American English as Two Languages

Is that possible? We’re all taught in school that English (and properly known as American English to distinguish it from British English, but I will refer to it as English here for simplicity’s sake) is the language commonly used in the United States (of course other languages are also spoken here, but English is the one I want to focus on right now).

But has it ever occurred to you that people using English might be using two languages? A spoken language, and a written language. The grammar of spoken English and the grammar of written English are definitely different. Spoken English is much more accepting of slang, and casual usage, than written English.

As a writer, I know that it is very hard to write conversations when writing fiction. The difficulty arises because people speak differently than we write. If you write conversations the way English ought to be written, then the conversations sound stilted and awkward. If, on the other hand, you write conversations the way they are actually spoken, then you end up with incorrect writing.

The genius of a good fiction writer (and I am not placing myself in that category) is to write correctly while making the conversations sound like real spoken English.

It actually goes beyond the rules of grammar, and when slang is acceptable. My husband brought this whole subject up when we were discussing how English is not pronounced the way it is written, and the rules of English phonics exist more in the exceptions than the application.

For example, if the word ‘are’ followed proper English phonetics rules, we would pronounce it ‘air’ or like the end of ‘hare,’ because of the ‘e’ on the end. But we do not follow the rules, and so it is pronounced ‘ar’ despite the final ‘e.’

I think that saying English users have two languages, one spoken and one written, is probably an exaggeration, but not a very big one. Given time, I think the two types of English language will continue to diverge, and perhaps we will have two languages in a few hundred years.

But even as things stand now, it makes it hard for children to learn to read. Italian is pronounced as it is written, and Italian children learn to read 1-2 years before English-speaking children.

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  1. Thoughtful musings. I’ve learned a second language but can’t imagine how hard it would to learn English! Writing dialogue is a challenge. I try to have the conversation in my head but creative distinctive voices is another issue. My first draft of my first novel everyone sounded like me!

    • I learned a second language, too, and found myself with a better understanding of English! I really struggle with dialogue in my fiction — no one sounds real.

  2. robie

     /  February 24, 2011

    Really thought-provoking. I agree with you; capturing a fictional character’s personality in their dialogue is the most difficult of tasks. Also, you bring up interesting points about phonetics.

  3. I think there is more than even two versions, especially with computer lingo and texting these days. I admire people greatly who speak more than one language.

    • True — I hadn’t even thought about texting lingo. And then there’s the matter of regional dialects — everybody says they don’t exist, but when I moved 1000 miles away from my hometown for college, I got plenty of funny looks for the way I talked, and I didn’t even have a strong accent.

  4. You mention Italian. It’s the same for Russian. I’ve a friend from Russia and written English is a struggle for her, hence she writes phonetically.
    Then you have dialects from different areas to consider (on another day). =)
    It’s a wonder we can communicate. The ol’ farmers here outside of the city talk so strangely that the transplants can’t understand. Somehow I’m the one that gets to talk to ’em when there’s business matters to attend, being a local girl and all. But its best I be mosyin along. I gots lots to do before the day’s done. Y’all take care of y’all selves and I’ll be ’round later.

  5. ooo, just thought of a good one. “I need a can of erl for ma car.” means “I need a can of oil for my car” in eastern NC. lol!


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