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Whose English Are We Talking About, Anyway? (IPCC, Part 2)

This article examines why readers — including journalists — find it hard to understand the UN’s summaries of climate change issues. The organization aims these documents toward policymakers in the international community. The second installment continues the discussion started here.

World languages word cloud (

Colonial expansion transported the English language worldwide over the past five centuries. English remains the official language in many former colonies of the British Empire. Only Mandarin Chinese and Spanish are spoken more widely. The official tongue of about 60 nations, English is spoken most frequently in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, and widely in the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia.

Technically, the term “English” applies to whatever form of the language is considered the national norm in any “English-speaking” country. As such, it involves a lot of “wiggle room.” English can also be characterized as a native language, a second language, a second dialect, and a foreign language. Each has certain idiosyncrasies. There is no recognized authority that defines a “Standard English.” In fact, teachers of English as a foreign language recognize about five dozen varieties.

A form of the language considered standard in one nation or region may be unusual in another. Historical, social, and stylistic factors of the matter discussed make a difference. So does the nature of spoken standards (usually looser and more frequently coined) and written standards. Dialects that predominate in particular regions often differ in spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.

Languages used on each continent (skill

“British” vs. “American” English may be the most common distinction. Words and phrases in these two varieties can even contain opposite meanings: for example, Americans use “quite” to intensify the meaning of the word it modifies, while British speakers use it as “rather,” meaning less than maximal. Except on parts of the East Coast, Americans say “I could care less,” but British English speakers say “I couldn’t care less.” The same for “divided highway” and “dual carriageway,” “crosswalk” and “zebra crossing,” and “cookie” and “biscuit.”

Variations also exist in English grammar. Speakers of British English sometimes use the present perfect tense where Americans use the past simple. On the other hand, Americans use the past participle “gotten,” which UK speakers long ago shortened to “got.” Spelling differences may also cause misunderstanding. The English tend to use more “e” and “u” and “c” in spellings than Americans do.

Also confusing are borrowings from unfamiliar languages, including archaisms, and very specialized words (“epicenter”) that lose impact or gain new meanings when loaned (or “lent”) to general speech. Like Germans, English speakers easily construct compound words to express new concepts, a tendency convenient for speakers of some Englishes and users of technology, but totally incomprehensible to others.

In terms of the variants preferred in the teaching of English as a second language, people in Europe, Russia‏‎, Africa, and the Middle East generally learn a version of British English. In the US, naturally, citizens speak American English, which is usually taught to people in South America, Japan, and South Korea as well. Thankfully, in China, the most populous land of non-English speakers, students often learn either, or both.

Many linguists, such as David Crystal, an editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, go farther than the simple British-American distinction and divide the language into three general categories: the British Isles dialects, those of North America, and those of Australasia. The vocabularies here also cause cognition problems. Americans go to the “drugstore” for medical prescriptions and nonpharmaceutical personal items, but the English visit “the chemist’s,” and Australasians, a “pharmacy.” Likewise, a “liquor store” is an “off-licence” is a “bottle shop,” and footwear for rain is “rubbers” or “Wellingtons” or “Wellies” or “gum boots.”

The upshot of multiple Englishes often involves not only misunderstandings, often absurdly comical, but also stigma. The next installment of “Whose English Are We Talking About, Anyway?” discusses the pernicious ways different uses subtly characterize those who profess to speak the same tongue—and ponders the Englishes used in UN-speak.

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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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