use of Latin and Greek words: This is the biggest change. It is what has made our English something that would be hard for Shakespeare to understand.Orwell noticed it in 1946 – the soft snow of Latin words that he wrote about in his “Politics of the English Language”. He seemed to think it was a passing thing caused by the war. But it did not pass with the war. You can still read “Politics of the English Language” today and it barely seems dated.

This style of writing has gone from being a bad use of English in 1946 to an ordinary use of English in 2006. Even good writers now write in it.


First because the education level of the general public is much higher. Readers know many more words than they used to and so writers can get away with this overblown prose.

Second, many think that numbers and long Latin words make one’s writing somehow better, truer, more advanced. Perhaps because of the rise of science, which makes heavy use of both. But, as Orwell noted, this sort of style has the opposite effect on most writing. It becomes less clear, less true and the quality of thought tends to be much lower.

Third, and most important, it is much easier to write in this style than not. Orwell noticed that himself: To write in short clear words requires clear (and honest) thought. To write in long Latin words does not require the writer to be either clear or honest or even thinking.

You can see the change when you compare the 5000 most common words in the Brown Corpus of 1961 with those of Shakespeare.

With Brown we lost words like these from the top 5000

praise, loyal, ghost, groan, blessing, treasure, sinew, pomp, gall, rascal

and instead gained words like these:

empirical, qualified, temperature, procedure, energy, planet, variable, constructed, situation, domestic

This shows just the sort of change I am talking about between Modern and Postmodern English. Our words come more from science and less from the sweat and tears of life.

Maybe this is a passing thing. I wish it were, but it has been 60 years now since Orwell wrote about it – back in your grandfather’s time.

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Here is my posting on Common English written in Common English!

In seeking a universal English, we can give the same sort of answer that Peregrinus gave when he sought the universal faith:

… we hold that English which has been spoken everywhere, always, by all.

So we want that form of the language that have been used the most widely for the longest time. We avoid language that has only been seen in one country, one region or one age.

All things being equal, older words are better than newer ones and widely used words are better than those used in just one region.

You would be surprised how far you can get with just this rule. But when you have to come down on one side or the other favour the written English current in London.

Why London? It follows from our rule: it has been the English that has been the most widely accepted through most of time. Even in America.

American English is an example of just the sort of English to avoid: one that belongs only to a certain time and place. It is now widely accepted, but that has only been true in the last 50 years.

Using American English might seem like a good idea now when American power is high, but it will seem quite different if, say, India is on top in the future.

Here is a quick way to get a good idea of what the base words of such an English would be: Make two lists. The first list will have the 5,000 most common words in American English. The second will have the same for Shakespeare. Words that are in both lists will be your base words. Just to be safe, add any words in Basic English that are also in Shakespeare.

The base words are the heart of your English. In your writing at least nine words in ten should be one of these.

This process will remove all the words that make Shakespeare seem so British and so Elizabethan. But for the very same reason, it will also remove all those words that make current American English seem so American and so 2006. You would be left with words that hold up well in any country and any age in the English-speaking world, at least for the years 1600 to 2400.

You will have got rid of the fashion, the words that come and go and make writing seem so dated, and get to the heart of English.

And because your base words are found in Shakespeare, they will be understood long after English is dead. Just as Homer’s words are still understood even though Homeric Greek has been dead for over two thousand years.

For questions of style and use of language, follow The Economist as a good example of current London English. They even have a style guide online.

– Abagond, 2006.

Update (2016): I wrote in Common English till September 26th 2006 and more or less since about June 2007. In between I wrote in Augustinian English.

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Basic English

Basic English is an English designed to be simple enough for the whole world to learn. It has only 928 root words and about 18 rules for how to use them (even from a Japanese point of view).

It was invented in 1930 by CK Ogden. In the 1940s Churchill supported the idea while Orwell attacked it by means of Newspeak. It never took off as a world language – it seemed too imperial – but it is used even today to teach English. Basic English is owned by the British Council.

