Saturday, May 20, 2006

Which English?

Reading the New York Times editorial about the “official English” debate got me to thinking: what is “official English,” and who would monitor it? We use non-English words all the time. For example: “I put on my moccasins and shlepped down to the bodega where I bought a burrito and a cafe au lait. Then I came home, took my little brother to his kindergarten class, then went for a ride on a toboggan.” Right there you have Algonquin (twice), Yiddish, Spanish (twice), French, and German, and the rest of the words are variations of words from other languages as well. Are we going to be like the French and have some governing body say what words or phrases are or are not “English” enough? Oh, and won’t the British be pissed off if we try to copyright their language?

Then there’s the question of accents. In my little office alone we have people from all over the country and the world. On any given day you will hear English spoken with accents from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Portugal, New York, Boston, Kentucky, the upper Midwest (guess who), Connecticut, and several different varieties of Black English, each of which has its own accent. (Tangentially, can anyone explain why George W. Bush is the only member of his family, including his mother, his father, and his brothers, who sounds like Slim Pickens’ stand-in? No one else in the family talks like that.) Are we going to designate some plain-vanilla TV anchorman accent as the preferred one, or will we still be allowed to speak with our own regional twang, burr, or inflection?

Then there’s dialects; some words are part of the lexicon in parts of the country but not in others. Is Coca Cola a soda or is it a pop? Do you sit on a davenport or a couch? Do you go to the biffy, the restroom, or the toilet?

So before we jump off the cliff of designating English as the “official language,” perhaps we ought to figure out which English we’re going to use. Capisce? Comprenez-vous? ¿Comprende? Ya folla?