Saturday, February 6, 2010

British English

“We speak British English,” proclaimed Vesta, an Estonian woman, aged sixty, with whom I was trying to have a discussion about an essay I’d written for her firm’s corporate magazine. She refused to speak Estonian and insisted on English, though the whole process would have gone faster had she deigned to suffer through my halting Estonian. Instead, Vesta attributed our difficulties in communication to my Canadian English.

I often receive comments from Estonians about the superiority of British English over Canadian and American English. On a certain level I agree: When spoken properly, British English is indeed more beautiful than American or Canadian English. And although Vesta might not agree, I find Irish- and Scottish English even more pleasing to the ear. Canadian English, however, falls somewhere in between British and American—more American, but with the preservation of British spellings in a nod to Her Majesty The Queen, who is, indeed, still our Sovereign.

When a “British English” speaker likes Vesta gives me the speech about the inferiority of my brand of English, I often want to ask her why she pronounces the “L” in "salmon" and why, in written communication, she capitalizes the “Y” in “You” when it isn’t at the beginning of a sentence. I once pointed this out to a class of English students at a Tallinn high school who claimed that’s just how they’d been taught. I told them to go find their teachers and demand their money back. Whatever kind of English they’d been taught, it certainly wasn’t British.

Vesta will want to strangle me for saying this, but I think Siim Kallas is a great example of how Estonians can communicate well in English. Kallas’ English is what is termed “halting” in the true definition of the word (hesitating, faulty), as well as in the fact that it stops you in your tracks. His English is bad, but he’s loud. Add the shit-eating grin he constantly uses, even if he’s just repeating some tired old bromide, and he somehow really reaches people. It’s not self-confidence his technique emanates, but it’s a very believable proxy, ideal for non-native speakers who simply need to communicate in order to get what they want. Mr. Kallas is not a bad one to model, especially for “British English” speakers like Vesta. Loud is often good. We may not like to admit it, but the world loves loud.

Recently, I was witness to a British book salesman attempting to sell books at one of Estonia’s largest bookstore chains. The meeting between the salesman and the bookstore’s buyer took place in the bookstore café, and I happened to be sitting nearby. The buyer expressed her distaste for American English and noted that she wanted to buy products in British English—she particularly disliked American calendars which begin the week with Sunday. The salesman, who also clearly represented some Yankee publishers, attempted to defend the Americans and noted that most English spoken in the world among the young tends to be American. The buyer was unimpressed and replied, as if channeling Vesta, “We want British English.”

I can understand that some Estonians don’t like American English since it is seen, at least in part, to be in the vanguard of American hegemony. Critics routinely hold Hollywood, MTV, and other culprits responsible for poisoning young minds with trash culture and trashy English. But I’ve lived in America, and I can say I never met a single person who spoke like he was a gangster in a Hollywood movie; I never met anyone who drew his nine-millimeter to blast away at Al Qaeda attackers; nor did I ever meet anyone who’d been in a car chase—all events which any amount of American TV watching might lead one to conclude are daily occurrences in the States. The majority of Americans speak an English which is actually quite attractive to my ear (perhaps because it isn’t so different from mine). Educated Americans speak a quite normaalne English which employs interesting syntax and diction and draws from a wide lexicon, and I even find the uneducated ones charming—from the South in particular—for their wonderful accents and colorful expressions they bring to the language.

Americans are certainly accustomed to taking abuse for their language and culture. Recently, Horace Engdahl, permanent member of the Nobel jury, took up the cause by accusing America of not participating “in the big dialogue of literature” and saying Americans’ “ignorance is restraining.” Mr. Engdahl, as even many British English speakers quickly pointed out, was talking out of his ass, but he still found many to cheer him on for his anti-American remarks.

But this is not to defend American English, nor is it to suggest Estonians take up the American brand of English. In defense of the brand of English Estonians speak (not to be confused with Vesta’s brand), I am favorably impressed with many students in Estonia’s English-biased schools. I have accepted invitations to visit both the 7th and 21st Secondary Schools, where I encountered remarkably good English spoken with a variety of accents, a few even British. The Estonian accent is strange to my ear in that it seems to be a transitional accent, which the speaker eventually loses as his language improves. While I will always have my accent when speaking Estonian, Estonians who speak English, if they practice enough, actually do move into a realm where their accent is slight and not easily placed. When non-natives speak English—Chinese, Russians, Germans, French, Italians, Mexicans, to name a handful—many have accents which allow them to be pigeonholed. Estonians are tougher to place, and not only because it’s a small country (Latvians, for example, have a very distinct, annoying, childlike, sing-song accent). Estonians just seem to have some natural facility for languages.

But despite what Vesta would like to believe, Estonians don’t speak British English. They speak Estonian English: a fact I wish they were no more ashamed of than I am ashamed of my Canadian English. Sure, there are some bad habits Estonians might break when they use English—stop trying to write Faulknerian sentences (Hemingway is plenty good); avoid the overuse of idioms when you want to make a serious point (better to be yourself); and exercise caution in the humor department (practice jokes before attempting to dazzle your foreign audience)—but in the end Estonians are pretty talented.

To Vesta’s credit, I wish I could speak British English. But I don’t. And it would be terribly pretentious of me to try. I cringe every time I hear Americans throw around British terms like “spot on” or “kitted out” or when they want to ride the “lift.” Even worse is when they pronounce “schedule” like the British or note that something is not their “cup of tea.” One cannot be what one is not. And it’s very unappealing when one tries.

Vesta and I never did find a common language. She heavily edited my text, inserting all sorts of passages she thought were both clarifying and British, which I argued were neither. In the end, it didn’t closely resemble what I’d given her, and I suggested Vesta replace my name with hers, which she gladly did, and then released the publication to a print-run of some five-hundred copies as well as to the ether where it now lives an eternal but ephemeral existence, a contradiction only made possible by the internet: present forever, forever ignored.

The reality is, however, that a freelance writer who works abroad happens upon many Vestas who insist on their own sort of British English, and so I have learnt, when writing, to add the gratuitous “u” to colour, to travel by aeroplane, and to greatly exaggerate my use of the impersonal pronoun, “one”. (Note that one must also place punctuation outside the inverted commas.) If a small, humbling gesture on my part is all that’s required to pay the mortgage and feed the kids, then I suppose I can manage to adopt some “British English.” It’s such a charming little language after all.

Read the Estonian version in Postimees.