War of the English

Published September 4, 2021, 12:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

SATCHMO Louis Daniel Armstrong

My career in media began with Lifestyle Asia, whose coverage spanned the region, with a Hong Kong satellite office and a section solely devoted to all that was hot and happening to the then British crown colony. On account of its regional circulation, the house rule at Lifestyle Asia was British English.

It wasn’t too much of a shift for me. It wasn’t like we were all that strict, calling trash rubbish, as the English would have it, or the trash can as the dustbin, although it was understood that the elevator was the lift and an apartment was a flat, unless it was a suite of rooms reserved on a preferred floor, like the penthouse, of a luxurious building.

As I recall, I had a lot of fun going over everything I wrote and edited with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I spelled favorite as favourite, jewelry as jewellery, and recognize as recognise. I am unsure now if we ever used plural verbs for some collective nouns, as the British are wont to do, though personally I always considered collective nouns as singular, unless the context demanded a plural verb, as in this case: “The committee were in disagreement.” At any rate, I had fun tweaking my language to suit the house rule, but only because I had fun with it. It was in view of this that I decided I was going to be happy being an editor.

But I only had a little over four years to practice because from the magazine, I moved to a daily newspaper and, right on day one of my new job as lifestyle editor of the paper, I had to revert to American English, penciling out words like amidst or amongst or centre on every draft.

JEWELRY, JEWELLERY How does your English spell these gems?

To this day, it’s a mystery to me why some Filipino writers would use such Briticisms, unless they were raised or lived in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, or Australia or unless they went to the British School, though I am only assuming students at BSM would spell centimeter as centimetre or kilogram as kilogramme or traveler as traveller because they go to a UK school system.

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto tomato, tomahto
Let’s call the whole thing off
—Louis Armstrong, 1957

Not only is our education generally patterned after the American school system, the country having been under the Americans from 1898 to 1946 (though American influence extended ‘til way after the removal of the US bases and personnel in 1992), Philippine pop culture, like that of much of the world, from TV to music and the movies, from books to fashion, is dominated by all things American.

The letter u before the last letter of the word rumor, I must admit, has the appeal of a British accent on CNN, but before I am accused of being a relic of the American period, my job as an editor is to keep everything standard. If we must use American English, so be it, from aging, as opposed to ageing, to yogurt, as opposed to yoghurt. There is no such thing as theatre because the rule is to spell it as—now say it aloud with me—t-h-e-a-t-e-r, theater.

British or American, Canadian or Australian, the English language is largely the same, save for a few nuances brought about by the evolution of the language based on dialect development and regional isolation, such as in the UK, where the English of the Irish or the Welsh or the Scottish might have not a few differences from what has been established as the “Queen’s English” in terms of usage, pronunciation, or spelling. The same is true of American English. In pronunciation alone, there is an entire continent of difference between, say, the Texan twang or the Mississippi drawl. Let’s not even talk about ghetto speak or the language of the streets or the influence of migrants on the English-speaking world.

But none of these differences are set in stone, as language is alive and people are generally clever, speaking from the heart, speaking from the soul, putting two and two together, just like our friends from the Bronx, and constantly adding to our pool of shared meanings. Did I tell you that sexting is now a word, first officially acknowledged in 2012 by the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary?

ARE WE READING IT RIGHT? Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language book illustration

Be that as it may, there is standard English just as there is the American standard, which first emerged following the release of the 1828 first edition of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, just as, earlier, in 1755, the British English standard followed the publication of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. It doesn’t matter that William Shakespeare had words spelled as color or favor in his works (he died in 1616 before Samuel Johnson’s time), so if you must use these words now in British English fashion spell them respectively as c-o-l-o-u-r or f-a-v-o-u-r.

Would it serve us well to shift to British usage with the ASEAN integration coming up? Most in the region—Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos—use British English, though while he was alive, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew was said to have considered shifting to American and doing so as a serious challenge for Singapore’s position as an international hub. “I think the increasing dominance of the American media means that increasingly our people, teachers, and students will be hearing the American version, whether it is ‘potatoes’ or ‘tomatoes,’” he told Channel News Asia in 2011, citing that communication skills would be the most important qualities to possess in the 21st century.

Based on my experience at Lifestyle Asia, I think it will be fun shifting from one to the other. Right now, though, we stick to American, so in the meantime I’ll take it with a grain of salt, not with a pinch of salt, as the British would say. And I won’t blow my own trumpet, but my own horn, as the Americans do.