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The Routes of English - BBC Radio 4
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Lady on the phone - you tell us
Live Chat with Simon Elmes

Thanks for joining in the live chat. Here is a transcript of the entire chat in case you missed any part of it.

We hope to hold another live chat soon, so stay tuned for more details. In the meantime you can chat with fellow listeners by visiting our message board or ask the Routes team a question by emailing us.


Travelling around the world, it is apparent that American English has taken over from British English as the language of choice to learn, especially in the Far East. Why and when did England lose its world dominance?
JJ

I'm not sure that it's true that English has completely lost its world dominance. Without question, it is still a very important international form of the language.

The British Empire, stretching around the globe, spread British influence and language, and the Commonwealth continues to spread that British form of the language.

However, the globalisation of American culture, brands and media, such as television, inevitably will provide a model for people to speak the language as well. It is also seen that if trade with America is required, American models are preferred.

It is interesting that the new director of London's Millennium Dome, Mr. Gerbeau, speaks a form of English drawing its sources largely from American English, but with many features of British English as well. This mixture is pretty standard these days.

Has Indian English developed on its own, away from British English. And if I was to go to India, would I be able to make myself understood, and would I be able to understand?
Margaret

I'm sure they would be able to understand you. My experience of Indian English is relatively limited, however, studies show that the English learnt during colonial times in the subcontinent was standard British English.

However, this is not necessarily the same form of language that we speak in Britain today. It has many features that go back several centuries, and like a plant left to grow well away from its original source, it can evolve interesting and different shoots. Indian English to a British ear today often sounds amazingly sophisticated, elaborate and sometimes a little antiquated.

To an Indian ear, I am assured it sounds as modern as anything you would hear on the streets of Britain today. It's just a different form of the English language.

I would make a comparison between Canadian French and metropolitan French. Canadian French, which grew out of the colonial occupation in the 17th Century sounds very old-fashioned and quaint to modern French ears.

Looking through American magazines, American English appears to have a smaller vocabulary than British English. How has this happened?
Louise

Who says? I think that American English has a vocabulary every bit as large as ours. Most of it is shared. There are very few differences, actually. In fact, as Professor Steven Pinker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out in the last programme of the Routes of English series, you can go pretty much anywhere in the English speaking world and make yourself understood.

Perhaps the magazines you read restrict their vocabulary to cater for a particular audience.

The other week, you talked about new words in the English Language. Have you got any favourites?
Pip

My favourite is one which foxed the people at the Oxford English Dictionary and has been raising eyebrows amongst everybody I've been trying it out on. Do you know this word? My favourite word is plip. Do you know what it means?

Did you get any complaints about the use of strong language in the programme about swearing?
Inky

The programme about strong language was prefaced on air with a very carefully worded announcement which we hoped would take care of those whose sensibilities are understandably offended by hearing strong, graphic and explicit words on air. Clearly, if you tuned in late and missed what we in the BBC call 'the health warning', there was the possibility of being offended. A tiny handful of listeners phoned the BBC to raise a question about it.

It's an issue that we treat with the utmost care before deciding upon how to handle it in the broadcast.

New words appear within the music industry quite suddenly. Have you any idea where these words were first used and why they now mean what they mean. Take the word 'Pop' for example. It is obvious and widely known that this refers to music but why pop?
Barry Back

'Pop' is purely short for popular, as in popular music. Popular music, pop music, pop. If you weren't a musician and were perhaps old enough, pop would refer to lemonade!

New words are very often fashionable words coined fast to describe a passing fashion. Such words are often referred to as 'nonce' words. Since the world of music is driven very, very closely by questions of fashion, it is inevitable that the latest sensation is likely to be described and promoted as something in need of a new word.

Often these words come about from cultures that are not familiar to the mainstream. They leak out from parts of the world which are perhaps not familiar to us but they become propelled centre stage by the all-embracing nature of popular music and immediately become part of fashionable talk in the English language. A new word is born.

While many variants of English have evolved, each with its own vocabulary and accents, there seems to be a threat that globalisation will eventually produce one more or less standardised form of English which is threatening to be 'Americanised' English. There will still be local variants but already in New Zealand we are seeing a move to accept American spelling in schools. What threats and opportunities do you see for the English language?
Malcolm

Malcolm, one of the interesting factoids of recent linguistic and sociolinguistic history was the story of the London school student who was caught trying to dial the fire, police and ambulance service recently with the numbers 911. This caused considerable shock in this country since the standard calling signal for the emergency services here in Britain is 999.

This is seen as evidence of the American influence in our schools too. 911 is of course the American code for the emergency services. So your model is interesting. I think crystal ball gazing about the English language is thus very difficult.

