Interview With Anne Soukhanov

An e-mail exchange with Anne Soukhanov, the U.S. general editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary.

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A Richly Capable Mother Tongue

Encarta World English Dictionary
Anne Soukhanov has been a dictionary editor for thirty years and is The Atlantic Monthly's Word Watch columnist. She was the U.S. general editor of the published worldwide in September of last year, in print and on CD-ROM, and was the executive editor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (1992), which on publication was a best seller on the New York Times, and Boston Globe lists. Soukhanov has written or edited thirty-three reference books to date. She is the author of, for example, (1997) and (1995).

Barbara Wallraff recently interviewed Soukhanov by e-mail.

What would you say are the most important effects that the globalization of English is likely to have on English itself over the next decade or so?

The answer resides in the very degree to which English in its various national and international forms continues to "globalize." The velocity and spread of this globalization depend upon state power and shifting alliances, commercial power and shifting corporate alliances, technological power and advances, enhanced travel opportunities, and the attitudes of whole populations about the languages -- and the words in those languages -- that they wish to use in communicating among themselves and with others. The degree to which U.S. English will continue to acquire foreign-language borrowings, such as bungalow from Hindi and ersatz from German, depends on those factors. The same holds true for English-to-English borrowings.

Could you give us some examples of what you mean by that?

One good example is the originally Australian word barbie, or barby, for barbecue. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang contains a citation from the Los Angeles Times dated July 31, 1984, in which the importance of commercial and personal transactions in changing the language is clear: "In recent months the slogan 'Gooday -- Put a shrimp on the barby' has become known in Southern California households as a result of an aggressive tourism promotion of Australia." Now, sixteen years later, I see barbie in this sense without quotation marks in many U.S. periodicals, indicating its successful immigration from one nation's English into another. Another Australian term, ute, a shortening of Australian English's utility truck, has made its way into U.S. automotive English; here a ute is a sport utility vehicle, while in Australia the term is still a slang clipping of utility vehicle, and utility vehicle is Australian for our pickup truck. Thus under varied circumstances do people adopt words that have relevance to their own needs, and reject others.

So you expect to see continuing diversification of the world's Englishes.

Yes, but English is also going to continue to become simpler in structure and choice of vocabulary. This is not at all new. An excerpt from McGuffey's Sixth Eclectic Reader, Revised Edition, 1879, "Objects and Limits of Science," by Robert Charles Winthrop (born in 1809 in Boston, an 1828 graduate of Harvard, and later Speaker of the House), makes the point. The editors, in their introduction to the students, remark that Winthrop's "published writings are ... easy." This is one of his "easy" sentences -- easy for the times, when sixty-word sentences were not frowned upon, and so-called hard words were not glossed within the text: "Here, by the aid of modern instruments and modern modes of analysis, the most ardent and earnest spirits may find ample room and verge enough for their insatiate activity and audacious enterprise, and may pursue their course not only without the slightest danger of doing mischief to others, but with the certainty of promoting the great end of scientific truth."

Winthrop's sentence structure and vocabulary, contrasted with the content in today's best publications, show how the language is ever changing to meet the needs of its users. Sometimes these "users" are reading teachers, scholars, researchers, and physicians; sometimes they are airline pilots, ships' radio officers, air-traffic controllers, and English-language broadcasters, who, by necessity, must use special vocabulary and simplified structure to enhance nontraditional kinds of communication with non-native speakers.

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