RE: [OT] Re: the Ethnologue

From: Doug Ewell (
Date: Thu Nov 30 2000 - 11:48:56 EST

Elliotte Rusty Harold <> wrote:

> At 7:18 AM -0800 11/23/00, Christopher John Fynn wrote:
>> Spoken language XXXX is not necessarily at all the same thing as
>> written language XXXX. There are e.g. plenty of mutually
>> incomprehensible forms of spoken English which might each deserve a
>> code in a standard for spoken languages but probably far fewer
>> mutually incomprehensible varieties of written English.
> ...
> I've yet to encounter a spoken version of English that I couldn't
> understand, after at most a couple of minutes of accustoming myself
> to the accent.

I think if you take Christopher's original statement and substitute the
word "Arabic" in place of "English," his point would be proven valid
with a better example.

But Elliotte is basically correct; the differences between dialects of
English are not generally as great as people sometimes make them out
to be. Sure, it can be a challenge initially to understand another
dialect. I remember being thrown for a loop by a waiter in Hemel
Hempstead, England who asked me, "Are you on holiday?" At that point
I had three obstacles to overcome:

1. the word "holiday" used for what I would call "vacation"
2. the dropping of the "h" in "'oliday"
3. the European-style high-falling question tone instead of the
   American-style mid-falling-rising tone

But after a second or two I did understand him (and yes, I was indeed
on holiday).

Differences in accent often say more about the speaker than about the
language he is speaking; a Texan who speaks English with a Texas
accent would most likely speak French or Spanish with a Texas accent as
well. And most of the vocabulary differences are in well-publicized
word pairs like hood/bonnet and elevator/lift. This is really no
different from hearing a teenager use a vogue word such as "phat" that
has not yet reached the mainstream (and can easily be confused for a
mainstream homonym).

Naturally, this is all coming from a language hack, not a trained
linguist, so please be gentle as you correct my errors.

-Doug Ewell
 Fullerton, California

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