global English

Tomato? Tomato? It’s all English, isn’t it?

Today we (re)introduce Dawn Nell, the second in a series of guest bloggers who are contributing to this blog over a two-week period. The first of their posts is on the subject of ‘Global English’, and the second will look at the ways that you (users) search Macmillan Dictionary. Dawn, who has written for this blog before, is an historian and blogger who works on the history of publishing. She was born in Cape Town, and these days lives mostly in Oxford and on Twitter.


You know when a blog post begins with something really clichéd and you just have a feeling it’s not going to end well? This isn’t going to be like that at all, so stick with me despite the fact that I’m starting with one of the oldest clichés of language difference around: ‘You say tomato, I say tomato.’ Admittedly it’s kind of difficult to get this to work in text and to make any sense of this line you’ve got to know that it belongs to a song which puts it more like this: ‘You say toMAYto, I say tomAHto’. (You’re getting that feeling now, aren’t you?) The point I’m trying to make is that global English is characterized by diversity. A lot of diversity. In fact, you could even say, diverse diversity. The difference in pronunciation between ‘American’ English –(toMAYto) and ‘British’ English (tomAHto) is just one example.

Okay, let me move on to something else. Aubergines. I had a conversation with a friend recently in which she described making a brinjal curry, and I asked her a ton of questions about the aubergine curry she had made. We were talking about the same thing – just that she’s more used to using the word brinjal, and I’m more used to the word aubergine. And if one of us was American, we’d probably be using the word eggplant. The point is that it didn’t really matter, because we knew we were talking about the same thing and we understood each other perfectly.

Reflecting its global spread, English has acquired – and continues to acquire – words and turns of phrase that allow this sort of choice and flexibility. And English is diverse in other ways too. English accommodates different spellings – grey in British English and gray in American English, for example. Even within British English, there are differences – for example, with some British dictionaries preferring ‘z’ to ‘s’ in words such as criticise or characterise.

But if there is such diversity, and we can use all these different words and spellings in English, can we ever be wrong? Is the English language so flexible that we can do whatever we want and simply justify it on the grounds that it’s right somewhere, or even just in our own perception? After all, unlike the French language, there is no organizational equivalent to the Académie Française to make definitive pronouncements on correct language and spelling. The closest we have in English are dictionaries, which have their origins in efforts to record English usage rather than prescribe it. It’s because they’re recording the ever-expanding diversity of language that dictionaries are constantly growing, with new words being added all the time as they appear in common usage. Where the speakers of English lead, the dictionaries follow.

With the huge diversity that characterizes English, we are left to choose what is best according to the context in which we’re communicating. The onus is on us to understand what the norms are for any particular context. For example, I’ll talk about sending a text message from my mobile (phone) when I’m in Britain, and about sending an sms from my cell(phone) when I’m in South Africa. And I try to remember to say freeway instead of motorway and gas instead of petrol when I’m in the United States. It’s not as if I’d be completely unintelligible if I didn’t make these choices, but I understand that these are the words people in South Africa and the US normally use, and I feel it’s about being considerate to the people I’m speaking to.

So does it matter if you say tomato or tomato, or brinjal or aubergine, or freeway or motorway? Probably not, but the more vocabulary we have at our disposal, and the more we understand the distinctions between different forms of usage, the more adaptable and creative and global we can be in communicating.

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Dawn Nell


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