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.

Do you think the changes that are under way are likely to put Americans at a disadvantage relative to other English speakers, or the opposite, or neither?

Numerous changes -- linguistic and social -- are in play here and abroad, and the ramifications for Americans vary. Non-English and non-U.S. English terms will continue to flow into U.S. English, as they have done for centuries. This process is what makes our mother tongue so richly capable of reflecting the hopes, dreams, and actions of people from many cultures and nations. The naturalization of foreign-language words into U.S. English will not bring down the Republic. It can only benefit Americans.

But you were also talking about the trend toward the simplification of English.

Yes, and this is more problematic. When plain language is used in legal and medical documents for the benefit of the layperson, simplification is all to the good. It is good, too, in the restricted language used by air-traffic controllers, ships' radio officers, and so on, where a mistake in understanding could lead to catastrophe.

On the other hand, people's increased reliance on computer grammar and spell checkers, together with insufficient emphasis on language skills in some schools, is resulting in a steady, increasingly noticeable erosion of good grammar, spelling, and usage. When I hear a major television news anchor say "It's time for Bob and I to sign off," or when I read "John Doe, Principle" in the signature line of a letter by the head of a prestigious accounting firm, I am dismayed.

Do you think the various changes afoot in the world carry other risks for our language?

Some people worry that our increased interaction with speakers of other varieties of English will contaminate, even "mongrelize," our own variety. I don't see this as a problem for Americans. Although we have picked up the handy slang term barbie from the Australians, it is highly unlikely that we will pick up culturally exclusive terms such as five-foot way, a Malaysian term for a sidewalk overhung with the eaves of buildings, or Cape Doctor, a South African term for a strong spring southeasterly wind blowing on Cape Town. Similarly, we have no need to start using Canada's student-at-law, for we already have law student. We would not adopt East Africa's foodious, for we have gluttonous. Though English speakers in the Philippines use holder-upper, we already have armed robber. The same holds true for non-English words that have entered the word stocks of nations other than the United States. I very much doubt that we will hear Americans talking about another national estáfa, a Philippines term for scandal. It is unlikely that we will wonder if our neighbors are skindering -- a South African verb for gossiping -- or we ourselves will suddenly start using New Zealand's whakapapa or tangi to replace genealogy and funeral, respectively.

But if having a language in common means having the ability to communicate ...

Yes, indeed. It is important for Americans traveling and doing business abroad to know that in Malaysia similar means identical, in parts of the Caribbean lunch means a mid-afternoon snack or afternoon tea, in South Asia hotel means restaurant but in some non-urban areas of Australia the same word can mean bar (the kind where one goes to get a drink), and in the United Kingdom excess means insurance deductible. It is with words like these that misunderstandings can occur.

Has the globalization of English affected your work -- or your life? Join readers from around the world for a special forum in Post & Riposte.

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