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Stigma & The Case For A Simplified UN-Speak

In part 1 of the series “Whose English Are We Talking About, Anyway?” we dug beneath this week’s story from Nature Climate Change about the readability of the UN’s Summaries for Policymakers of the scientific/economic findings of the international panel (IPCC). Part 2 went into the world’s myriad varieties of the English language, which comprise a little-recognized stumbling block for international climate decisions. Now we’ll get to the heart of the matter: various stigmata associated with the 57 varieties of English, their importance with respect to UN-speak, and a few questions about the future language of international affairs.

Four native English speakers! (

Linguists have found time and again that dialect has absolutely no relation to intelligence. There are many, many dialects, and everyone who speaks English talks in one (or more) of these. And very often they are unaware that foreign native speakers may mean something different from what they hear. For instance, how many Americans know that a “Secretary-General” is running an organization, not just answering phones for the owners? And when they do realize what the term really stands for, how often do they ridicule it for colonialism or adopt it simply because of its snob appeal?

As well as the confusing structural differences associated with the world’s Englishes, which we looked at in the previous installment of this series, dialects can reveal social differences. Education, age, sex, religion, power, and other social factors often correlate intimately with human expression. The difference between the German forms of “you”—“du” and “Sie”—are an easy case in point. “The Queen’s English” clearly distinguishes the British upper class from the hoi polloi.

The fact is that not all “native” English speakers even speak what is generally accepted as “good” English in their own countries. Consider Black English. This patois is spoken by both British English and American English‏‎ people in black communities, and sometimes to black communities in places like the Caribbean and Africa. Black English has its own identity in terms of the “white” Englishes we’ve discussed here, but it has been repeatedly mocked by conservative types, cartoonists, and comedians in English-speaking countries over centuries. These characters use it to denote simplemindedness, naivety, and just plain ignorance. But linguists recognize it as a legitimate and respectable subset of the original language, with nuances and special meanings of its own. The racist and anti-intellectual connotations remain, however.

A study of Hispanic teenagers in US high schools revealed that even after education in “standard” American English, they continued to speak the language with strong Spanish accents. The majority viewed the teenagers who began to use the more formal style as thinking they were “better” than their peers. Because the main group ostracized those who used a more educated dialect, most of the teens preferred to speak “Spanish English” (“Spanglish”) rather than incur social isolation.

Use of simple or broken English may reveal linguistic inadequacy on the speaker’s part—whether through age, developmental, educational, or physical reasons, or because of limited opportunities to learn and practice the language. In the case of some developing countries or regions, even distance from native speakers or unfamiliarity with technological innovation can play a part. Like baby talk, simple sentences seem easier to comprehend (“Mommy go store today”) than complex ones. However, they fail to convey nuance adequately.

World's top spoken and internet languages (

Americans often perceive English speakers from New Zealand, Australia, England, and even Canada as inferior because of the different ways the British English and Australasians pronounce the same words. I remember being ridiculed by my daughter for referring to my room as a “rum,” using colonial English rather than the more American pronunciation rhyming with “broom.” “Academic” English also tends to mark speakers as outsiders, as people who may regard themselves as “better” than other members of a group.

We can see similar attitudes working among the disparate English speakers who attend international conferences. The results can be quite unpleasant. The English spoken by people in India, for example, can be difficult for non-Indian English speakers to understand. As well as hewing to the Queen’s English (as relatively recent colonials), people from this part of the world speak English more quickly than Americans do. Their song-like meter, high-flown expressions, and literary quotations also set them apart.

This perception has led many US citizens to demand that American companies abstain from hiring “English” speakers from India for American telephone customer service. The language differences may be viewed by each community as indicating ignorance or narrow-mindedness, or by inciting xenophobia. Conversely, most Americans have no idea that “Indian English” includes nine different dialects:

Punjabi/Delhi English
U.P/Bihari English
Bengali/Assamese English
Oriya English
Gujarati English
Maharashtrian English
Telugu English
Tamil English
Malayalee English

Attitudes toward African English take similar directions. To many Americans, African speakers use a totally different pace of utterance, usually one much slower than those of other English speakers. They also employ emphatic constructions like repetition and the use of appositives, which slow down their relation of concepts and can elicit impatience among non-African listeners.

Is there a case for a lingua franca for international relations? Esperanto was a noble experiment that simply did not work. English clearly plays a very important role as an international language. Even more impressive than its place as third-most spoken languages of the world is the role of English as the star parlance of electronic communications and the internet.

But does it merit the position we have awarded it as a universal language, and which version of it is more appropriate in 2015? British English was clearly most important a century ago, when the sun never set on the English Empire.

However, the United States has gained many spheres of influence and territories of its own since then, and remarkable economic presence. Also, over 200 million US citizens speak American English as a first language, and over 30 million have it as their second. The figures for British English are 57 million and 1 million, respectively.

American English might also seem preferable for international negotiations because it dominates the communications field in many countries, especially as used in television and film culture. It’s also simpler than other Englishes in terms of sentence length and complexity. It freely borrows from other languages when it cannot produce its own specialized terms. And it’s the jargon of technology, which Americans dominated in the 20th century.

Long and complex sentences, compound words, formal titles, and terms of art (especially in technology and finance discussions) characterize UN-speak. Unfortunately, many of the international actors favor their own English as the most respectable and as proud national identifier.

Also, many are bilingual or multilingual. They and those with long attendance histories have also become deaf to their own uses of UN-speak. Without overt consciousness, they have become panlectal (aware of inherent variation in the language). Their ability to comprehend a variety of Englishes can blind them to the exclusiveness of regional and interest-based variants. They don’t perceive their unusually broad vocabularies as separating their understanding from the limited comprehension of mono-English speakers. As a consequence, they often inject cumbersome language like UN-speak in documents originally intended to enlighten nonpanlectals.

As a former editor, I have an easy answer for how the UN could improve its garbled communications. The likes of Mary Norris, comma queen of The New Yorker, might provide tremendous assistance. But in the end, we might still wind up with documents that baffle academics like Suraje Dessai, Professor at the University of Leeds and co-author of the readability study, who says the IPCC “does not fulfill its mission when its summaries for policymakers are so illegible.”

Hmmm. “Illegible.” In my dictionary, that word means “scribbled” or “indecipherable,” like a doctor’s prescription or youthfully inept attempts at cursive. “Unreadable” instead, perhaps? Or maybe just plain “obscure.”

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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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