NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Learning Your Konglish

The great thing about having a blog that, honestly, few people stand in line to read is that you don't have to feel guilty about not posting. (But thank you, Jen Brubacher, for caring.) Still, despite lacking a childhood steeped in Jewish or Catholic traditions, I seem to have an inborn sense of guilt. *SIGH*

So here I am, passing on a link to the New York Times review of Robert McCrum's book about the way English is taking over the globe (Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language, Norton, $26.95). I love watching language morph and bend, even as I rail against textspeak and people who don't know that one exclamation point is really all you need. If you can be objective about it--right, I know, I can't--it's fascinating to learn how English is spoken both in Buckingham Palace (where we hope, dear God, they've got it right) and in South Korea (where a hybrid strain is known as Konglish) and in Malaysia (Manglish). But why is it that Konglish seems charming while textspeak is cringeworthy?

Maybe it's because American English is the prophet in its own country, to my mind. Familiarity breeds contempt. (Feel free to insert your own cliche here.) I live in the American Midwest, home to some of the laziest speakers on the planet. (No, no, Kansas farmers: You're incredibly hardworking. Put the pitchfork down.) I mean that the Midwestern pronunciation is lazy. One can speak Midwestern without hardly opening one's mouth. The vowels are flat, the consonants fuzzy, the word endings mumbled. When we learn other languages in school, we have to be taught to appreciate the musicality, the subtle tonal differences, of our language. We have to work at it. I have no research to back this up, but I would presume that people who speak more precisely pronounced tongues, like French, have an easier time learning to make the different sounds of other languages. (Though granted, French speakers have a devilish time learning to speak Midwestern English. They can't seem to swallow half the sounds as we do.)

We grow up here, isolationist, unwilling to consider that other folks in other parts of the world not only speak English differently, but possibly other languages altogether. I apologize in advance to fellow Midwesterners who might read the blog. Of course it isn't true of all of us, and it's a natural result of living in the middle of a large, self-serving nation. But while the spread of English makes my life a lot easier, I weep just a little too. It wouldn't kill us--English speakers, Midwesterners, Americans--to have to learn someone else's lingo for a change.

Think about that the next time you're put on hold when someone says, “Para continuar en español, marque el dos.”


  1. First of all, Welcome back Claire. You've been missed.

    Your remarks about 'lazy pronunciation' in the American mid-west bring to mind the way I often shudder, EVERY time I hear my own local accent on the TV or radio.

    The UK has hundreds of regional accents, all subtly different but all DEFiNITELY different to those having experience of them on a daily basis.

    I live in East Yorkshire, in the north of England, and to listeners from the rest of the world, all Yorkshire accents sound similar, if not identical.

    Where I live though, the accent is so different from the one where I used to work, only sixty miles away, that I would be the object of fun amongst the locals who worked there, because of the way I spoke. One example is the my local accent drags out the word 'work' so that it sounds more like 'werk' (something we share, strangely enough, with Liverpudlians, from the opposite side of the country.)

    The Hull accent, (since this is the one I'm blessed or cursed with) resembles other Yorkshire and northern accents, in a lot of respects, but we pronounce a number of words quite differently, and even have our own micro-vocabulary of diallect words.

    As a child, my accent wasn't quite as strong as some of my peers; (I've no idea why, though: both my parents were born and bred in Hull.)

    Though I come from the most working class of working class backgrounds, school friends often described me as 'talking posh' (or as the Hull accent flattens vowels and drops consonent sounds: 'tokin posh'.

    Don't get me wrong: I like my local accent in general. It's attractive without being lyrical; it's down to earth and not at all pretentious; but I really hate the habits that most of my neighbours have: of refusing to part their lips to speak, when they can get away without doing it; to never use a range of vowel sounds when a single one will 'almost' suffice; to use consonants sparingly, almost as if they expect them to be in short supply later.

    Of course, it isn't my place to correct my Hull colleagues: I probably have a number of speaking peculiarities that they don't like, and let's face it: I'd probably be on the losing side of any discussion about their accents, because I'm the one who's just 'that bit' different.

    I don't think that anything I do or say will make a difference, so I don't bother doing or saying anything, because let's face it: it's the way people have been brought up to speak and I don't have a 'snoboles chance in ell' of getting them to speak any differently.

    Great post Claire.

  2. Thanks, Dave, for the warm welcome back. I have to say that in some circles I too have been accused of "tokin posh" because of my vocabulary or perhaps staunch resistance to the Midwestern accent. (A coworker of my mother's once assumed she'd been an English teacher because she never used the word ain't.)

    I'm fascinated by all the UK accents and dialects. There's a great site where you can listen to loads of them: The closest to Hull I saw on that map was Withernsea, and yes, the vowels do seem to run together! I could listen to this stuff all day, but then I am kind of a linguistics geek.

  3. Indiana born and bred, and you are so correct. Fer not for. Even in HS Drama class my teacher never corrected me until my 3rd year. It was just our Midwest Twang. Ugh, moving to Seattle wised me up.

  4. Globish reminds me of another project called "Basic English" Unfortunately this failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use :)

    So it's time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations.

    As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  5. Thanks for the interesting links, Brian. I had high hopes for Esperanto, but I don't hear much about it anymore. Diane, maybe it's the flat terrain of the Great Plains that flattens our tongues as well.

  6. Ahh, such happiness at seeing you're posting once again! Sorry about the guilt trip. ;)

    I think you'd love this edition of David Mitchell's Soap Box: