Here is a scenario that has happened to me several times as an expat: I am in a group of international people, and I am the only native English speaker. Someone will stumble over a word or phrase and heads swivel in my direction and ask, “How do you say…?” Due to performance pressure, my mind usually goes completely blank. But I also noticed I started getting squeamish about being appointed the English grammar police. How should I know if the English I had been speaking all my life was correct?
I recently read Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, a gripping book about what it takes to write a dictionary and the nooks and crannies of language. In the book, she discusses dialects and when they get included in (one of) the authoritative books of the English language. This got me thinking about how my own language has changed over the past few years. I counted three sets of written and spoken English that I switch to and from fairly regularly:
- my native American English, shaped during a certain era in Northern California
- a jumbled internationalized English,
- a more cerebral English driven by my editing training.
My native spoken English, colored by several key words and phrases, is not something I was aware of until I left, as tends to happen. Apparently, addressing people as “dude” or “man” was not universal. Questions answered with “yeah, no” (no) or “no, yeah” (yes) were met with puzzled faces. And the occasional “hella” that spilled out was the stamp of authenticity as a Northern Californian. I never questioned the words or how I was using the language until people started pointing it out. This version of English revealed my roots.
I eventually learned to phase this speech out when I got tired of being imitated. (Usually involving some nasally valley-girl imitation. I’m not even from the valley. More like central valley.) Now it’s something that only comes out when I talk with people from back home. My pitch changes, the speed intermittently slows and quickens. Best of all, I get to toss around these well-loved words and no one mocks me.
During my first year living in The Netherlands, I didn’t spend any time around native English speakers. I began to unconsciously mimic my friends’ non-native English, even when they were more or less direct translations from their own mother tongue. (I am like a parrot, who unconsciously imitates people around me—sometimes to embarrassing effect.) Eventually, I got to know some Brits and Aussies and started picking up their own special words. Throw in a few favorite buzzwords from Dutch, German, or whatever language I learned about, and you get an English that would be difficult to categorize on either side of the pond. This version of English carried me through the day and absorbed so many other cultures around me. Still, language rules began to feel muddied and English words were harder to find in my brain when people asked me.
When I felt these linguistic lines starting to blur, I decided I needed to try to straighten them out if I wanted to work professionally with the English language. I took proofreading courses, during which many times I had to stop myself and question my own grammar or spelling. I revisited grammar exercises I hadn’t seen since elementary school and spent more time consulting the dictionary. I started to watch out for some of the grammar missteps I had grown accustomed to perpetrating. I adapted to a type of English that makes me sit up straighter and cite sources. When topics turned to grammar, my speech slowed down, and I was more careful. This version of English gave me a sort of legitimacy.
I began to read more about discussions of language and pay attention to what was deemed “correct” and “incorrect.” My grammar-based anxieties were eventually quelled by books like Word by Word and The Sense of Style, which reinforced my intuition that not all grammar rules need to be followed blindly. (Yes, you can count me in the descriptivist camp.) I learned to ask more critical questions about language and the people using it. I felt less fidgety when answering grammar questions, and even felt a thrill when I got to start the answer with “It depends…”.
This inventory I made was an interesting exercise. I realized when I speak English, I can speak different versions from different parts of myself. Sometimes, the versions stick to their appropriate context; other times, they reveal themselves in unexpected situations. My English is a map: it tells me where I’m from and where I’ve been. But it also reveals that my world is just a small part of the big picture. There are other versions of English, other languages, and other cultures that have a different, sometimes funny, and often beautiful way of telling their stories.