Sunday, October 23, 2005

But what English

Mark Kleiman notes that apparently the official language at Airbus is English, which would seem to be a very strong point in favor of the triumph of the English language. And indeed the growing universality of English is an amazing thing. However, before getting too excited about this success for the English speaking peoples, I have a few observations. I've had the opportunity to live and work in Europe, once in Germany and once in Italy, and seen the vital role that English plays. When folks of different nationalities get together English is the official language, even if no native English speakers are present. When my Italian supervisors spoke with a visiting Ukrainian scientist, they spoke in English. However, it wasn't exactly either the Queen's English or American English.

A couple of examples. English makes a distinction in prepositions used to describe periods of time, a distinction that most other languages do not. Specifically we will say something happened since a point in time, but we say for a period of time. In the English used by non-native speakers, since is used for both cases, as it typical in the native languages. Also, in Italy I had some experience helping edit a few articles where there were several usages that were questionable. As it turned out they were all correct, but some of them were correct in American English but not in the Queen's English and others vice versa. I suspect that over time non-native English will settle into some odd mixture of both countries usages.

What I am getting at is that as there has long been two versions of English, there is now a third version of English. And my final point is that if the US continues on the course George Bush is setting for scientific and technology development in this country, then in another 20-50 years American scientists will need to edit their journal articles to correct their usage from American English to the International English that may well take over.



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