The pervasive nature of American culture through television and now the Internet is unavoidable. How do you spell the word 'favourite' at the top of your computer screen?

However, the experts we have spoken to in the Routes of English series reckon that there will be many Englishes in the future - many codes, as linguists call them. And we will be able to switch from a global form of English which may well be American in form, but also have available a much more domestic, colourful form of English to use with our mates in the pub and our friends at work.

There have been lots of guests on the programme. Which individual or expert have you found the most intriguing?
Janet F

The most intriguing person we have met on the programme would be ... well, it's invidious to say that one person is more intriguing than another - but unquestionably, I found the discussion with Stephen Fry, the actor and novelist, was startling, hilarious, erudite and an all-round firework display.

Stephen has a passion for the English language in all its forms, ancient and modern. And doing battle intellectually with Steven Pinker is entertaining and erudite all in one go.

What's Melvyn Bragg like? Is he interesting to work with?
SteveP

Melvyn Bragg is a delight to work with. He is the perfect interviewer who asks simple questions about complex issues which go to the heart of the question. He always is ready to put the difficult point and to get a professional answer out of his interviewees.

Working on location with Melvyn was a special pleasure as we saw an exciting side of the man, little known to those who sample his offerings on a regular basis. This was Melvyn, the Cumbrian, at home in Wigton, talking to his old mates and school friends as if it were yesterday. It was a privilege to be there.

Is it stressful being a radio producer? What do you like/not like about it?
Billie3

Being a radio producer is a treat. Like any treat, it has its ghastly moments, but most of the time we are lucky enough to be able to be paid for doing what has always been our hobby. I know it sounds a bit wet and predictable but it's absolutely true. How else would you get to meet the range of fascinating people and see inside the range of fascinating homes?

I'm 17 and want to get into radio after college. Have you got any tips for young people breaking into this area? It seems hard to get into.
Phyllicia

Get involved with a local hospital radio, blag your way into your local BBC or commercial station, play around with a tape recorder at home, try mixing sounds and music, and start 'Listening'.

Use your ears, play with sound, analyse it. The most important characteristic that anyone joining the media industry needs to have is unquenchable enthusiasm and energy. The people who end up getting through and becoming professional broadcasters have all had to fight hard to get where they are. You don't get that without a lot of hard work, spade work, long hours, and only the degree of passion that I've talked about, and determination, will get you there.

Do you use email and do you find your own language changing to email-speak? What do you think of all the smiley symbols :-) to express words/emotions?
Melissa

I do use email. I use email all day, everyday. I find it the most exciting and useful desktop tool invented in my lifetime.

I think the key to email is to be master of it and not the servant of it. I do modify my language a little. I have become more informal in my emails than I used to be in my memos. However, I do not amend my spelling to abbreviated forms and I do correct typos when I can. Not all the people I write to are as careful. Perhaps they're wise.

Nowadays, many kids can barely spell. Do you think English lessons at school should concentrate more on spelling and grammar?
T Roper

I think spelling and grammar are important for good and clear communication. However, I think that one should not be excessively prescriptive about the language.

Too much emphasis on, for example, not splitting infinitives, not ending a sentence with a preposition, not starting a sentence with a conjunction like 'and' or 'but'. Too much emphasis on all this will stultify language. Some grammar can help people understand why they are saying what they are saying. Good spelling avoids ambiguity.

However, too much of it is inevitably going to turn people off, bore them, make English something that they dislike and do not regard highly, and frankly they'll do what they want to do anyway. So the answer is for me, a bit of both.

Why do accents change so much in such a small radius in the north of England and not anywhere else?
Bleep

Is it true? I think accent is often a question of perception. I am a Bristolian and I know that there are subtle gradations that I can hear between a south Gloucestershire accent, a Bristol city accent, a Bristol suburban accent and a north Somerset accent. That said, it is true that communities which are very closed and self-supporting, traditionally tend to evolve a very narrow and shared form of speech.

It thus is certainly perceptible to me that in the north-east of England there do exist very fine divisions between say, Geordie, and the language of the small villages around Newcastle. In fact, we intend in the third series of The Routes of English to examine the change that may have occurred in this area since 1985 in order to see whether the closure of many coal mines, the redistribution of jobs, and in general, increased social mobility, has in any way diluted these discrete forms of speech.

Have accents become less pronounced over the last decades, now that we have national radio and television?
Jordan

Accents are changing all the time. There are new accents developing which are perhaps more widespread, but if you go to Cumbria, as we did, you will find people of every age speaking with the broadest accent you could ever want to hear.

Do you have any comments or questions to ask us?


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