In the 1920s Ogden worked with IA Richards to create a dictionary where the definition of each word was given by yet simpler words. The same words kept coming up over and over again in the definitions. They soon discovered that anything that can be said in English can be said with fewer than thousand different words. This was a surprise. It is not true of, say, French.

If you are learning English it is both good and bad.

Good: it quickly gives you the means to express yourself in English by teaching you the most important words.

Bad: Ogden did little to smooth over the two most difficult things about learning English: spelling and idioms (ways of saying things which have no real meaning if you take it word for word, or mean something else).

Ogden did not remove irregular verbs from the language (like is, was, will be), but he made it easier by having only 18 verbs (come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send, may, will).

If you know Full English it is a difficult language to use. You must keep remembering which words and meanings of words are not in the language.

It is not impossible, however, if you can change the list of spelling words on your computer to include only Basic words. Every word that is not Basic English will be marked as an error.

Even someone who knows Full English can benefit from Basic English: writing in Basic forces you to think and write a lot more clearly and say just what you mean.

Basic English was designed to serve the needs of science and business. Thus it has no God, no heaven or hell, neither saint nor sinner.

To see what Basic English is like, see the Bible in Basic English (BBE) online. Some special words — maybe a hundred or so – were added to translate it, but it will give you the idea.

Here is the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
Let your kingdom come.
Let your pleasure be done,
as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us this day bread for our needs.
And make us free of our debts,
as we have made those free who are in debt to us.
And let us not be put to the test,
but keep us safe from the Evil One.

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International English

International English is an English that can be read and understood anywhere in the world. Write once, read everywhere.

Because it is spoken all over the world, there is no one right way of speaking and writing English that everyone can agree on. The two largest branches of English, American and British, can both be understood by anyone who knows one of them, but they are different.

There are three rings of English:

  1. Inner ring: 380 million who use English as a first language. Most of these live in America.
  2. Second ring: 450 million who use English as a second language. Most of these live in India.
  3. Outer ring: 450 million who learned English in school but do not use it often. Most of these live in Europe and China.

If you think of each ring as having about 400 million speakers you would not be far off.

Different forms of English have been used as a worldwide medium:

  1. British English: the original and imperial form of the tongue, it is the most common form of English in the second ring. Most who consciously use English as a worldwide medium use some form of British English.
    • Spoken: Most of the British Commonwealth as a first or second language.
    • Use: The Economist, BBC, EU, OECD, Al Jazeera, OPEC, PricewaterhouseCoopers
  2. American English: Spoken by two-thirds of those in the inner ring and the most widely taught form in the outer ring.
    • Spoken: America, Canada, Philippines, Israel
    • Use: Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, Hollywood movies, American and Japanese companies, the computer industry.
  3. Mid-Atlantic or OED English: This is a middle ground between British and American English that is used by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Both British and American spellings are allowed, but the American -ize tends to drive out the British -ise (recognise, recognize). Both -or and -our (favour, favor) are used.
    • Use: OED, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, United Nations, UNESCO, Encyclopaedia Britannica, ISO, Amnesty, Nature, The Times Literary Supplement.
  4. Special English: This is used by The Voice of America (VOA) to reach the outer ring. It is American English spoken slowly and clearly, with short sentences and few difficult words or idioms.
    • Use: VOA
  5. Basic English: invented in the 1930s by Ogden Nash as an English simple enough for the whole world to use. It has less than a thousand words and simple rules for putting them together. Churchill supported it. It is difficult for those who already know Full English, but it is a good stepping stone for those who do not. It is based on British English and is meant for the outer ring.
    • Use: The British Council, to teach English.
  6. Mere English: This is my name for the English used by Pam Peters in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. While she talks about the differences in English in Britain, America, Canada and Australia, she herself writes in an International English that keeps the middle course between all of these. It is like CS Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” – something common and acceptable to all.
    • Use: The Cambridge Guide to English Usage

American and British English are close enough that either is fine for the two inner rings. British English, however, is more widely accepted since it is a perfectly acceptable form of English in America. Half of The Economist’s readers, for example, live in America.

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