When I was thirteen, I went to a chess championship in Southend-on-Sea. It was grey and windswept, and I was a little lonely and homesick, and as far as I remember I lost all my games. I remember just one spark of colour in this otherwise cheerless scene: my partner in one game, delighted with his ingenuity at a particular move, declared it ‘subtle with a capital B’. (Subtle has a subtle spelling: the b is silent, so it’s all the more subtle if the b is a capital.)
At a conference in the Netherlands last month I was at dinner with colleagues from many countries, all speaking English, as did all the waiters. Several of us ordered saLmon. I say ‘saLmon’ because waiters and diners alike pronounced the l, whereas in my native speaker standard pronunciation the l is silent. There were no communication problems (though there may have been had I interjected with my l-less variant; I held my tongue).
An idea that has been provoking widespread interest in applied linguistics circles in the last few years is ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, ELF for short. There are now many circumstances where non-native speakers of English, of different language backgrounds, all accomplished English speakers, work together or do business in English. There are often no native speakers present, and even if there are, it is not clear that their perspective on the language has any special status. Communication can successfully be achieved, in English, without reference to the native speaker, and the ELF research agenda is to explore ELF and see if it has linguistic characteristics that set it apart as a distinct variety of English.
A central figure in the organisation of the conference was Geoffrey. The conference and associated committees were, like the restaurant, ELF environments: lots of people with different mother tongues communicating fluently and effectively in English. Throughout the conference, without exception, Geoffrey was GeOffrey. (Standard native-speaker pronunciation makes Geoffrey a variant, with the same pronunciation as, Jeffrey.) It seems to me that we have a good test of ELF. A speaker of the ELF variety of English will say “GeOffrey is a suBtle saLmon”. How about you?Email this Post