Chat with Simon Elmes
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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
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.
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?
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.
through American magazines, American English appears to have
a smaller vocabulary than British English. How has this happened?
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
Perhaps the magazines you read restrict their vocabulary to
cater for a particular audience.
other week, you talked about new words in the English Language.
Have you got any favourites?
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?
you get any complaints about the use of strong language in the
programme about swearing?
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
It's an issue that we treat with the utmost care before deciding
upon how to handle it in the broadcast.
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' 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.
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, 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
have been lots of guests on the programme. Which individual
or expert have you found the most intriguing?
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.
Melvyn Bragg like? Is he interesting to work with?
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.
it stressful being a radio producer? What do you like/not like
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
many kids can barely spell. Do you think English lessons at
school should concentrate more on spelling and grammar?
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
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.
do accents change so much in such a small radius in the north
of England and not anywhere else?
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.
accents become less pronounced over the last decades, now that
we have national radio and television?
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