What’s in a language? (18)

Tami Reiss, CEO van Cyris Innovation, een New Yorks softwarebedrijf, lanceerde onlangs een plugin voor iedereen die last heeft van zelfondermijning in e-mails. Wie de plugin downloadt, krijgt tijdens het typen in Gmail een waarschuwing bij ‘verzachtend taal-
gebruik’, als een soort spellingscontrole. Woorden als sorry, just en I think krijgen een rood kringetje. Dit zou vooral voor vrouwen handig zijn omdat “vrouwen veel vaker verontschuldigende taal gebruiken en daarom een stuk minder zelfverzekerd overkomen”. Lees hier meer of anders hier de -betaalde- Volkskrant-link uit de Volkskrant van afgelopen zaterdag.

Het is nog maar helemaal de vraag of dit zo is, en zelfs, áls dat zo is, of het erg is… We komen hier volgende week op terug (zou een dergelijke plugin bijvoorbeeld ook gemaakt kunnen worden om juridisch hokuspokus-taalgebruik te vermijden, bijvoorbeeld?), maar we beginnen met een stukje van mijn (Engelstalige) Branch Out-partner, Nicola Courtney, over dat het de omstandigheden zijn die de taal maken: hoe verandert haar Engels als zij terug is in Engeland?

As a Brit who has lived abroad most of my life, I like to consider myself a global citizen; I might even go so far as saying a European!

However, after 10 minutes of being back on the island, I realise how easily I slip back into the strange rituals and eccentricities of my fellow countrymen and women (no gender-
biased language here thank you).

It starts with the overuse of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – or ‘please and thank you tennis’ as I like to call it, due to the repeated unnecessary back and forth of both expressions. The next steps are the opening of doors, letting others go ahead in the sacred ‘queue’ and the striking up of inane conversations with complete strangers.

Now, you might say ‘we do that in the Netherlands too’! OK, the occasional door may be held open and sometimes people let you go ahead, but I think we can safely say this is the exception rather than the rule.

Anyway, after about a week of being back on the island the next thing I notice is how my use of language changes. Believe it or not, living in the Netherlands has turned me into ‘quite’ an outspoken person in the eyes (and ears) of my family and acquaintances. ‘She doesn’t mince her words’ and ‘she calls a spade a spade’ are expressions frequently used to describe me. But, as said, this changes. If it’s -15 outside, it’s ‘a bit nippy’, if it’s pouring with rain, it’s ‘rather damp’, putting diesel in your car instead of petrol is ‘not very clever’ … and on it goes.

This is what the outside world calls ‘British understatement’ and what we on the island call our ‘stiff upper lip’ and there are many examples. A few years ago, when a British Airways flight was caught in volcanic ash coming from Iceland, the captain announced “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped and we’re doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress”.

In other words: language and culture go hand in hand. It’s all very well speaking a
language ‘fluently’, but in the words of Milton Bennett, a famous anthropologist: “to study a language without learning its culture is a great way to make a fluent fool of yourself.” When speaking and writing, in this case English, you need to be aware of the comparative
indirectness and  idiosyncrasies of English speakers. Let’s face it, even the Americans think the Dutch are direct and that is a case of ‘pot calling the kettle black’.

To conclude, I would like to suggest that you look and listen to our national treasure, Stephen Fry, in an advertisement for Heathrow Airport. I rest my case.





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