Whose English Language?

- Yeruham Frank Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for Asian and International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 185.
A central purpose of EJAIB is to encourage international discussion of bioethics. This means, among other things, encouraging people whose native language is not English to write in a way which all will understand. And today this means writing in English.

I have consequently believed that as editors it is our job to edit the papers into as "good" an English as possible. Of course editing is not our full-time job. We all have other responsibilities. So we do not manage to do this as well as we might like. But I have always felt that a paper which does not resemble American or British (or, for Darryl, New Zealand) English is a sign of failure and perhaps laziness on our part.

At the same time I have been increasingly aware of the development of a new language globally: International English. People all over the world are speaking English. And the vast majority of them are people whose maternal tongue is not English. Jayapaul once told me that more people speak English fluently in India than in the entire so-called "English Speaking World".

But others may have noticed as I have that International English is quite different, and more full of authentic self-expression than the dry, boring stuff which the Americans and the British write and speak. People pay less attention to formalities of grammar and spelling. They express themselves more briefly. They use poignant turns of phrase from their native languages. And I have often felt that a Japanese and a Hungarian can understand one another in English better than an American or an Englishman can understand either of them: indeed better, sometimes, than the American and the Englishman can understand one another.

English is the international language for political-historical reasons and not by virtue of anything superior about the language. English is the international language because of the former power of the British Empire, the influence of the BBC and of course the military-industrial might of the United States. But so far as the language itself goes, it is one of the least suited for an international tongue. The grammar is stilted and irregular, the spelling is even more impossible. And "correct" (i.e. correct British or American) English requires so many semantically empty words and phraseologies that when Hebrew and English are translated into one another, the Hebrew text is about one-quarter shorter than the English.

As the international language in the West, Aramaic was replaced by Greek, which was replaced by Latin, which was replaced by German, which was replaced by French, which was replaced by English. I imagine similar processes took place in the East and the South. English is also being replaced: not by another existing language, but rather by a new one.

What jolted me into thinking about this seriously was editing Florence Hardy's paper for the September, 2000, issue. I worked pretty hard forcing Florence's beautiful language into the dull Procrustean Bed of American and/or British English. And then Florence asked us to leave the paper in the original. And after a little thought I realized that she is right. Forcing her (and other authors) into a conception of English with which I was brainwashed in Cleveland, Toronto and Edinburgh is to take away all the authenticity and truth of what they are saying.

There exists an attitude that there is such a thing as "correct English". But this attitude is easily corrected if you compare Shakespeare to today's English, or even look at the examples -- taken from throughout history -- in the Oxford English Dictionary. What was correct yesterday is no longer so today. Some nations have tried to freeze their languages: the Academie Francaise and the Israeli Academy for the Hebrew Language are examples of bodies which have tried to stop the natural development of languages. But people keep on creatively develop new ways of speaking to go with new ways of thinking and living (bioethics), without paying much attention to what academies try to legislate.

More important for bioethics is the (now almost entirely dead) Ordinary Language movement in British philosophy. The idea was that philosophers, including philosophers of ethics, were to analyse the meaning of English words, whose "uses" were said to represent something called "our conceptual system". And it was considered a sin -- or at least "not done" -- to violate this sacrosanct "conceptual system". Great philosophical questions, like the question whether the material world exists or maybe everything is spirit, were casually dismissed with remarks like: "We just don't speak that way."

There were of course historical reasons for this conceptual and linguistic conservatism. The Ordinary Language movement began after the Second World War, when people in Britain were weary of the tragedies which were caused by conceptual revolution, especially Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy. They wanted safe, secure ways of thinking and talking, to hold onto, to regain sanity. The "Our Conceptual System" which was supposedly mirrored in bourgeois "Ordinary English" was this lifeline to normalcy.

But revolutions keep happening. And not all of them are bad. Some of them are very good because traditional ways of thinking and speaking can embody and perpetuate habits of domination, exploitation, environmental wantonness, elitism, prejudice against other cultures and colours. I will never forget my fellow student at Edinburgh in the revolutionary days of the l960's (which still continue): Alison Jagger, who was one of the pioneers in twentieth century feminist philosophy. Alison was very sceptical about this supposedly sacrosanct conceptual system and I remember her once saying: "We are going to change everything, including our language". She was right.

Today the people who are changing the English language are the people from the non-"English speaking countries", and the Asian Bioethics movement is an important -- although obviously not the only - part of this phenomenon.

Perhaps our policy should be to leave the English of Eubios papers exactly as the authors write them, unless the authors specifically request style editing. What do all of you think?


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