This Language Bug

[Written during my initial months in the USA. Things have worsened since.]

I have recently encountered the thesis – from a very well-read and socially-aware person – that language is an apolitical thing that has no connotations beyond communications. “Language is just something people use to get ideas across, and I really don’t understand people can politicse something like language”, he complained. I’m always charmed by such naïveté, so I paid for his latte.

I realise I’m obsessed with local forms of languages – in particular of English – and quite frankly I didn’t spare it a thought earlier, but I’m beginning to think this obsession is becoming a superobsession and slowly taking over my life. First of all, I notice differences between American and Rest-of-the-world English that international students living here for ages didn’t notice, and on occasion that they did, ceased to notice them almost immediately. Example: laying (US) and lying (r-o-t-w). Second, given that I can’t forget one system and adapt to another completely, these days I feel slightly queasy when I look at a sentence about healthful foods on colorful plates, and ALSO a sentence about healthy food on colourful plates. When I look at “outside of” and “visited with” and so on, I’m definitely bothered by the unnecessary (to me) prepositions. But then, when I read a book with a marked absence of the superfluous prepositions, there’s this nagging feeling that there’s something important missing. And the worst are the new spellings that haven’t been concretised yet, or older people (professors and old American texts) which use some r-o-t-w spellings. ‘Glamour’ persisted for a while, and Margaret Meade used ‘labour’, while members of faculty email us saying they’ll be ‘travelling’ and are therefore ‘cancelling’ a meeting. Students, on the other hand, write in to say they are affraid they cannot make a deadline because they have a young proffessionals’ meeting off campus.

It’s all rather confusing. And the automatic comparison feature inside my head is driving me a little insane, I think.

And all this came upon me as an epiphany while I was reading Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy (in succession). The translation was done in the UK, or so it appeared anyway, from the verbs spelt [another verb-form absent in the US. They have no truck–mostly–with the ‘t’ ending] with an ‘s’ to ‘programmes’, ‘labour’, ‘colour’, the usual deal. And then, suddenly, amongst the many hundred pages, one word jumps out at me. Math. Yeah, that’s right. Math, not maths. And I knew in an instant, in a bleeding instant, that the chap translating was American. In a few decades American English will become the lingua-franca and we shall be the tiny minority that giggles at mentions of ‘fanny pack‘ while the majority adjusts them to their belts, but mathematics is still shortened with an ‘s’ in most parts of the world that hasn’t made the star spangled switch yet (ninety percent of Indian internet users, I’m obviously not talking about you). And while I’d been putting off getting a bite to eat and going to the loo for the past hour because the book was riveting and my bed warm and cuddly, I immediately hopped off it and went to look up the translator online. The link above was the result. He was American. Elementary, my dear reader.

At the end of the day, though, I have to admit: there’s an interest in languages, and then there’s unhealthy scab-picking obsessive behaviour. Clearly I lack the wisdom to know the difference. Or the tantric arts to reprogramme my brain.



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