By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & and Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
The French language, in France and in Quebec, is officially not in flux. In an effort to keep the language pure, the linguistic authorities in both places have made restrictions as to changes in French itself and as to the admissibility of words “borrowed” from other languages.
In other French speaking areas such as Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Francophone lands further afield, the French language goes on its merry way just like any other living language.
English is one of the most flexible languages on the planet. Celtic, Roman vernacular, Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Latin via the French of William the Conqueror have all been subsumed into the maw of the English language melting pot. In modern times, English has adopted words from Hindi (“shampoo”), from Czech (“robot”), from Finnish (“sauna”) to mention just a few.
English has no final linguistic authority, unlike French with the Académie Française and Spanish with the Real Academia Española. The Oxford English Dictionary presents the current understanding of the English language as it is spoken in the United Kingdom, and Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language reveals American English.
It’s something that Francophones have a hard time getting their heads around, that there can actually be two correct sets of grammatical rules, two sets of pronunciations, two correct ways to spell any given word. There are also many vocabulary differences
In fact, there are very few grammatical differences between the Queen’s English and American English. In British English, a collective noun takes a plural verb (“The government have decided”), while in American English (as in French) a collective noun takes a singular verb (“The film studio has named”). Some prepositions differ: an Englishman lives in a street; an American lives on one. In England a thing might be different to, while in the USA it would be different from. Some articles are different. A Brit will go to hospital or to university, while an American will go to a hospital or to a university. On the other hand, Brits will occasionally add an article where an American would omit it: a Brit might speak of a nonsense, while an American will simply speak of nonsense, sans article.
I won’t go into pronunciation differences except to mention potato/potahto and tomato/tomahto. The vocabulary differences are many but are mainly understood by folks on either side of The Pond. A Brit eats chips, crisps, and biscuits when he watches football on the telly. An American eats fries, chips and cookies when he watches soccer on TV.
Brits are much better at divining spelling differences than Americans are. A Brit would understand the following differences, while an American would scratch his head in confusion: gaol/jail, kerb/curb, tyre/tire and so on.
Real differences between British and American English—and thus real evolving changes in the language—reveal themselves most obviously in substandard English. There’s a lot of substandard English being spoken nowadays, since English is becoming a world-wide lingua franca.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. These are all contractions that lack the standard apostrophe where the contraction appears. These words could acquire the status of correct contractions if an apostrophe were to be placed before the final “a”, which is a contraction of “have”. I should’a (should have), would’a (would have), could’a (could have.)
Some years ago there was a fad for “Eubonics” in the USA. This fad was promulgated by African Americans who believed that it was okay to use “I be” instead of “I am,” and “I has” instead of “I have.” The last I heard of that fad was when posters appeared, picturing Martin Luther King with the caption “I has a dream.”
But there are many real changes going on in mainstream English. The most obvious of these changes, to me at least, is the use of “seen” as the past tense of “to see” instead of the currently correct word, “saw.” One hears it used all over the world.
Witnesses to the butchering of a young English soldier by religious extremists on a London street last May said, “I seen the guy with the machete.” A man in an unruly crowd in India told reporters that “I seen the police beat my neighbor before they put him in the van.” An Australian man said, “I seen the bush fire, got in my car and drove away as fast I could.” In an episode of CSI, a supposedly well-educated forensic scientist says, “I seen it in my microscope.” I’ve heard both American and British politicians conjugate the verb “to see” using “seen” as the past tense: “I seen it.”
I am not a purist when it comes to language and linguistic change. I am a realist and a progressivist. After all, if language did not change and evolve, we might as well still be sitting in a prehistoric hut with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out from a central hearth fire around which we grunted out basic communications.
Anthropologists have all kinds of theories as to why Homo sapiens sapiens have evolved as we have. Some claim it’s our opposable thumbs. Some say it’s our bipedal stance. Others say it’s because of pair-bonding between men and women. Some say it’s due to team-work of ancient groups, which team work led to the development of language, hunting strategies, et al.
Me, I think that the driving force behind the evolution of humanity is change itself. Most creatures only change when it is imposed upon them by their environment or other outside forces. Humans change—just because they change. They think, they grow, they adopt, they abandon.
And so does language. There is some evidence that other creatures share linguistic ability. I have myself communicated with chimpanzees and gorillas. There is a case to be made for the possibility of cetacean (dolphins, porpoises and whales) communication, and for other species as well. Whether or not these creatures can actually communicate with what we understand to be language, we humans have certainly had language for a very long time.
I don’t much like it that the current variation of the conjugation of the past tense of the verb “to see” has morphed into “seen.” But I like even less the attempts of linguistic authorities like the Académie Française (the German authorities also have a case to answer) have tried to fossilize language in mid-evolution.
Language is a defining characteristic of humankind. Regardless of past rules and conventions, language should be left free to go where it will. Humankind should remain similarly free.
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as multi-cultural. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.