Silk’s Post #122 — Is English the world’s viral language? It’s spoken by 400 million people as a first language, and by another 800 million as a second language. It’s the official language, by international treaty, for aeronautical and maritime communications. It’s the dominant language on the Internet (55% of top websites compared to less than 10% for the next most-used language). It’s the global language of international business, with one study by the British Council reporting that by 2020, two billion people will be studying it. Some have charged English with linguistic imperialism because of its impact on other languages, including language death.
How the language of a tiny nation-state with only .009% of the world’s current population became the lingua franca of the planet is a subject for history scholars. What I’m interested in is what English’s ungovernable spread and variation means to English language writers today.
It doesn’t take an English professor or student of linguistics to make this simple observation: the English language is a bit of a mess.
In its odyssey from the colonial era that spread it like a virus across the continents to its modern predominance, English has evolved in hundreds of different directions. Perhaps it is the language’s ability to mutate in Darwinian fashion that has made it the fittest survivor. It has adapted to different tongues and climes to become a whole family of variants, each unique but all (relatively) comprehensible to each other.
There is a movement to corral all these dialects, to reshape them to conform to a standard “International English,” also called “Global English” or (in one of the least elegant words ever coined in the language) “Globish.”
But good luck on that. Despite the best efforts of grammarians and lexicographers over the centuries, living languages love to defy rules the way children love to jump in mud puddles wearing their best shoes.
So, when an English speaking writer sits down to write a novel, it’s a fair question to ask: Which English will be used?
I don’t just mean the spelling difference between “colour” and “color” or “programme” and “program”. As an American-born writer transplanted to Canada 45 years ago, spelling variation has been a continuing hitch in my writing style, like a small limp. Canada, forever caught between the old world and the new world, has retained some aspects of the Queen’s English while adopting others from American usage. So: colour, not color. But program, not programme. You just have to memorize them, like the times tables. Then there are many Canadianisms – eh, hoser, pogey, zed, serviette, loonie, toonie, double-double, kerfuffle, give’r, and the picturesque fill your boots – which I now forget sound foreign to my friends in the US.
But those are more the punchlines of jokes about the difference between Canucks and Yanks than fundamental differences in culturally-specific syntax. Yet, real and profound differences do exist, and they are critical to the story world and voice of a book. Because when people talk differently, they also think differently. See differently. Even act differently.
Language usage – whether narrative or dialogue – telegraphs the world view on which the story is built, reveals setting and social structure, hints at history and backstory, conveys lifestyle and belief systems, and sets the pace and mood of the book.
Sometimes it’s stylistically obvious, like the antiquated language of a historical novel, the dialect of an ethnic or cultural group, or the street slang of an underclass. All these are harder to do than they seem, the most common mistake being a heavy hand. The natural voice in the reader’s head is likely to “speak” in relatively standard English, and readers can get annoyed or exhausted when continually forced to interpret a “foreign” language. If they have to keep stopping to figure out what the patois means, you’ve gone too far and they’ve probably already escaped to water their geraniums or turn on their TV.
Sometimes, however, it’s the subtle shading of English usage that creates a unique and vivid theatre of the mind. These are the books that transport readers and make them feel they’ve slid into a different, memorable, world. A world where they’re both a visitor and a native at the same time. These are the stories that make readers say I felt like I was right there.
It’s easy to assume that this is achieved mostly through skillful description and those telling details the writing books try to teach. But a lot of it is how the writer uses language.
I think of the languid pacing and reflective mood that characterize many of the best novels set in the South, for instance. There’s a kind of underlying nostalgia, a sense of past days of glory contrasted with the humid dissolution of the present, that colours stories by authors like William Faulkner, Pat Conroy or James Lee Burke. You can hear it in language that flows like slow beads of sweat on a hot day. In Gillian Flynn’s spectacularly successful Gone Girl, the change in mood from the fast-paced New York setting to the drowsy Missouri small town where the characters’ world comes apart is subtly enhanced by the shifting texture of the language the writer chooses, like a suit of clothes, for each place.
Or think about the indelible mark left on modern literature by the revolutionary use of language introduced by the “hard boiled” detective story. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – and later natural successors like Mickey Spillane, Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard – crafted a whole genre that was characterized as much by its spare, brutal use of language as by its subject matter.
Am I really just talking about style? Well, maybe. That’s a big term and it covers a lot of territory. But I do think the mutations that have allowed the English language to adapt to different cultures, and different perceptions of reality, may go deeper than the term “style” might suggest. When does the elasticity of English stretch beyond its “standard” form and spawn truly distinct versions? Versions one needs to be conversant in to truly understand the stories of its speakers?
Imagine, for instance, a conversation between an English professor at Eton and a Chicago hip-hop street dancer. Are they really speaking the same language at all? Could they carry on any sort of meaningful conversation? I realize that such a scenario in a novel is, well, remote at best. It sounds more like a comedy sketch. But some of the best storytelling happens when people from “worlds apart” get smashed together on the page.
Telling stories like that – even when the language contrast is more subtle – is the job of the writer-as-translator.
So, be deliberate when you pick your language from the many Englishes that exist.
Or drive the language police nuts, and make up your own!